My novel, THREE: 2020, a sci-fi action adventure, is now available for $2.99 on Amazon Kindle. Find out if Amy Schiff and the family corporation she runs, TexaDyn, will be successful in getting us back to the moon and forever changing the course of humanity toward a bright future and away from the sixth mass extinction event that is looming large.
THREE: 2020 -- A Novel
In addition to being a designer, I am also a writer. My original major in college was journalism. I love to write and I have always included copy writing as a service to wherever and whomever I have worked for.
The journey to write this novel began in 2010 with an idea that struck me unusually hard as I was driving my daughter to school one morning. The idea left me breathless and I actually wrote it down. I usually never did that. I started thinking about my new-found "discovery" of helium-3 which I had learned about in a documentary that aired on the Science Channel that previous evening. I got to thinking, 'what if helium-3 was the real reason for going to the moon, and what threat did helium-3 pose to the current energy industries, AND what if they decided to do something drastic about it (such as using their power of money to shut down the Apollo moon program)'? It would be the ONE explanation for why we stopped going to the moon and, after over 50 years, still have not been back.
The hand-written notes, character treatments and chapter outlines took me over a year to write. After completing the outline, I began writing the novel manuscript in 2011 and finished it in late 2015.
Readers will be hard-pressed to know with certainty what is fact and what is fiction in my novel. That aspect added a certain level of tension that begins with page 1 and continues to slowly build to the end.
Below is chapter one. Enjoy.
All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.--John Locke, 1643—The Membership
Man…is all. He is not a piece of the world, but the world itself; and next to the glory of God, the reason why there is a world.--Donne, 1625—Poet and Cleric
YEAR: 1825, February, Gravesend, England / Pitcher Shipyards
Commodore Byron Schiff glanced out over the sea of white and thought that, no matter how thick that blanket was, just beneath remained hidden the shadowy, submissive truths that could never be silenced. Despite being covered, they were always there and struggled to make their presence known.
Stealthily, in the dark of the previous night, a frigid winter storm, one of many that season, had slipped over the small town of Gravesend England and left in its wake a snap to the February air and a thick layer of snow upon the city landscape.
“I hate snow. It’s just another deception, as are most things in life,” Byron cynically muttered to himself as the carriage in which he rode clattered past the glittering piles and drifts. The rising early morning sun illuminated the white landscape with streaks of light between the trees, and cast the snow in shimmering shades of bright gold.
‘Fool’s gold,’ he thought sarcastically.
He was displeased and out of sorts. His mind was unsettled as it had been for days ever since he received the cryptic orders to report back to England. And so, because of those orders, he was in a carriage and on his way to the Pitcher Shipyards to inspect what would become his newest command, the HMS Kent. He was resentful that the orders had taken him from what he considered to be a more important task in the South Atlantic. The new orders to report immediately to the shipyards was clear enough, however, the underlying reasons for him being back in England remained obscure. He intended to promptly clear that up once he arrived at the shipyards.
He looked out again at the snow and thought that no matter how beautifully it coated the landscape, it never could truly hide the filth, the rubbish heaps carelessly tossed into the streets. Nor could it hide the grimy layers of poverty and quiet desperation that clung to the edges of his home town and which threatened to cover it over more completely.
Returning home was always a conflict for him. In his duties as Commodore in her majesty’s navy, he had seen more human suffering than he cared to see. In particular, the suffering inflicted by man against man. Such suffering was the most severe. It opened his eyes in ways he never expected. And, as a result, whenever he returned home, he saw the suffering there as well. He saw it as the rich benefitted from a society only they could own and enjoy. And from that, he understood what poverty truly was—slavery in perpetuity. Endless, grinding slavery. It sickened him deeply and he wondered exactly what he was protecting as he took to the sea.
That particular winter had been cold, merciless and seemingly unceasing. It left the waters of the nearby Thames and the seas of the more distant Channel between England and France constantly churned and nearly inhospitable to sea traffic. Ship-building schedules had to be set back along with the trial runs for the three sailing vessels currently in Pitcher’s ship yard—the Kent, the George IV, and the Eagle which was the largest of the three. Their sails were tightly lashed against the driving winter winds.
