The Guiding Star
Sometimes I climb the Greater Fang, sometimes the Lesser.
The Greater Fang is taller than its neighbour by two hundred feet of sheer rock face, and that hard-won increase in height gains you no more than a mile or two's greater distance of vision. It hardly seems worth the effort. And yet, that extra mile... it might make all the difference one day.
- 0 -
She was supposed to be half mine but it never worked out that way in reality. They were... wedded, you might say. Bonded for life, or so it seemed. Yes, I could have insisted on fair shares - stood up for what was mine - but when it came to it... how could I? How could I come between them; they who shared such devotion?
But the day she set out on her great voyage, Annie took me to one side for a moment, held both my hands in hers and looked straight into my eyes. We were standing by the chamber of Number Four Lock, on the northern face of the Ring of Leaven. Her eyes were brown and deep, her mop of black curly hair was tied back with a red bandanna worn slantwise across her forehead.
'You will look after her while I'm away, won't you?'
I misunderstood at first. 'Of course I will. You know that. I'll be there every night, making sure she eats properly. I won't let her worry about you.'
Annie laughed. 'You great silly! You didn't think I meant Mum, did you?'
Three aeroforms hovered overhead, dipping their streamers into the water nearby. They were feeding on the algae that bloomed near the lock. From time to time they came between us and the light of the Blessèd sun, filtering it blue or green or orange. Annie laughed again. She was always laughing in those days - she was so excited, so looking forward to her great adventure. And then, swift as a backing wind, she was serious once more.
'I know you'll take care of Mum. I trust you. She trusts you. She'll be all right, though. She's strong - you know that.'
I knew that. Of course I did. But I saw what Annie, busy Annie with a thousand and one last-minute preparations on her mind, might not have seen. I saw the fear that Mum tried her best to conceal. Tried her best, and nearly always succeeded.
'But I didn't mean Mum. I meant Albatross.'
Ah. I should have known.
'I've left a list of jobs that need doing.'
'But look - you can sail her too if you like. I won't mind, honest.'
'Really and truly. She needs to be sailed. Leave her alone and she'll mope. Probably start leaking. You've got to swear you'll take her out as often as she wants. Will you do that for me, baby bro? Promise?'
I made a solemn promise, and Annie gave me a kiss on the cheek to seal it. There never was a girl like Annie.
- 0 -
I think we knew it was real the second time she came back from Edge. Before then; yes, we'd heard her talking about the great sea journeys she was going to make when she was older and we kids had had a good laugh about it. "Foy-bait" we called her, and "Mad Annie". At least, that's the sort of talk I joined in with when I was hanging out with the other lads. To her face I was more polite. I didn't want a slap, did I? We thought she had some kind of weird hang-up over Dad; that she wanted to sail on the open sea just because he couldn't, being dead and all. We never thought that anything would come of it. There was a place waiting for her in the packing shed when she finished school, standing next to Mum. Or, seeing as she was really not at all bad-looking, perhaps working in Porth Leaven as a tourist guide or a hotel receptionist. That might sound a bit of a let-down to you, especially if you'd known her when she was in her thirties and still growing. She'd been so bright and carefree then. Couldn't she have studied to become a Monitor, or something in the government of the Archipelago? Had she no ambition? Was she too dim for anything more demanding than manual work? No, of course she wasn't, but the truth was that she simply didn't care. Sailing was her true love, and everything else had to take second place.
- 0 -
She'd made this posh friend, sailing. His name was Roy and his Mum and Dad owned miles of farmland in Middle Edge. They were absolutely rolling in it and Mister Awdry, Roy's Dad, was a big noise in the Council. So it was no big surprise when one day the Monitor sent a boy down to fetch Annie out of school and she came back from his house to say she'd got an invitation to go and see her rich chum, fare paid. The Monitor had printed out the ticket for her, and when I looked at it that night - she showed it to me before she let Mum see it and that made me feel really good - I saw the name Awdry on the top. It was a first class ticket, open return, and when Annie showed it to Mum… well, there were shenanigans. We couldn't possibly accept it, it was too expensive, Edge was on the far side of Glory, the ship might crash or be lost forever, anything could happen. It was all too much, and quite impossible.
