PL03 - Sail South, to the Sea

by Haro James

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James

Science Fiction Story: A young Australian, resilient and yearning to set her own course in life journeys far to do so: first sailing South to the sea, then North to be free. ~5,560 words.

Tags: Steampunk   Coming of Age  


Part 1: Inbound


The spartan marker was set upright in the grave, near the head of a canvas shroud. At one end of the eucalyptus plank, three lines of carved text identified last name, internee number and year of death: AANDERS, E122, 1884. Lou and Will were accompanied only by the gravedigger and a clerk who acted as witness. Will spoke briefly. “Rolf served to the best of his ability. God’s eternal judgement tells for more than the ephemeral measures of mortal man. Amen.”

In the fading mid-winter evening, the clerk steadied the board as the worker shoveled sandy clumps back into the hole. When finished, they nodded to the widow before starting back to the Settlement. Lou and her father waited until they were out of sight, then set off in the opposite direction.

Twelve hours earlier, Rolf Aanders had lain unconscious and unknowing. Even when the laudanum stupor lifted, the wash of unfiltered toxins played havoc with both his mind and body. Kidney failure does that. Aanders slipped his earthly bonds as Lou drew water from the cistern behind their corrugated iron cottage. But he did not die alone.

His father-in-law sat beside the cot, reading the Confidential Memoirs of the Good Queen: Charlotte in Exile (1826-42). Will heard the change in breathing. He watched the pulse under the jaw line until it stopped. When Lou returned, a bucket in either hand, Will gently closed the volume on his finger. “Rolf went on moments ago. You are free, Louise.”

She nodded, surprised less by the news than by her own reaction. A succession of emotions shaped then reshaped her face. While their marriage was more a business arrangement than romantic pledge, her teary eyes were sincere. Rolf was a good man, as good goes among those sentenced to Lake Eyre Security Settlement.

In this place of life sentences, burials were something of a community event. Not this time. Lou was unsurprized the other residents avoided Rolf in death as they had in life. Rolf’s sole friend was her father. She shook the sadness off, looked around the cottage, then out the window towards the Settlement half a mile off. “Come Father, we need to make arrangements for Rolf. And then for later.” Will hesitated, eyeing the book. Insight sharpened her tone. “You’re not coming?” It was an accusation than question.

He shook his head. “Thanks to you, my physical health has improved. But we both know the variances in my mental state. I was sent here for a reason. I would only reduce the chance of success, Louise. This place is not so bad for me. But a life sentence is so much longer for you than the rest of us. Besides, where else would I find reading such as this?.”

He set the book aside, stood and took her hands. “We all know the Commandant does little more than oversee inmate mortality records. Regardless of who or how, his minions are only interested in recording the date of death.”

She nodded. Will continued. “Your dropping from sight will elicit hardly a murmur. I will appear in the canteen tomorrow, look sorrowful, and announce that Rolf’s passing led you to take a walk.”

Among the prisoners, ‘took a walk’ was the euphemism for suicide by self exposure to the desert inferno. Sometimes, a body would be found in one of the broad depressions of the salt pan. Usually, they were not. But no one thought anyone ever escaped. That was the stuff of daydreams and adventure novels.

As they walked to the Settlement’s administration building, Lou asked about Aanders. He had consistently refused to talk about why he was there. Recently, he had told her when the time came she could ask her father. She did. The old man looked uncomfortable, but nodded. This was another thing the two men had hashed out beforehand.

“Rolf acted for the Society, and was very good at doing very bad things. He ended up here for doing his job too well. When the Prussians drove through the Thuringian principalities in 1870, we remained neutral so long as they steered clear of British Hannover and the Hamburg Free City. When they moved against the Free City, we intervened. If Bismarck had been alive, Berlin would never have blundered by attacking so many fronts at once. But he wasn’t, and they did.

