The Saintly cruiser was gaining, almost fast enough. By Folsom’s estimation they would intercept us within an hour – and it would take us as long to reach the mouth of the Way.
And after that, they would likely pursue us still.
I stood aft, watching WIlliam’s cruiser. I prayed, briefly and succinctly, for succor.
WHen perhaps half an hour or a little more had passed, FOlsom brought up guns from below decks. There were two of them, old Napoleonic field guns, and folsom had only the shot for five rounds. It was not as if we had a better option open to use.
The guns were tied down aft, and the boeson (who doubled as gunnery officer, on the odd occasion the guns were called for) took great care in plotting his first shot. I stood a little behind, observing his every movement with growing dread. Five rounds, and seven ships.
Still, I told myself. It was possible that five shots would be enough – the Saints did not know the limits of our munitions, and so perhaps they would fall back after one or perhaps two of their number had been sunk.
If one, or perhaps two, of their number could be sunk.
Folsom conferred with his boesen. I listened from as near at hand as I could edge, straining to hear over the thrumming of the engine. The two men argued over bearings and winds, but principally over at what range the shot was to be taken. FOlsom favored waiting until the Saints were closer; the boseon felt sure he could make the shot at a greater distance.
I listened, and stewed. A certain discontent had taken up residence in my breast, born I suspect of exhaustion from the days exertions, adn lack of sleep besides. I had lost count of the hours since last I’d slept, but I knew them to be many – and they seemed like many, many more.
But whatever the cause, this discontent had dwelt with me since the beginning, since falling victim to what broadbent had called the Dread on the docks, during my arrival.
The character of the thing was this: I was getting sick and tired of being shepherded around. I was getting terribly fed up with being shuffled about, first by Allison, and then Broadbent, and Plymouth and Broadbent again. Now I was being chased down, all on account of some hypothetical newspaper article!
The injustice chaffed, and I longed to do something about it.
“Gentlemen,” I said, injecting as much gravitas and authority into my voice as I could well muster. “I say we take the shot now.”
Folsom looked at me, looked at the boesen, and rather to my surprise, he shrugged.
“Suit yourselves,” he said, turning his backs on us and heading toward the fore.
“Where are you going?” I called after him.
Folsom stopped, and called back over his shoulder.
“If we’re to be boarded, I’d rather have a gun handy.”
Which was fair enough, I suppose.
In another minute the shot was primed and ready. I held my breath, and crossed my fingers against the small of my back. I watched the boesen conclude his work, take one last check of his bearing… and fire.
The shot rumbled through my chest, and I took a step back. My eyes never left the shot, though, which arced through the air like a flaming comet. I watched it soar – and splash into the water forty feet from the Saintly bow.
Damn, was all I could think in that moment.
The next shot too, went wide. And the next. Here we stopped, with only to shots left – we loaded one each into the guns, and proceeded to wait.
To the fore, the Avernian Way loomed. I had not, maybe understood fully its vast strangeness when first I came down. Pale light trickled out of the mouth of that colossal passage, and reflected off the weird, still waters of the way.
To aft, the Saints were spitting distance from us. I could see William, could recognize his face, as he stood with a lantern held aloft at the prow of his ship. He could have shot me from that distance, maybe.
He did not.
I was joined aft by FOlsom. He had a rifle slung over one arm. Slowly, meditatively, he unslung the rifle from his shoulder.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I,” Folsom said, examining the gun with a practiced eye, “Am going to put a hole in that bastard.”
I was unsure how to feel about that. I had to remind myself of WIlliam’s age – scarce more than fifteen, I believe.
AT that moment, my eye was drawn by a flickering of lights, from the direction of the six craft we had witnessed leaving Mormontown – another flare went up from them, blindingly bright. Some signal, I think; a summons to WIlliams ship, to watch, for in another moment the prow-mounted arclamp which pursued us began to flicker. Slowly, steadily, in staccato rhythm – the light shone out a message, in code which I could not divine. Some missive was being sent from the pursuing ships.
I looked back at them, and knew, somehow, who it was that stood at that arclamp, closing its shuttered head in tune to some cryptic rhythm – John Allison was coming.
“Stop,” I said at once. FOlsom looked at me.
“Why?” he said.
“Do you have a glass?”
Folsom nodded slowly. “Why?”
“I think… I suspect that John Allison is sending that message.”
Folsom looked from me, to the flickering light, and back to me.
“So I’m acquainted with him. I think… I think he is instructing them not to kill us.”
Folsom looked at me appraisingly, for a long time. I looked back, and discerned in the man a greater depth than I had supposed when first I saw him.
“You believe that?”
“I hope so,” I said, more to myself than to Folsom.
“We aren’t going to make it out of this otherwise.”