But she went, of course, waving goodbye from the LAV Good Humor's landing ramp with an enormous smile on her face. She was away for a whole Hally-cycle. It was the talk of the village, especially after she made us a video call. We had to traipse up the hill to the Monitor's house to take it. Providence only knows what it cost; we talked real-time for nearly half an hour. On the way home, Mum turned to me and asked me what I thought. I said I couldn't remember when I'd last seen Annie so happy. Mum shook her head sadly.
After she'd gone missing following the Regatta and been rescued and nearly died in hospital Mum had forbidden Annie to sail Albatross. It'd been a punishment for going off without telling anyone, but also Mum's last attempt at convincing my sister that there was more to life than sailing. But when she returned from Edge the first thing Annie did was to take her boat out into the bay and past Junction Point, and to sail her halfway round the Peak before coming back home. Mum didn't stop her, and after that she never tried again. She knew it wouldn't do any good.
- 0 -
Years passed, the worlds dipped and swooped over us in the sky, the Blessèd sun rose and set. Annie left school and started a boat hire business - McLuskie's Pirate Adventures. A few years later I left too and travelled to the School on Horn to take a short engineering course. When I returned to the Peak after a couple of years for a job servicing ships in Porth Leaven aerodrome, Annie's enterprise was flourishing. Mum was just the same - a little greyer, a little more tired.
It was the year after that that Annie made her second trip to Edge. I know for a fact that she paid her own way that time. She went third class, for a start, and worked her passage by giving talks on the history - the short, sad history - of seafaring on Glory. Her business carried on while she was away, run by me - when I could spare the time from refitting engines, tautening braces and building up Rays - and by her old friends from schooldays, Sluts and Roger.
When Annie returned it was on a cargo ship, laden with preformed aluminium struts, girders and spars. She brought Roy, her Wedgie friend, together with a sheaf of blueprints six inches thick. Roy had changed since the last time I'd seen him, standing awkwardly by Annie's bedside in Porth Leaven hospital. He had grown tall and strong-looking; confident and handsome too, despite his pale, easily-burned skin and floppy ginger hair. I looked at him with a brother's eye. Were Roy and Annie just childhood friends or was there more to it than that? Pangs of loss stabbed me and I wondered how Dad would have felt.
Whether or not they were lovers it soon became clear they were close business associates; and it was no insignificant business either. Within a day they had rented Coyne's boatyard for an indefinite period and taken on all their staff. The metal from the ship was taken there and laid out on the workshop floor, which was cleared of its work in progress. Twelve half-finished boats were taken out and parked on the ground nearby, or sold on to other boatbuilding concerns. There was something big afoot and the Peak was alive with speculation, from the bars of Porth Leaven to the upland forests and plantations.
I tackled Annie about it. She was hard to find at first, she was so busy, but in the end I claimed family rights and hauled her off to the Black Pig Hotel for a pint and a substantial helping of fish pie. She was still as skinny at forty-six as she had been when she was in her mid-twenties.
'You need feeding up,' I told her.
'Yes Mum,' she replied and stuck her tongue out at me. I asked her what she was up to, although I knew, I knew.
'I'm building a ship. Isn't it obvious?'
'You mean a sailing ship, don't you? To sail on the ocean.'
The fear that I had seen in Mum's face so many times clenched my heart.
'But...' You'll be killed. First Dad, now you.
'No Emmy, I won't.' She took my hand. 'This is going to be the best ship that ever sailed the seas of Glory. I'll show you.'
And after we'd had a few more pints she took me over to Coyne's and unrolled the plans and let me look at the details of her new ship's construction. I cast an engineer's eye over them. They were good, I could tell. She was well thought out, sound, conservatively designed with broad tolerances and a strong, resilient structure.
'Who's paying for this? Not you. It's Roy isn't it, with his Wedgie Tokens?'
'But why would he do that? Why would the Wedgies give you all that money?' Did you sell yourself to him? The thought came unbidden, unwelcome.
'It's purely business, Emmy.'
'They're fed up with the Board's monopoly on transportation. They pay a fortune in shipping charges to the Board, don't you know? Much more than we do. They only want a fair share of the rewards for their work. Why should they have to give their money, that they've worked hard for, to the Board, sitting on their fat arses in the Joyeuse, doing nothing?'
