When Gideon shouted at him, it took him right back to the beginning. Back to when the Captain’s men ordered him to do…well, everything – that was the job of a ship’s boy, after all. But the captain had never shouted at the young Ellory Trevan. Not even when he’d dropped an entire tray of the crew’s dinner on the floor when the balloon had caught a sudden gust of wind. The cook had shouted at him, and the crew had shouted at him. But the captain had looked at him with his solemn grey-blue eyes underneath his thick white caterpillar eyebrows, patted him on the shoulder, as he had tried to hold back tears that were threatening to spill down his clean shaven cheeks. “It’s okay, son,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes. And it’s no one’s fault that the wind blew up when it did.”
Trevan had noticed the set of the Captains shoulders, high and tense, the time he’d accidentally cut the rigging of the main sail when they were trying to navigate their way out of a vicious storm, turning the ship momentarily useless, until the airships envelope could be secured once more instead of trying to float off into the storm clouds that were tossing them about like a cork in a bottle of champagne. He had expected his eyes to be as stormy and dark as the clouds themselves. But when the captain turned around from the window he had been staring out of, Trevan’s own shoulders, bunched up high around his neck with tension, fell and relaxed, even though he thought he’d seen a bit of something…disappointment? in his eyes.
The Captain had thrown himself into his large leather chair behind the giant mahogany wood desk. “Do you know you’re the youngest ships boy ever to be taken on in the Emperor’s fleet?” The Captain had told him. Ellory had raised an incredulous eyebrow and shaken his head. He had been a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday when he’d climbed up the walkway onto the deck, his knees knocking together under him. The ship had taken off, and he had been standing on the deck for no more than ten minutes when the jostling of the floor under his feet had got to him, and a strange feeling had rushed up into his face before he had lost whatever small amount of food he had eaten over the side before he’d arrived for duty. “Why?” he’d asked the Captain, who had answered him with a loud, sharp laugh. “Because you remind me of myself, that’s why. You’re hard working boy, and there’s a lot to be said for that. You work harder than half the men on my ship. They’ve grown complacent.”
He had left the Captain’s quarters that day feeling stronger and more confident than any time in the previous days since his arrival. And he had walked straight into a large group of the crew who had crowded around outside the door, listening.
They had laughed at him, right there. “Oh, you’re the captain’s pet!” they sneered. Trevan could see disdain in their eyes. They had overheard what the Captain had said about them, more than likely. He ran past, thankful he was so small and slim as to slip through them, away from their taunts.
The days of ridicule and jeering laughter turned into weeks, then months. Every laugh pierced him like a pin, bleeding into his soul. But his skin grew tougher, and the pins of laughter made less and less of an impact. Even though Trevan hadn’t grown any taller, and was still a good few heads shorter than everyone else on the ship, he had filled out some – you couldn’t not with the food that the cooks made – everything swimming in a lake of grease.
He was never quick witted enough to respond to any of the crude jokes that the men made at his expense. He regretted that he wasn’t as book smart as his brother, who had gone off to college a few months before he had signed on to the Flying Daredevil as a grunt. He threw his booted feet onto the scuffed, dirty and marred surface of the mahogany desk that was now his, and laughed loudly at the thought of his brother. His brother who had gone to school, when he hadn’t. His brother who had tried to get an educayshun, but who, in the end, had ended up just like him: a con man, a criminal, a thief.
His laughter died in his throat when he thought of the captain, and the love and admiration he had seen in his eyes the day he had given him his secret.
Trevan had always wondered how the ship ended up finding more cargo, more treasure, more loot to barter and trade than the other ships in the fleet. He had asked before how they could keep going back to the same places, and getting more stuff when they had just been there not long before. The Captain had just shook his head and tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially. “You’re not ready just yet, son,” he’d said. That had been on the eve of Trevan’s third year aboard ship.
He had graduated from ships boy to one of the crew now. The men were colleagues now, but they still poked fun at him for his height, and the patchy way his beard grew in, even though he was seventeen now and had been growing, or attempting to grow, a beard for a good few years.
When he had graduated to the Captain’s first mate, his right hand man, the Captain called him into his quarters. ‘There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a few years now, Trevan.”