In spite of her smaller size, the Kent became the talk of the British navy after her speed trials became public news. This was a triumph for Pitcher which also had a hand in her design.
Byron leaned forward, wiped some condensation off the hazy glass and looked out the left window of the carriage. Squinting, he glanced out at the early morning sun as it glinted brightly off the waters of the distant Thames River. Nearby, the dark smudge of a structure hugged the horizon. The river trailed off into the blue mists behind it. With most of the town of Gravesend behind him, it was the only structure he could see rising up through the trees. The glare of the early morning sun obscured most everything else.
The building was Ashton Hall. At three stories, it was taller than anything in the area. It had recently been constructed by Pitcher the previous year and showed rigid confidence in the ever-expanding British naval presence and in England’s imperial trade and commerce. Ashton Hall had been named after Rear Admiral Prescott Ashton. Try as he might, Byron was unable to hold the Admiral in high regard. Instead, he considered the man to be a pompous, over-weight twit who would be better off wearing an apron, running a tavern, cleaning glasses and serving drinks to disgruntled mill workers in some ramshackle village in Wales.
“Even that would be too good for him,” he said aloud. In his mind, he pictured the Admiral huffing and puffing as he cleaned tables and served drinks. Byron smiled cruelly.
The carriage swung widely on to another street and drew closer to the shipyards. He could see tiny figures scurrying to and fro on the docks and freely swinging from ropes tied to the ship masts. As he watched them, they reminded him of his own men as they worked the ropes and sails of his own ship.
Prior to this reassignment, Byron had been commodore and captain of the frigate Medusa, a 32-gun ship of war, which had just completed a six month tour off the wild African coasts of Sierra Leone. He thought about the unusually powerful series of tropical storms they endured that seemed to cascade upon one another and endlessly tossed their frigate ship around as if were a small toy. His memories of heaving, moving valleys made not of earth but of hills of foaming water that made sounds he would rather not hear again in his life were not pleasant. Water should not sound like hoards of roaring, screeching animals intent on inflicting death and destruction. He recalled the creaking, groaning timbers of his ship that threatened to come apart at the seams. No one slept on that particular voyage.
The carriage hit a large bump and Byron’s head nearly impacted the ceiling which brought him back to the moment. The driver was taking them down Bath Street toward the shipyards at too fast a speed for his taste.
“Driver!” he yelled, perturbed that he might not survive the ride. He rapped the ceiling with his cane, “Slow us down at once. I wish to get to Ashton in one piece this morning.” The carriage slowed slightly. “Ironic”, he said aloud to himself.
“I survived Hell’s Tempest itself only to die an early and painful death on Bath Street by this reckless driver Pitcher Shipyards hired.”
There were still a few useful minutes before reaching Ashton, so he dug into a green leather-bound stack of ledgers sitting on the seat next to him. He ferretted out the testing trial information on the new HMS Kent. The numbers were difficult to believe. The new frigate could possibly become the fastest sailing vessel ever launched. That was an important factor militarily.
He glanced out the right window of the carriage and noticed that the new gas lights lining the newly paved streets were still on even though it was half past eight in the morning and the sun was shining brightly.
‘Damned wasteful,’ he thought, a passing feeling of annoyance at nothing in particular. He very much resented being where he was at that moment. And more than anything, the knot in his stomach reminded him yet again that he resented his change in orders.
The lights and the new street pavers were a sign of growth and prosperity for the city, and the city leaders boasted loudly at their installation. Commerce and trading throughout South England had witnessed a boost during the last five years, and the town of Gravesend, a key shipping port, had benefitted from the marked increase of imports and exports with the East India Company.
The street lights had just been installed throughout the town one year earlier, and there was talk of expanding the antiquated quay. During the previous summer, in July, which was usually the town’s busiest time, six ships were forced to delay their cargo-runs on the Thames for several days and had to wait to offload their precious cargos because the old wharf was too small to accommodate.