In Hamburg, the invaders grabbed the docklands, and moved directly against what the Navy thought was a secret facility. Our General Staff was caught flat footed. The only forces we could deploy in a timely manner were a borrowed French aero - unfortunately destroyed under the command of a British officer - and Aanders’ band. His men were far too free with gunfire and dynamite. But they always completed even the most extreme assignment. The Hamburg situation was exactly the kind of thing they excelled at. People avoided Rolf for what he excelled at next.

As soon as they entered the warehouse, Rolf saw that the Prussians had brought in every extraordinaire they owned. Their genius slaves were crawling all over everything, sucking up ideas as much as actually pilfering secret gear.” He exhaled hard before continuing in a rush. “We let out the Prussian extraordinaires were killed by aero-bombardment. Truth? Our investigators found that all eighty-eight had been shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death in an orgy of violence.”

Jevons represented the Prince Consort at the closed Commission of Inquiry. Aanders sat stone-faced, jotting the occasional note. “When it came his time to speak, he read out the headers of the six charges against him. He said each represented an assigned task. Which he completed, in every particular. He then pointed at one of the commissioners, recalling his Lordship’s habit walking down the middle of a sidewalk, using his stick to flick dog turds out of the way. On one walk, he became so angry when the stick failed to dislodge his target, the gentleman broke it across his knee.”

Will noted the consternation of those who expected Aanders to plead for mercy. Aanders continued “The Potsdam conditioning of their extraordinaires is so effective that there has never been a defector or a dissident. If I couldn’t turn them, I had to kill them or they would be used against us again. In a metaphorical sense, honorable commissioners, it is unwise to break the stick that does your dirty work. If you do, be sure to have a substitute handy.”

For the Commission, this was too much. The Chief Commissioner, the lordship spoken of, ordered Aanders gagged. The three Society commissioners overruled him. Jevons told how, as his sentence was read out, Aanders’ only response was to warn the Commission to pay up his band’s survivors.

“You may be too squeamish to use me any further, but you will need that new stick, sooner or later.”

The heaviness in his voice shifted. “This was known in the Settlement, infamous really, and why all avoided him. You know how many of our spent extraordinaire end up here. Their discomfort with – no, terror of – a man who methodically killed scores of their kind is visceral. It didn’t matter that the Prussians enslaved theirs or that those captive geniuses would design the death of as many Englishmen as possible. Too many extraordinaires romanticize a universal brotherhood of the gifted.

They walked on in silence. Before long, they arrived at the of the administration building. Lou glanced up at the Settlement’s grim motto above the main door. “Death Alone Sets You Free.” Well, she was about to set herself free, damn their eyes or die trying.

Her try had an even-on chance of success, far better odds than any of the handful of attempts before and after. Those odds were built on the combined knowledge and skills of three disparate people. And the luck of being sent to a remote prison, before being married off again.

Four years prior, word came to Uncle Jack that her father was being sent to the Australian penal settlement. He called a family meeting to discuss the matter of his erstwhile brother-in-law, Will Jevons. No one at the gathering was concerned about his sentence, certainly no shame on a continent full of descendants of convicts. When they learned of his loss of Gift and general ill-health, it was agreed the most useful thing they could do was provide a helper to make his last days comfortable. But who?

Louise volunteered out of a mix of filial obligation, curiosity and ennui. She did, after all, owe this man her very existence. Her mother freely answered every question about him. But there were the rumors Nancy could not speak to, primarily that he was an extraordinaire. Meeting the man face to face would be infinitely more informative than memory and rumor. But, truthfully, a third reason was the greatest driver.

Life in the family had been comfortable under her grandfather, known far and wide as The Jackie. The old transportee had doted on her most among his granddaughters. The Jackie oversaw his clan’s varied shady enterprises with a keen sense of profit, tempered by his catchall “Don’t get pinched over small snuff. If you must go out, go out big.”