Ellory froze as if he was a young boy who had been found with his cookie in the cookie jar. What have I done wrong now? He tried to think back over his day. He had told the engineers to double check the amount of coal in the furnaces, as it seemed that the ship was gradually dipping lower through the clouds. He had leaned over the edge of the ship, holding on to the rigging to see if he could see the condition of the balloon. It seemed slightly deflated, but nothing that was too alarming. He had gone down to the kitchens to make sure the cooks were close to having dinner ready as the clock inched toward seven o’clock when the captain wanted dinner served – sharp. At least he wasn’t the one that needed to serve the food anymore. It had been a long time since had had to do that. He couldn’t think of anything that he could have possibly done wrong. The Captain rose from the high backed chair behind his desk and moved to a smaller one next to a small heart that burned brightly. Trevan was always concerned about the fires on board and never had the hearth in his own room lit. He had an irrational fear that somehow the flames would ignite the gases in the balloon and cause the ship to plummet, a fiery mass, to the earth.
The captain gestured to the other chair next to him and removed a bottle of whiskey that sat underneath the small table between the two. He poured the amber liquid into two crystal glasses and offered one to Trevan.
He took it with a shaky hand. When people offered you alcohol it was usually for one reason. To act as a buffer against bad news. He threw the drink back and didn’t even taste it, but felt the comforting burning sensation in the back of his throat.
He sat silently, expectant, and stared into the flames, avoiding the Captain’s gaze.
“You’ve been with me a few years now, Trevan,” the Captain began. “And I’ve always thought of you as my son. My surrogate son. All the crew are like my family. But you, for some reason…I think it’s because you remind me of myself when I was your age.” He stopped, caught off guard by a coughing fit.
Trevan looked at him then, and noticed for the first time how haggard he looked, his face that was once lively was now drawn and tight, and his eyes had lost their sparkle – once the colour of sunlit ocean, now they were more a dark, stormy sea.
He wasn’t used to being so blunt, and answering without being questioned, but sudden concern enveloped him. “Is everything okay, sir? Are you feeling all right?”
The captain chuckled starting a fresh bout of coughing. When he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and Ellory noticed a smear of red.
“You’ve always been very perceptive, Ellory.” The Captain used his first name. He had never called him by his first name.
“I’m sick, to tell the truth, and not sure how much longer I have. Which is why I wanted to speak to you. There’s something I want to give you. I know it might be a lot to ask. You can decline, of course, but I hope you won’t. You have the heart of an adventurer, which is why you signed up to fly on airships in the first place, if I’m not mistaken?”
He was mistaken, but Ellory wouldn’t tell him so.
He had signed up because his brother had gone off to college and he was the only person in his family that was able to support his parents. His father wasn’t able to work after losing an arm in an industrial accident in one of the new factories that made moveable type and printed books. His sleeve had got caught as he pushed a piece of paper through the press…and the rest was history. His mother had never worked a day in her life and was not going to start then, so it fell to Ellory. He had read in the papers stories about airships flying to distant lands in search of treasure, and thought how fun it would be to soar above the clouds and watch the sun rise and fall. He had watched the airships with fascination as they glided silently across the sky, and listened to the shouts of the sky crews as they loaded and unloaded their ships and readied them for lift off.
It seemed less of a hard life than the men that chose the lives of fishermen – dealing with the cold and wet spray, of rope burn pulling in the fish nets and sometimes coming away with little to nothing. In comparison, life aboard an airship was like a vacation. Though there was still plenty to do to keep it ship-shape and running smoothly, but they just went to different ports and traded for goods – and when the people weren’t interested in trading, that was when the guns and threats came. Ellory didn’t like that whole part of it. He didn’t like coercing people, scaring people into giving them their things, without giving them anything in return. Sometimes, when the rest of the crew weren’t looking, Ellory would slip a few coins into the hands of the natives with a whisper of thanks and a quick apology, before returning the muzzle of his gun to their temple and raising his voice loudly, demanding their wheat or coal or ammunition.
He wondered what the Captain’s gift was going to be.
“Have you ever wondered boy, how we can visit a port and take all their goods, and then take off into the skies again and rest overnight and then land again and take yet more from them?”
Take. That was the key word. Not ask, not have the people give them what they wanted, but take. And he had wondered, and he said so.
“I can do magic.” The captain said it simply.
Magic? Trevan glanced at him from the corner of his eye, giving him an incredulous look and wondered for a brief spell if the captain’s sickness had made him crazy as well. There was no such thing as magic, was there?