Over the course of the previous decade, the East India Company, in partnership with the British government, had gained key dominance over the sea lanes to the Caribbean as well the new Americas resulting in an explosion of goods from the expanding Empire.
The slave trade had been abolished just eight years earlier. Gravesend’s business leaders, most of them controlled by The Corporation, tried to convince those of influence that a large economic slowdown would be an inevitable result. Perhaps even the collapse of the empire was eminent. The majority of key members in London’s Parliament raged furiously for months over the loss of the slave trade which had brought the country, and them personally, so much wealth for so long a time. Their seemingly unassailable claims that economic ruin would most inevitably follow and drag all of England to the poor house proved unfounded, and England’s trade dominance of the Atlantic began to grow as merchants sought new goods and trades to ply.
That made Bryon think again about the drifts of snow they passed. Just as it covered the landscape with a false layer of beauty, the new lights and streets seemed to have the same goal. The new-found money and wealth that slipped into the city from overseas trade failed to actually make it into the hands of the working poor, the people who lived and worked in Gravesend. All of the income seemed to stay in the hands of a small minority of wealthy aristocrats--and they never shared.
The streets and lights were a thin veneer of beauty that covered an appalling foundation of poverty, sickness and death. It was also propaganda. It was an attempt to make the public think they were somehow participating in the success.
Byron’s carriage shifted and bounced its way along the new cobblestones of Bath toward the shipyards. The melodic sound of horse hoof clatter echoed into the cabin. He allowed his mind wander back to the great African horn, and the reason the Medusa was stationed in those turbulent seas. That ship, his ship, was one of the fastest interceptors in the British fleet and under orders to search and seize slave ships still working that area and ferrying their helpless cargo to eager buyers in the Caribbean, South America and North America.
They had been on steady patrol for nearly four weeks. During one hot summer day at high noon, the sun bore down hard on the crew of the Medusa, washing out colors, banishing shadows and creating a suffocating silence on the top decks. The sails occasionally caught a breeze, enough to give them some motion.
Penetrating the stuffy air, the day spotter yelled from high overhead in the crow’s nest, “Target sighted sir!” They first caught sight of her as a small dark spot against a brilliant azure sea and at least ten miles distant. Through his telescope, Byron could tell that it was the ship they had been seeking for weeks. She was drawing deep with heavy cargo under full sail and heading westerly. He could see the ship was without flag and knew right away what the cargo had to be. Their failure to show the colors meant that they were either pirates or slave-runners. Choices in that part of the world were few.
At such a distance, the ship’s spotters were unable to see much detail, but with his experience, Byron knew it had to be the Feloz, a fast slave-running schooner most likely bound for Bahia. They had nearly intercepted her six weeks earlier when she was leaving the Sierra Leone port near Freetown, but they were unable to overtake her when one of Medusa’s main sails cut loose making pursuit impossible. After repairs, they were unable to locate their quarry again until that morning.
The ocean was flat, smooth as polished blue glass with a light wind that took some edge off the warm air. The chase was slow but the Medusa was of superior design. She had more sail, a leaner hull and was therefore faster. Byron stood tall on the quarterdeck and ordered two warning shots fired. He intended to get his prey this time around.
“Perhaps that will change their minds about running this time,” Byron commented to his officer on the deck, a very young lieutenant Hampton.
“Yes sir commodore,” the lieutenant replied.
They watched as the canon fired a third time with a bright flash, followed by a thundering, billow of smoke. It was a powerful gun that could throw 20-pound rounds over two miles. He felt a slight shudder under his feet as it fired a second round. Peering through his telescope, Byron saw the third shot punch through her aft sails. He watched men clamor about her top decks as they pulled the two triangular main-sails, removing the wind. She was surrendering. The captain of the Feloz knew there was no point in taking chase.
Byron had been thoroughly briefed prior to shipping out on the Medusa, and so was familiar with the Feloz and her capabilities. She was a broad-decked ship, with a mainmast, schooner rigged, and behind her foremast on the main deck was a large, formidable gun, which turned on a broad circle of iron. This enabled her crew to reinvent the Feloz into a pirating vessel if her slaving days were forced to come to a reluctant close. Byron was concerned that they might fire back, but they surrendered without a single shot. They were not interested in taking on a fight with the British Royal Navy that morning.