That's not how it works. There's a balance, a covenant. Why do you think we don't have wars here on Glory, they way they used to on Earth? You're talking like a Wedgie. I thought these thoughts, but didn't voice them. Edgeois money was paying for Annie's ship. She would hardly change her mind about taking it, not now.
- 0 -
The ship grew in Coyne's shed; grew faster than I could have imagined. After a week her skeleton had been bolted together and was standing, braced on wooden supports, in the middle of an organized jumble of tool stands, ladders and workbenches. It looked like the skeleton of an animal lying on its back with its ribs sticking up into the air, glinting bright silver under the working lights. I looked in whenever I could spare time from my work at the aerodrome and followed its progress.
Within two weeks the frame was finished. The ship was going to be two hundred feet long, schooner-rigged with an auxiliary motor, cell-powered and charged by an ingenious system involving reversing the propeller. Meanwhile, up the Peak, pine trees were being felled to provide the cladding for the hull. I protested that the timber would be unseasoned, but Annie assured me that wasn't a problem; that green wood would be easier to steam-form over the metal framework. The hull would be force-dried later in situ before being plastic-coated inside and out to waterproof it. I shook my head at this, and so did some of Coyne's more experienced craftsmen, but apparently this technique was widely used on Edge.
I asked Annie what her ship was going to be named. She was already being called McLuskie's Folly among the boatmen of the Archipelago. Somewhat nervously I told Annie this.
'Yes, I know. I don't mind - they'll see I'm right in the end.'
'Do you have a name in mind?'
'I'm not sure. She could be Alastair McLuskie or Cressida. I wondered if I shouldn't call her Deepdiver. Or Sir Patrick Spens.
'You could name her after Dad or his boat if you wanted but I'm not sure what Mum would think. Why Deepdiver? That doesn't sound like a good name for a ship. Inauspicious, to put it mildly.'
'It's the name of a friend of mine. But no, I'm not sure. And Sir Patrick Spens wouldn't be a very lucky name either.'
And not long afterwards Annie announced that the ship would be called Guiding Star and when I asked her why she simply pointed upwards and I understood.
- 0 -
The Guiding Star was launched three months after Annie's return from Edge. Half the Archipelago turned out to see this extraordinary event, the first launching of an ocean-going ship for four hundred years. Mum was persuaded, much against her wishes, to crack a bottle of the best Bright champagne across her bows, the crew hammered the chocks away, and the Guiding Star slid gracefully down the slipway into the water of the Inner Sea, just as the 'Down flashed into brilliance overhead, illuminated by the beacon on Leaven Peak. Fitting-out took another three months but suddenly, with no more than a year having passed since she'd returned from Edge, everything was finished and Annie was standing at the helm of her new vessel, on a fine sunny morning, ready for her first voyage. The Guiding Star's hull was painted royal blue; her white mono sails dazzled overhead, her well-scrubbed decks gleamed silver-grey in the light of the Blessèd sun. In the binnacle in front of the wheel was a small box of electronics - Dad's geolocator - and at the head of the mainmast fluttered a black flag emblazoned with the skull and crossbones. She was ready for her first voyage.
With a fair wind blowing from the East, the Guiding Star heeled gently to starboard and slowly, carefully, made her way through a flotilla of small boats through the harbour gates into the Inner Sea. People stood on the breakwater, the beach, the cliffs and even the hills above Porth Leaven to watch and remember what they saw. Despite having worked with the greatest airships of the Board's flight - and they are the most beautiful creations of humanity on Glory - I had never seen anything so wonderful, so exciting, so heart-lifting, in all my life. But as the crowed cheered and waved their hats in the air, and I stood next to Mum, holding her tightly, still there was that underlying fear haunting us.
Where had the Guiding Star's crew come from? Who would be so mad as to sign up on a ship whose avowed purpose was to cross the oceans of Glory - those oceans that had never been sailed with impunity, which seethed with hostile life? Anyone who had taken a trip on a Board ship had looked down and seen the foys, the gigantic creatures who owned the seas, who were so jealous of their domain that they crushed the life from any human who dared enter it. A ship of fools she was called, and anyone who even suggested that it would be a good idea to sail aboard her was derided as a suicidal madman. Until someone decided to ask the 'Down.