“I know that look of disbelief, son,” the captain said with a phlegmy chuckle. “It’s magic to me, anyway. Not sure what else you can call it. When I was just about your age, I was granted this gift. This power. The power of time travel – to skip forward into the future, or backwards, but never back or forward too far. But far enough that we could return to a port that we had just been to and they would have had time to gain more goods after we had taken them.”
Ellory looked at him like he definitely had a screw or two loose. “Time travel?”
He couldn’t think of anything else more intelligent.
“Yes. But there are rules, like I said. I am unable to use it for my own benefit.”
The captain must have known where Ellory was going and interrupted. “What we do is for the benefit of all of us on this ship, not just me.”
“How did you get it?”
“The secret was passed down to me, from the captain before me. My father. I had never known, like you until today, that he had held this power. But it served him, and us, well. It’s why our ship is the most successful in the fleet.”
“But that’s-“ he was going to say cheating, but this wasn’t a game. It was people’s livelihoods. It was serious. He had seen enough danger and death and bloodshed over the last few years. More than he thought he could handle, but somehow he did.
“Since I never had a son of my own to pass this on to, it’s why I’ve chosen you. But you have to pass the test first. Which is why we’ve docked in London. We need to visit the Consortium.” The Captain pushed himself out of his chair with a grunt. It was a visible effort, Ellory noticed.
The captain’s breathing was laboured, and as much as Ellory wanted to ask the Captain what the Consortium was, but he assumed he would find out soon enough.
stood in a puddle of light surrounded by darkness. The captain spoke as if he were talking to an
old friend, but Ellory was wondering why he was talking to the dark. And then
the dark answered.
“I have brought my nominee, to take my secret from me and carry it onwards. I have chosen my first mate, Ellory Trevan,” the captain said with a flourish of his arms.
“Do you think he is worthy?” The darkness replied. “Do you think he will pass the test?”
Test? What test? Ellory wondered as a spike of fear shot up his spine and raised hairs on the back of his neck.
“I do,” the Captain said solemnly, clasping his hands dutifully in front of him.
“Let us proceed,” the dark answered. A small blue-ish light appeared across the room, highlighting vaguely the shape of a door.
“Enter to begin your test, Ellory Trevan.”
He glanced back over his shoulder at the captain, who gave him a curt nod followed by a wink. The captain had more faith in him than he felt himself.
He entered the room and was greeted by a single chair facing a screen. He didn’t need any instructions. He sat. A shadow separated itself from the wall, materializing into a person in black robes, who silently strapped his arms to the armrests and slipped a cage of metal over his close cropped hair.
The lights in the room went out and a screen in front of him flashed on images came and went. He went from laughing out loud one moment, to tears rolling down his cheeks and into his beard the next. Then the tears turned to screams that he was unable to hold back, that erupted without warning and he felt his cheeks warm with the flush of embarrassment. It felt like he had been sitting in that chair for an eternity, but when the screen finally went black and the lights returned, he asked the silent monk who was untying his wrists and removing the cap from his head how long he had been there. The answer stunned him. Only fifteen minutes. It had felt like a lifetime, with him going through so many emotions in such a short time. He was exhausted and remained in the chair for a moment, even once he was able to move again.
When he eventually re-joined the Captain in the main room it seemed surreal that he was still standing there. His body was weary, as if he had gone through a battle – a war of his soul.
The Captain queried the Consortium. “What’s the verdict?”
“Patience. The machine is still calculating.”
Machine? What machine? Before he could ask, the answer came. He had been successful. He could be the next Carrier of the secret of Time Travel.
He swayed for a moment and the Captain gripped his shoulder with a strength Ellory was surprised the man still possessed. Could he do this? Could he take on this responsibility?
The captain seemed to know what he was thinking, as his emotions flickered across his face as clearly as the images he had seen on that screen.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to. I know it’s a lot to ask. But there has to be someone. That’s the whole point of the Consortium – finding the next in line, the next person to carry this secret.”
“So, I’d be the only person in the world that would have this power?”
“Yes.” The Consortium and the Captain said simultaneously in a strange echo.
“The Secret Carrier is needed to protect the knowledge, to keep it safe, keep it secret. To keep it from falling into the wrong hands. That’s why we need to test the candidates. To find out whether they have the mettle to carry this burden.”
Burden. That’s exactly what it felt like. But…he would have something else no one else did. He would be special. But he also wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it. What was the point of having power when you couldn’t use it to influence others? He thought. Imagine how the rest of the ship’s crew would treat him if they knew he was chosen for this, a special privilege.