At last report, the Feloz was commanded by a man named Captain Jose Durante, a known member of The Corporation and most likely leading the directive to keep slavery moving in that region. However, Durante’s mission failed to include starting a fight with a powerful British Royal Navy interceptor.
“Lieutenant, said Byron turning to his first officer, “I want you to assemble a boarding party and secure…that ship. I will come over shortly. I want their captain top-deck and ready for me when I arrive.”
“Aye Commodore,” the lieutenant replied briskly. Byron smiled. The young lieutenant could not have been long out of the academy. He was a tall, lanky man, with a long, lean face and stern black hair combed tightly and held in place with a clip that ended with a short ponytail.
Before the officer could leave, Byron stopped him. “Lieutenant. If we find what I think we’re going to find, after you secure the crew and captain, I want you to take a contingent and begin moving their… cargo… to the top deck right away,” he paused sucked in a deep breath, “This is unpleasant business.”
“Yes sir Commodore,” said Lieutenant Hampton. Byron could sense the young man’s tension, but Hampton concealed it well. “I’ve never been on board a slaver before. I’ve heard plenty of stories.”
“None near as close to the reality of it I’m afraid Hampton.” said Bryon, as he lowered his voice and leaned in close. “Pick your boarding crew carefully, At least ten men, disarm their crew, and start bringing up the…”, he paused drawing out the next word with clear disgust and looked toward the Feloz. He could smell it from where he stood. “…cargo… right away.”
The conditions on slaver ships were beyond comprehension and the Feloz was no exception. On that run, it had over two-hundred human beings packed tightly under the open grated hatchways of the top deck. None of them could move or stand in the three-foot-tall space. Crammed into this space was a mass of arms, legs, filth and hollow eyes that stared up at their emancipators. Nearly all of Medusa’s boarding party was overwhelmed by the sights and intense odors of death and defecation which hung over the horrid ship like a heavy blanket. Even the slight winds blowing earlier were nonexistent as they brought up the slaves. Many of them were in various states of dying, for many it was too late, for those alive, they were quietly chanting the one word of Spanish they knew, “Viva…viva” which grew from a low chant into a chorus. In some unspoken way, they knew their prayers had been answered. They were rescued.
Byron came aboard midway through the slow process of bringing up the cargo from the lower decks. Those who could walk on their own crawled up through the open hatchways. He carefully sidestepped piles of soiled scraps of garments lying strewn about the deck and quickly passed a large boiling greasy kettle filled with something unidentifiable. It emitted an odor he could not place.
“What is this?” he pointed at the kettle and looked directly at who he assumed to be the Feloz’s first officer. The man was dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes. He merely stood and gazed at the deck. Impatient, Byron stamped the deck with his foot and yelled, “Answer me man!”
The man jumped and mumbled in a thick cockney accent, “It be…be…for the... It’s…a… ah…f-f-food for the people b-below...”
Byron simply stood for a moment and glared at the man. He shifted his gaze to the rest of the small crew—a disheveled group twelve men in all. Four of his officers stood in front of the Feloz crew andpointed long, glinting bayoneted rifles directly at their waists. Their clean uniforms stood in stark contrast to the dismal conditions around them.
“Really.” He said softly and removed his hat. “Wrong. It’s what you’re going to be eating. And…” he paused, anger built inside him, but he stanched it. “It’s what all of you are going to eat for the next four to five days as we make our way back to port.” The color left their faces at the mere mention of eating what was in the kettle.
“Where’s the captain of the Feloz, lieutenant?”, asked Byron of his first officer. Hampton looked queasy, “Steady officer. Our next tasks will be to feed and care for these people, and…” he paused in disgust as his foot landed squarely on a pile of excrement. He regained his composure and continued,“ and then to clean this ship up, top to bottom. And make those twelve men do most of the work lieutenant. And…oh, and have provisions and the medical officer brought over for these people.”