William’s ship matched our pace, and in the end we cut engines. The cruiser made a circuit of us once, William standing at the prow, his face flat and unreadable even from this little distance. In the end, he boarded us, bringing the Mormon cruiser close enough to toss ropes across.
We waited at the fore.
Williams boots rang on the decking. Behind him, three more Youths followed – young as WIlliam, and with faces as flat and hard. They carried rifles, but did not bring them to bear on us.
He advanced on me. He marched right up to me, until he was nearer at hand than the span of a single step. He looked up at me, and there was rage in his eyes.
Ina voice low, and clotted with feeling, he spoke.
“Do you know what we are?”
“We are the light which shines in darkness. We are the virtuous exiles. We are the chosen of god,” he said to me.
He believed it. EVery word. I know that now, and knew it then, as he glowered up at me.
“Before we came here, there was nothing. There was no law. There was no order. There was no trade. There was nothing,” he sneered.
The pursuing ships were nearer now – very near, having gained some great distance whilst William encircled us.
“We brought you here to show the world what we have made,” William said.
The ships were slowing, braking, banking to cut around us. Except one, which powered forth.
One which bore a man at the helm. A tall, slope-shouldered man.
I looked down at William, and at the gun he carried.
“We brought you here to show you that we are good,” William said.
“Do you know what they did to us?”
My eyes went from William, to the advancing ship. It was drawing up alongside us – now, Emory was sandwiched between the two Saintly cruisers, and presently was being roped off to both.
“Do you know what happened at the Mill?” he said.
I looked into his eyes. I knew what happened there. I knew what was done to these people, by Americans.
I knew what came after, too. I knew why they hated us.
“DO you know what happened in Missouri?” he grated.
Behind him, I saw John Allison, standing a full head taller than the other legionnaires, plant his boots on Emory’s deck.
“They ordered us killed. All of us. The government ordered us exterminated.”
John Allison was advancing on us. He drew up some step-and-a-half behind William, and listened.
“We had to flee down here, into this hole. We lost everything.”
I could feel the hate, boiling off of William like steam off a kettle. I could feel the rage, buffeting me like wind. Seldom have I had occasion to hear a man speak with such conviction; it chilled me.
“And look on what we have wrought!” William shouted, flinging his arms wide.
“Look what we have built! Out of nothing! Who are you? Who are you to stand on judgment of us?”
I looked past William, and emt John Allison’s eye. Allison looked at me, the sadness in his eyes threatening to pour forth. Presently, Allison stepped softly forward, adn lay a hand on young William’s shoulder. The young man started, looked around, and after a wordless moment between the two, he removed himself from the scene. I watched his tromp away, down the deck, and back to his ship.
All around us, the legion watched. Their faces flat, and level.
John allison took another step forward, to stand in the place where WIlliam had stood. I looked up at him, and he down at me.
“He’s right, you know,” Allison said. “You have no right to stand in judgement of us.”
He took a deep breath, and removed his gaze from me – he looked beyond me, into the dark.
Int ime, he spoke again.
“This is an evil place,” he said. “It takes its toll on all of us.”
His gaze returned to my own, and in a voice so low that, I am sure, it was meant for my ears alone, he spoke last words to me.
“I fear it takes a toll on me, too.”
He stopped, swallowed, and spoke to me again, for the last time.
“Remember what could have happened here. Remember the choice I have made, today. Tell them that, please. When you write your article.”
The Saints departed, abruptly, and without another word. Folsom delivered me to New York, intact. ANd ever since, I have wondered at why.
I think I know, now. It is with that knowledge held firmly in mind that I have, finally, elected to set pen to paper in service of this tale.
I believe that all of that which was said at the end was true. I believe that John Allison hates us, we, who are Americans. I suspect he hates us for what we did to him, and his people.
I believe he really did send someone to speak to a newspaper editor in New York, and that it was for that reason that he met me on the docks when first I arrived – for, upon my return, no record could be found of the fellow whom my editor had first met. It was only then that I thought to ask my editor what this man, who had known so much of the Deep, looked like.
“Young, young man,” Mr. Wilson said. “Hard-eyed, didn’t smile much. Didn’t frown much either, now that I think on it.”
And, lastly, I think on the STraussmenner. Of the queer, broken, ragged folk, who had dwelt under the earth for so long. Of what the darkness had done to them.
And I think on the Legion, and their hard, empty eyes.
I pray for Mr Allison, sometimes. I think he has had a hard hand dealt him. I think that he, too, believes, oike young William did.
I think he is surrounded by darkness. And I think that he has been touched by it.
And, I think, that he is horrified at it.
There is the tale. I have told it as honestly as I know how, out of what I suppose must be respect for the poor Mr. Allison.
For whatever it’s worth, I wish him the best.
Him, and his people.
– Andrew Barclay,