Then he stopped, and stared at the captain. “They said only one person can carry the secret at one time.”
The captain smiled a sad half smile. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Then…” his words floated away. He couldn’t speak the rest.
“Does this mean-?”
“Yes. It means I am sacrificing myself. I am ready to do this. Ready to move on. Pirating is a hard life, and it has taken its toll.”
“Far too young.”
The captain smiled wistfully. “Be that as it may, I am ready, and I have made my decision.”
“But you’ve made a decision for me.”
The captain shook his head, his thick white hair waving slightly. He was only, what? In his late sixties Ellory guessed. But he was only in his early twenties himself, though people often mistook him for a decade older, sometimes more.
“Remember, you can say no. You don’t have to.”
“But then what would happen?”
The Captain shrugged. “I would have to find someone else.”
“Do you have anyone in mind?”
The Captain shook his head. “It has always just been you. From the first day you stepped onto my ship, I knew it was going to be you.”
Pride welled like an ember in his chest, a warm glow spreading outward. “Well, I can’t say no to that, surely!”
The captain shrugged his reply.
“It’s your life, not mine.”
“But I’m your way out. If not me, who?”
“There will be someone else. There always has to be. But I trust you Ellory, more than anyone else in the world. I have no wife, nor kids, as you well know. You’re more family to me than anyone else ever has been.”
Ellory felt tears begin but willed them back. He had never had a purpose. Besides being the provider for his parents, and his older brother who would rather attempt to gain an education and spend time reading over dusty old books in a library.
Ellory did something he had never done before. He threw himself at the Captain and wrapped his arms around him. “Thank you,” he whispered in the old man’s ear.
The Captain led the way to the tattoo parlour. After an excruciating half hour of being a human pincushion, they made their way back to the ship.
“I need to show you what to do, make sure you get it right. Otherwise, you never know what can happen. Time is a tricky thing. It’s not straight forward like it seems. It’s fluid, like a bubbling stream, always changing. We’re made to think it’s orderly, with time ticking on in its minutes and seconds. But once you do this for a while, you’ll see otherwise.” He instructed Ellory to stand in the middle of his quarters, in between his desk and the hearth on the other side of the room and had him move his hands in a strange pattern, facing the hearth, as he repeated a string of words that made no sense. Then he turned and faced the desk, looking out the windows beyond where the rigging was moving about in the breeze, and beyond that the stern and rudder moving methodically back and forward. He repeated more words and more hand gestures, and then turned to face the door, and then lastly, turned and faced the captain’s collection – items he had taken and kept for himself, souvenirs. He repeated more words and moved his hands in more complex twirls. There was a strange noise, a stuttering, as if the engine of the ship was struggling against something and the sky outside the window flashed purple and white before returning to the monotonous gun-metal gray.
“Is that it? Have we time traveled?”
The captain collapsed into one of the armchairs next to the fire and nodded weakly. “Yes.”
“And I can do this, and keep on turning a profit for all of us on the Flying Daredevil?”
“As long as you don’t use it for yourself, yes.”
“And what happens if I do? Use it for myself, I mean.”
“I’m not sure, I’ve never wanted to find out, but whatever it is, I wouldn’t think it would be pleasant.”
The captain stretched exaggeratedly. “Well, I guess this is it.” He heaved himself from the chair and almost collapsed. Ellory grabbed his elbow and hauled him upright.
“Will you come see me off?”
“What? What do you mean?” Ellory asked, suddenly afraid.
“I’ve done what I wanted to do. I’m relieved of my duties. Come with me out to the main deck, and call all the crew up. I have an announcement to make.”
It took a few minutes but eventually all the crew stood on the main deck, looking confused and bewildered. The captain cleared his throat. “I called you all here to announce the promotion of First Mate Ellory Trevan to Captain. He will be taking over the ship from me, effective immediately.”
Whispers sprang up from the crowd like wildfire. Cries against the captain’s wishes jumped out in angry, terse voices.
The captain raised a large hand. “I have made my decision, and that is final.” As if to punctuate the power of his words he took a step to the edge of the ship and with a shaky foot, stepped up on the railing, gripping it with white knuckles. The ship had been lazily meandering its way over the Atlantic Ocean for the last few days.
The captain raised his hand once more. “Farewell.” With a wink at Trevan he stepped over the edge without a sound and disappeared into the clouds below.