“Aye sir. Captain Durante’s on the top quarterdeck sir,” answered Hampton quietly and pointed behind him.
“Captain,” Byron said with a mix of anger and disgust. “That man is no captain.”
Byron turned to look toward the stern of the ship. Leaning against a railing was a heavy-set man wearing an elaborate tricorne hat with bright red plumage erupting from the top. He had a long beard that had begun to turn grey. He had it tucked into a wide, brown leather belt that crossed his protruding belly which held two empty sword holsters. Byron slowly made his way across the top deck while sidestepping debris to the quarterdeck and approached Durante.
“Dur-an-te,” said Byron, deliberately leaving out the title of captain and slowly parsing out the name as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. He wasn’t feeling respectful at the moment.
“Captain Da…De…Durante,” corrected the man as he belched then heaved himself off the railing and tottered toward Byron. He appeared to be solidly drunk. “And I finally get to meet the great…the great…ah, Captain Byron Schiff.”
“Commodore Schiff,” corrected Byron, emphasizing the title, and wincing at the man’s incredibly bad breath. Byron had held the title of commodore since he currently commanded the fleet that was now under patrol in the South Atlantic.
“P-pardon me...commodore,” stuttered Durante. He belched thunderously as sprigs of spit flew from his mouth. ‘Disgusting man’, thought Byron as a wave of nausea rose in him. He was unimpressed by the man’s act. Byron knew only too well when he was being manipulated.
“Alright. That’s enough Durante. It seems you know of me, and allow me to state that I know of you as well.” Byron cut to the chase. “You’re not really drunk, and you’re not fooling me. I know you are under command from The Society. So let’s get this over with, you’re to clean up this damned ship and get under way back to port. I hereby confiscate the Feloz under orders from the Crown, and you sir, are under arrest. This time, you will be standing trial for your criminal acts.”
A sly look crossed Durante’s face, and his demeanor changed. He straightened up with all signs of drunkenness vanishing. “I didn’t fool you. Well then. Fair enough.” he asked, all hint of his deep sea-faring accent gone, “You should know sir, you have no hope of making charges against me stay Commodore.”
A faint breeze blew across the quarterdeck on which they stood, but it provided no comfort. It instead brought with it a fresh wave of unpleasant stenches. The sails overhead flapped lightly and the mainsail boom squeaked as it lazily moved to the port side of the ship. Byron wanted to finish up the pleasantries with Durante back on board Medusa. He decided not to reply directly to Durante’s comment about not being tried later. He knew that, since the captain was a member of The Corporation, any charges against Durante would most likely disappear and he would resume transporting human cargo on open waters.
After giving Durante a long, cold stare, Byron said no more, put his hat back on, turned his back and strode off to take the small boarding craft back to the Medusa.
Along the way, he was intercepted by a young officer who had been ordered to inspect conditions below decks.
“Comodore?” the young officer asked, his face pale, his composure unsteady. He was holding a wooden cup that had been filled to the rim with a thick, black substance. It gave off a pungent, unfamiliar smell. Parts of his hands were stained dark by the substance.
“Yes, what is it Givens?” asked Byron.
He handed the cup to Byron. “It’s this sir. The entire second deck is loaded with barrels of this foul smelling stuff. When I asked around, the Afrikaners called it olie.”
“Indeed, olie as you say? How much?”
“Dozens of barrels sir. I have a man running a count. I thought it best to bring this to your attention immediately.”
Byron carefully took a sniff. The material had a strong pungent smell, almost acrid. “I’ve heard of it, but only recently. Some call it pitch-black. Does the ship manifest attest to its origins?”
“Yes sir. First Officer Hampton says that it appears to have come from the same region as these slaves.”
“They’re not slaves, Givens,” corrected Byron.
The young man’s countenance changed to a look of distress. “Yes sir. I apologize.”
“No need. Just remember next time to call them passengers, people or human beings. They are not property and they are not anyone’s slaves. Not as long as I have anything to say about it.”
They were joined by a disturbed Hampton.