A petition was sent up to the Monitor of Porth Leaven, signed by a thousand citizens of the Peak, demanding that the 'Down condemn the Guiding Star, her captain and her builders as reckless, exploitative profiteers who held the lives of their hapless crew cheaper than dirt. Wild speculators, pirates, typical Wedgies in other words. Hundreds waited outside the Monitor's house while the petition was presented to the 'Down.
Time passed, the crowd grew uneasy. What was taking so long? Wasn't the answer obvious? The whole rash enterprise should be banned and the Wedgies sent home. And then the Monitor appeared at the door of his house, carrying a printout slip which he pinned to the notice board outside.
'Tell us what it says!' shouted an angry man at the front.
The Monitor, who had been going back indoors, stopped and turned. Everyone who was there saw his expression.
'It says that the Guiding Star is a well-found ship and that her captain is an experienced, responsible and suitable person to command her.'
'But what about the foys?'
'The foys present no danger. The 'Down states this twice. There is no danger to the Guiding Star from the foys.'
'No danger?' Who could believe that?
'The 'Down will watch over the Guiding Star. No harm will come to her. That is all. Now, go home!'
And that first day, as Annie's ship with her hand-picked crew made her shake-down cruise around the Peak of Leaven and among the smaller islands that dotted the waters next to it, we who were left on shore could only watch and think that, however well the Guiding Star fared in the shelter of the tideless Inner Sea, it would be another matter completely when she passed through one of the Ring's sea-locks and ventured out onto the hostile wastes of Glory's boundless oceans.
- 0 -
Only two weeks later, with her rigging fettled and her engine tuned, the Guiding Star motored her way out of Number Four lock on a rising tide and set an eastward course over the open sea for the land of Dix. There was intense interest in her maiden voyage throughout Glory. A top-line Board ship, the LAV Calippo, hovered overhead, watching closely. She ran a real-time video link up to the 'Down and from there pictures of Annie's vessel were beamed to every Monitor's screen all over the world. People huddled around those screens, eager to see history being made with expectation so passionate, so strained it was nearly unbearable… and worse for me and Mum, and for everyone with a loved one on board. I had twisted the arm of the aerodrome's master and appropriated a skiff - a maintenance blimp - with Mum and myself on board. I hadn't earned my airman's ticket yet, but this was a special day and the usual rules did not apply.
Dix was ten miles east of Leaven and the wind was in the north-west. The Guiding Star made good speed once she hoisted her sails and furled her propeller - a good eight knots according to the skiff's groundspeed indicator. I was flying at three hundred feet or so, keeping fifty yards to port of the ship so as not to get in the way of the Calippo's cameras.
The crossing was expected to take around two hours in total, including docking and undocking. For the first hour everything seemed to go smoothly. It was a fair morning with a scattering of clouds at five thousand feet. They cast moving shadows on the water around the Guiding Star, dark green on pale turquoise. Mum was standing next to me, gripping the rails of the gondola's gunwale and staring intently downwards. From time to time I put my arm around her shoulder and reassured her. It was going very well, the crew were at their stations, the ship was riding steadily, her sails were comfortably full, Annie had everything under control. All the same, I was glad to have the piloting of the skiff to keep my mind occupied.
An hour and a half, and the Guiding Star was less than two miles from Dix Haven. She would reach the sea-gate with time to spare before the tide fell too far for her to gain entrance to the harbour. The water splashed foam around her bows, her wake trailed behind her like spilled milk on a pathway. Cloud-shapes and ship-shadows were her travelling companions. All was well. And then... it all fell apart. Suddenly there were more shadows in the water, shadows that moved of their own accord, shadows with intentions. Mum moaned aloud. She knew more than anyone what this meant.
The foys were coming. She was only a mile and a half from safety, but already the Guiding Star was doomed. There was no time to spare. My duty was clear. Even though the ship were lost, her crew might still be saved. There were two spare places in the skiff. Between us, my blimp and the Calippo could hoist the seamen to safety, but I had to act now. I revved my engine and vented my Ray-tanks. We lost height rapidly, descending nearly to sea level and covered the distance between ourselves and the ship in less than a minute. I keyed the skiff's hailer.
'Annie! Abandon ship! The foys are coming!'