As the last marriageable granddaughter of The Jackie, she was a prime asset. Her Grandpapa never treated her so, but her uncle now ran the family differently. A callous calculation underlaid everything he did. Little Jack betrothed her at sixteen to cement a family alliance. Bertie, who might have made a decent husband, was shot down during a parley a few weeks later. Louise likened her uncle to a merchant putting a returned spool of thread back on the shelf, ready for resale. She was still marketable.

The realization drove home for Louise that the course of her life would always be set by some one else. The spirit of The Jackie’s “brightest of little lights” dimmed. Her aunt first noticed the long silences, the flat responses to former interests, the lack of motivation. She mentioned it to her husband. Seeing only disobedience, he took Louise to task. No one, in or out of the family, defied Little Jack Dawkins. What happened in her life was exactly what he decided would happen. With no hope of either choosing her own way or escaping, Louise settled in to make do with whatever fate, or Uncle Jack, handed her. She found the prospect of residence in a remote penal settlement quite attractive.

The Dawkins clan approved of her move, even if not being fully aware of her motivation. Uncle Jack would have preferred her to stay put, but had agreed in public. He duly requested that Louise accompany and attend her ailing father through his round about channels. At that time, all assumed she would care for him until Will died, sooner than later, then return to Sydney. No one knew that the Settlement’s life sentence applied to more than just prisoners.

Permission eventually came, and she journeyed to Melbourne to board a steamer, destination unnamed. The final collection point turned out to be on Tasmania’s south coast, where two dozen other exiles were gathered. They were herded onto a Prison Service aero, whose ports had been covered by tin sheeting. After an hour’s wait, the final passenger boarded. It was the first meeting of father and daughter.

The bored guard would say no say more about their final destination than “dead center in the largest desert on earth - a thousand miles from any place in this cursed land. Escape? If the desert don’t get your carcass, cannibal aborigines will do you.” And in saying that, the jailers’ lies began to unravel. They didn’t anticipate an Australian passenger.

The aero flew north, docking at what Louise was pretty sure to be Townsville. Jevons came aboard, and father and daughter met for the first time. He was tired and ill, but openly studied and assessed her. He seemed to like what he saw. An hour after docking, the aero set off again. During the layover, a work party changed the blackout covers on the ports for louvered panels. The openings reduced the stifling heat somewhat, and allowed glimpses of the ground.

They cruised southwest at five hundred feet, as desert and dust and dry riverbeds rolled by hour after hour. The passengers understood the view was intended to drive home the impossibility of escape.

It seemed they had departed about ten in the evening, and arrived at Lake Eyre after sunset the next day. Exhausted, the passengers debarked to temporary quarters. It wasn’t until her third night in the Settlement that Louise looked to the night skies. The constellations and the appearance of Venus were close to those seen in Sydney. She mentioned it to her father.

Jevons had said the only person who might know what to do with the knowledge was someone he was unwilling to consult. The man had been in the Settlement for a full decade, and was welcome to move on to hell at his earliest convenience. Lou was surprised at such venom from a gentleman, and dropped the matter.

They settled in. Under her care, his health steadily improved. The social factor helped. The nature of his real work was necessarily unknown to the outside world. But all of Lake Eyre knew and admired the achievements of Lord William Jevons, principle author of the Imperial Peace and Progress, inventor of the logic piano. His celebrity led to frequent invitations to dinner or cards.

A month after they arrived, Will and Lou sat in the Settlement’s modest club for a round of double sar with two former academics whose Gift had expired. Well into the game, a movement behind Lou interrupted the play. One professor turned away in his chair. The other simply closed his eyes to avoid looking at the intruder.

Rolf Aanders strolled by the card table “So, Lord Jevons. Haven’t seen you since our little Commission back in ‘70. And now you’ve come to the Settlement. How very nice to see you here.” He chuckled as he moved towards the door. Their companions slumped in their chairs.

From the set of her father’s face, Lou realized this was the unnamed expert. She excused herself, and ran to catch up with the man. When she reached him, she told him what she saw and what it might mean. He looked speculatively at her, offered a noncommittal ‘hmm’, but was otherwise stood in silence until Jevons found them. Aanders said “Smart as you. Much better looking. We ought to talk.”