“Thank you Givens. That will be all. You’re dismissed.” The young man happily departed to continue his work.
“Report?” asked Byron.
“You have it in your hands Commodore. It’s clear The Society has found yet another source for this oil or olie.”
Carefully setting the cup down on the wood deck, Byron pulled a striker from his pocket. He held it over the oil and made a few sparks. The thick, black substance immediately burst into orange flames that lightly danced on its surface. It emitted an intense heat. They stood for a few moments, mesmerized at the flames.
“Amazing sir,” observed Hampton.
Byron agreed, “Indeed it is. Quite a useful substance. And quite possibly dangerous as well. This pitch-black could change everything if Membership operatives manage to locate more sources for it and manage to find ways to use it before we do. By using this to power their ships and by using humans as slaves, they could determine all our destinies. Things are moving far faster than this sailing vessel of ours can keep up with.”
Byron had no idea how accurately he was predicting the future of the world.
The slow, uneventful journey back to the African mainland and the busy port of Freetown, Sierra Leone gave the crew of Medusa time to supervise the crew of Feloz and the clean-up both their ship and their human cargo. By the time they reached port thirteen days later, the Feloz was nearly unrecognizable.
While on route, and based entirely on Durante’s comment about avoiding a proper trial, Byron made the unorthodox decision to take Durante to the local Freetown jail instead of a British military stockade. Under normal conditions, this would have been controversial, even for a commodore. However, Byron had connections of his own with The Membership, and knew that the power to make this decision rested entirely with him. As Byron and three top-ranking officers of the Medusa dragged an unhappy and much complaining Durante off the ship and down to the dock, the smug look of confidence he had during the entire journey back to port vanished as quickly as smoke in a stiff breeze. Durante had been falsely led to believed he was being taken to a British military facility.
Two officials, one white and one black, were waiting and greeted Byron’s party with enthusiasm. They were in charge of the jail and had a great deal of familiarity with Durante.
“We recognized that ship when it entered the harbor with you,” said the black man. He pointed at the Feloz at anchor in the bay.
“And we know this fellow,” said the thin white man who was dressed in kakis and spoke with a clipped British accent. “Durante; smuggler, slave runner and all around ill sort. We’ve wanted you for some time.” Durante scowled but said nothing. The thin man turned his attention to Byron. “Welcome Commodore Schiff, I’m Cyrus Jacobs. I run the local prison here, such as it is. Fine job you’ve done bringing the Feloz back to port and returning all these people to their homes. They are in your debt.”
They exchanged handshakes. “Thank you, but I just did my job Mr. Jacobs. As part of that job, I made the decision to bring Durante here instead of a military stockade.”
Jacobs took on a slightly sad continence and said, “I know.” He paused, then added, “We’ll do what needs to be done. Quick and clean.”
Byron nodded in understanding, his expression strained.
Durante struggled, but Byron’s officers held him tight. “What did you mean you’ll do what needs to be done?” he screeched angrily.
“Take him away,” Byron ordered. His men proceeded to drag Durante off toward a grouping of nearby brick buildings. Durante continued to yell.
After a short discussion about the Feloz, they made off in the same direction Durante had been taken. Byron knew that Durante was correct about avoiding a proper British trial if he had been taken to a British prison. However, Durante was now sure to get first-hand experience with Sierra Leone justice.
The terrified look on Durante’s face was one Byron would not soon forget as the jailers pushed him into a dark cell at the end of a stone-walled corridor slick with mold and lined with other heavy wood doors with tiny iron-barred windows behind which concealed other prisoners. The walls glowed with the weak flickers of orange candle light that barely chased away the aggressive shadows.
“Byron!” pleaded Durante through the iron bars that covered the door’s tiny window. As Byron prepared to leave, he stopped and turned to confront Durante whose face was contorted in both anger and fear. “You cannot do this. I’m a connected citizen of England and my family are leading members of The Society. You don’t have the authority to leave me here. If you do, your career will be over.”