(All over Glory the Calippo's video feed showed my mercy dash to the waiting audience, clustered around their Monitors' screens. A sigh rose from every corner of the world.)
Annie cupped her hands and shouted up to me. 'Hold off, Emmy! Wait.'
'You can't wait! There's no time! Save yourselves!' The Calippo's giant hull was nearly overhead. I would take two men off the ship, and the Board vessel would rescue the rest. But Annie... Annie was the captain. She would be last off...
And then, shockingly quickly, there was no time left. With a terrific roar the sea ahead of the Guiding Star split open and the head of a great foy lifted itself out of the water, dwarfing the ship. The foy opened its fifty-foot mouth and called out; an immense, booming, rattling cry. We have heard it, haven't we, every one of us, that cry, echoing across the late-night oceans when the world is quiet, but never so close, never so loud as I heard it that day.
Annie brought her ship to a halt. She turned to the crew. 'Everybody stand to!' she ordered, and every men and women on board stopped what he or she was doing and looked up at their captain, awaiting her next command. Annie had trained her people well. She faced forward and took Dad's locator from its place in the ship's binnacle. She held it up like a talisman.
'Do you know me?' she cried out at the top of her voice. 'I am Captain Annie McLuskie.'
We watched, heart-stopped. Was she going to try to talk to a foy? The creature shook its head and sea-water flew in all directions.
'Annie!' I cried again, but she raised her hand for silence. I had never seen her so stern, so fixed in her purpose.
'I am Captain Annalisa McLuskie of the Guiding Star and this is my ship and these people are my crew. I have the right of safe passage over all the seas of Glory, by a sacred compact made between me, the sailing ship Whistledown and the foy Deepdiver Thrarn of the Gulf of Basrum. You may not prevent me from passing. Move aside, and remind your comrades of our agreement.'
Annie stopped speaking. She stood resolutely still on the bridge of her ship, with the locator held high. The foy lifted its head further. My heart squeezed tight in my chest. I could see what it meant to do. It would come crashing down on the Guiding Star like a falling tree, snapping her masts and smashing her hull to smithereens; picking off her crew one by one as they struggled in the water. I had to do something, anything to help. I steered as close as I dared to the ship. Overhead, the Calippo loomed ever larger as she shunted lift and descended, her turbines droning a funeral dirge in mourning for her sister of the seas.
(The world held its breath, dismayed, paralysed with fear. The privileged few with screen access leaned forward involuntarily, the multitudes listening to speakers outside stood silently waiting for the inevitable. Mothers held their children close and buried their small faces in their breasts so they would not be able to see or hear the horrible thing that was about to happen.)
And then… and then the foy dipped its head. It gave one last tremendous bellow and turned. Turned away from the ship and her indomitable captain. Swam off and dived, taking its companions with it. Left the way clear for the Guiding Star to finish her passage to Dix Haven, to a safe harbour and the glorious end of a prosperous maiden voyage.
(A great hush descended over the world. Something so utterly momentous had occurred that, for a while, nobody comprehended it. The silence hung in the air, between the ocean and the stars, like something holy. And then, after measureless time, the world exhaled, and started to breathe, to live once more.)
We heard the sound of cheering from the shores of Dix; faint, but perfectly, beautifully clear. Mum threw her arms around me and soaked my jerkin with her tears; tears which fell across all the lands of Glory.
'You see?' said the 'Down, on every open channel in the spectrum. 'I told you it would be all right!'
- 0 -
The Guiding Star continued her journey the following day and for the next month she sailed the length of the Archipelago, rounding the tiny land of Un two weeks later.
'I've never been so shit-scared in all my life,' said Annie when we met up a week after her triumphant return to Leaven. 'Never. I mean, the 'Down was backing me up, but I still didn't know for sure that my meeting with Deep hadn't been just a dream, and a pretty mad one at that.'
The whole world knew by now that Annie had been granted the freedom of the seas by the foys, although she had only told a few of us how that had come about.
'What I'm hoping is that one day, when they see how little harm one sailing ship causes them, they'll let more of us out onto their oceans. We'll become a true seafaring people at last!'
I gazed into my sister's face with open love and admiration, but I felt the pain of our impending separation in my soul. We could never be simply brother and sister again.