Under a flickering oil lamp in Aanders’ shack unrolled an outline map of the continent. The greatest north-south distance wasn’t but two thousand miles. If they were in the middle of the continent, there was a thousand miles of ugly terrain between them and freedom. He had expected their keepers to lie, but could not determine to what extent. Lou’s observation put them well south of that mid-point. Using the general idea of latitude, he drew a line roughly 400 miles north of Adelaide. A careful person, a lucky person, could survive such a trek.

Escape was possible, but a daunting prospect. And not afoot. At the very best, they could walk something less than twenty miles a day, meaning three weeks to get out. Certain death. However, if they could cover that twenty miles in two hours, and carry sufficient water, they would be free in a week. The way to do that was to sail out.

Aanders began plans for a landship big enough for the three of them. Its size, and the materials required to build it, staggered Will. The planning and gathering went on for a month. Aanders had accumulated many of the materials in the last decade, but another month was needed to gather the last of the necessities.

Aanders didn’t comment on the noticeable swelling in his hands and feet, or how it affected his work. He attributed it to increased activity in the summer heat. There were evenings when he should have been ravenous from his activities, but ate little. He muttered that he was just off his feed. Aanders began to complain of excruciating back and leg pain. He now found it difficult to walk the quarter mile to his hidden workshop, Will requested the settlement doctor come by.

Bright’s Disease. His kidneys were failing at such a rate Aanders couldn’t expect more than a year. So much for three-score-and-ten. He spent that night and the next day alone, thinking about the paltry remainder of his days.

When he emerged, Aanders proposed an arrangement. Jevons was aghast. When Lou laid a hand on his wrist, he roughly shook it off, then stalked out into the night. She dealt with Rolf on her own, not at all what Jevons intended. It was a straightforward conversation. She agreed to wife and nurse Aanders to the end. He undertook to finish construction of the landship and to prepare the father and daughter for departure as soon as he died. Jevons returned, and was aghast all over again when Lou invited him to the wedding the next morning.

Now, Aanders threw all his energy into planning for his wife and father-in-law. More and more, it was a labor to reach his stockpile of stolen supplies. He rescaled the landship to something two could manage: three wheels; double masts; a spar running out well behind the lone rear wheel, allowing it to be towed backwards over unsailable ground.

Finally, all was ready but the waiting – for Aanders to die. Rolf began to drink a good deal, quietly saying to Will that it would either hasten things or at the very least make them more tolerable. One day, he tossed back half a cup of gin, and immediately spat it out, swearing it tasted like a copper pot. Jevons brought the doctor around again. Whose examination ended as soon as he smelt ammonia on Aanders’ breath. Imminent kidney failure – ten days at most. Jevons asked if anything they could do.

“Laudanum. Come by the dispensary tomorrow.” The doctor left to visit another dying inmate.

From what the doctor said, it was no surprise that Rolf barely saw the start of July. Lou had never thought she could be grateful for the timing of anyone’s death, but this was as good as could be hoped for. Early July meant the coolest temperatures, steady winds from the north, and, best of all, a near full moon. Rolf said that was of utmost advantage for her. One of a string of “essentials”, she needed to sail as long and as far from the Settlement the first night as she could.

The first iteration of their plan called upon her childhood sailing experience to augment Rolf’s skills. In the second iteration, following his diagnosis, she was to take the lead. Now, sixteen months after that first evening in his cabin, she was it. As Will helped carry the last of the water to the now uncovered landship, Lou paused to look towards the Settlement a last time. She spat.


Part 2: Outbound


With a few murmured words, Will hugged her, then helped push the contraption down the gentle slope. The night winds would be sufficient to place her well south of the Settlement by daybreak. Aanders calculated she must average fifty miles per day to clear the deserts, and as much as double that on the first day to avoid detection.

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