- 0 -
Annie had turned into a hero. Glory had taken her to its heart; as if the world had only been waiting to be reminded how much it needed heroes. There had been nobody like her since the desperate days that had followed the Landing. Her achievement was a token of how settled, how safe and dull and ordinary the world had become, and as each day passed I watched her become less a person and more a symbol; the abstract embodiment of the hopes of the peoples of Glory. Annie, only Annie, was the bold pirate captain who had faced down the foys and brought her ship safely home. Annie, with her wonderful ship, was the future, the guiding star. And as she got progressively more involved in plans to build a bigger, faster vessel I felt her slipping ever further away from me. She was so busy, so famous, so in demand; and I was just Emmy, her lesser-known brother.
She had become a character in a story; but it was her story, not mine.
The Guiding Star was refitted and improved following her tour of the Archipelago. She was the prototype for what might one day be a fleet of merchant ships sailing newly established sea-routes between the lands of Glory. These ships would be owned and operated by Edgeois concerns, and I was not the only person who wondered what would happen if the land of Edge became as dominant in trade as it already was in the production of raw materials and foodstuffs. What would become of the Board ships if their cargo business was taken from them?
The world was changing fast; it had changed more in one short year than in all the centuries that had passed since humanity had become established on Glory.
- 0 -
Annie's second expedition was to be a try-out for voyages to come. The Guiding Star was loaded with fifty barrels of nut-oil, to be shipped to Falls for processing into plastics. This would be a major adventure. Falls is two thousand miles north-east of the Archipelago and the Guiding Star was expected to take between two and three weeks to make the trip. She was provisioned with enough food and water to last twice that time.
I sailed with Annie to Number Four lock to wish her bon voyage, and it was there that she gave Albatross into my care and there that she blessed our farewell with a kiss. I stood on top of the lock gates and watched as the ship was warped through on a falling tide. She proceeded a mile out to sea under electric power and then, clear of land, hoisted sail and set off with her pirate flag fluttering valiantly at the masthead.
I have not seen her since.
The 'Down followed the Guiding Star for the first few days of her passage, but there were several days of fog, rain and storm and communication was cut off. This was expected, predictable. Glory's seas are not always blue, her winds not always moderate. Many a Board ship has been lost under similar circumstances. But when Annie's ship had not been heard from for a day, then three days, then a week and then a fortnight it became agonisingly clear that something had gone terribly wrong. But nobody knew anything, or if they did they didn't tell me.
After three weeks I went to the Monitor's house and demanded to speak to the 'Down. Perhaps she knew what had happened. Had the ship's hull failed or her flammable cargo blown up? The Monitor shook his head sadly and left me at the door while he went inside to find out if I could have an audience. He reappeared and crooked his finger. 'Come in, young McLuskie,' he said.
So I followed him into his house and entered his study, where I had never been before, and accessed his private screen. I spoke to the 'Down, one to one, as a Monitor does. And I was expecting an explanation, or a data list, or some last pictures of my sister's ship as seen from orbit but, apart from a few functional hellos and goodbyes, the 'Down would only say these three words:
'I am ashamed.'
'Ashamed of what?' I asked, but the 'Down would speak to me no more, and I had to break contact with no firm knowledge, no satisfaction, no finality. I did not tell Mum - brave, brittle Mum - about my interview. Her heart was quite broken enough already.
And so… Nobody will tell me that the Guiding Star is lost, only that she is "missing". No wreckage has been washed up, no last messages recorded by the 'Down or her comsats. There is hope, but it is a bitter, negative hope and gives no comfort. I carry on my daily work, as I must, and sit with my mother in our little house in the village of Parrolindon for long, empty silent evenings. The friends and relatives of the fourteen missing members of Annie's crew do not blame her openly for their loss, but I feel their silent accusations all the same and I do not seek their company. Instead, when I can, I take a skiff or, if there is time, Albatross, and I cross the water to the Ring and there I climb the Greater or the Lesser Fang and look out to sea.
I watch for a sail and a black-and-white flag, a brown face and a broad smile, a ship and her captain; because I must. The Guiding Star is not wrecked, so she must be afloat. Annie is not dead, so she must be alive. She is not here, so she must be on her way.
There never was a girl like Annie, and when she returns - as I know she will - I will be the first to see her. That is why, whenever I can, I climb the Greater Fang and not the Lesser.