Streaks of sweat dripped down Durante’s doughy face and he tightly gripped the rusty iron bars with both hands. “You don’t seriously think you’re going to end slavery do you? It will never end. The Society will see to that. Do you think those filthy animals deserve the same rights and freedoms as you and me? They’re a lower form of life. You’re wasting your time protecting them. I will be out of here! You just wait!”
“The Society…hmm. Well, in any case, I don’t think you’re leaving here any time soon Durante. I hope not, but you might be right about not ending slavery. Change comes hard, and sometimes not in our lifetimes.” Byron responded slowly and with a tone of weariness. He sighed and said, “But know this. It’s over for you. Of that you can be sure.“
As they exited the front door of the jail, they could hear a stream of curses being shouted by Durante, including a comment about the oil which made Byron stop in his tracks.
“We have the superior technology. Using our oil, our corporations, our money, The Society will take over the world from you people. Your precious America will fall. You’ll see…you will SEE!”
Lost in thought, they made their way back to Medusa without another word being said between them, except the echos of Durante in their heads.
Later that day, they secured The Feloz at the local Cockerill Bay shipyards. Byron deemed her to be in good company with two Royal Navy ships already berthed; the HMS Resistance, a large 36-gun Aigle Class ship that had taken on some damage while rounding the Cape last month, and the HMS Howe, a 24-gun mercantile store ship running goods and troops for the East India Company, and making another delivery to Freetown. In this shipyard, the Feloz would be refitted for Navy service, ensuring that she would never again be used for illegal privateering and slaverunning.
In celebration of their success with the Feloz, Byron gave his crew a week of much-welcomed shore leave. Unfortunately, that time passed all too quickly. Soon, the Medusa was once again on the open seas. They were acting on information that yet another slaverunner was operating in their vicinity. Four days out and over 120 miles off the coast of Mauritania, the weather began to change for the worse as large, heavy clouds rolled in giving the sky an almost nighttime appearance. The seas became white with foam. A tropical storm, fresh off the coasts of Africa, was bearing down on them.
Dressed in rain gear that never really kept the water out, Byron secured himself with ties to the ship-wheel, braced himself on the aft quarterdeck and glared out over a horizon that had vanished in tossing seas, foam, winds and mists. The Medusa lurched into a huge, dark watery trough, walls of screaming waters laced with green foam on each side of the ship and which threatened to swallow it whole.
“I…hate…” his thoughts yelled inside his head, “storms!” He could have given the wheel over to his helmsman and gone below decks, but he preferred instead to face the weather. He always did. This was not Byron’s first tropical storm and he was certain it would not be his last. After all, storms and oceans seemed a perfect pair, although tropical storms are of a different breed and come with their own personalities. The ship suddenly lunged upward, paused for what seemed an eternity as the entire bow of the ship reached for a sky filled with dark, boiling clouds. It then tossed to the right and slammed into another wall of water, sending up huge sprays of water and surf. As it did, Byron swore he heard the unnerving sounds of trumpeting elephants, roaring lions and canon fire…
The clattering carriage stopped with a jolt bringing Byron back to the present.
“We’ve arrived at Ashton Hall Commodore Schiff,” announced the muffled voice of the driver from overhead. Through the right-side door window, he could see the large red-bricked Ashton Building and its half-round front portico supported by white granite columns. Byron collected the ledgers, stuffed them into his carry case, and stepped out of the carriage. A short, sleight-of-build man was standing just outside the carriage door, the sun gleamed off his balding head.
“Commodore Schiff sir,” said the man, eagerly greeting Byron. He spoke quickly and in a high voice. He was immaculately dressed in a tight-fitting black top suit with a gold chain dropping into his left vest pocket. Small, wire-rimmed glasses hung low down on his sharp nose and he had the annoying habit of peering over them when he spoke.
‘They sent the bookkeeper out to greet me?’ Byron questioned in his mind.
“Welcome to Pitcher Shipyards and Ashton Hall,” said the man, “It is a definitive privilege to make your acquaintance. You’re right on time Commodore.”
Distrust of the man was Byron’s first instinct. The man looked like the bookkeeping type who always questioned his requests to stock extra cannon ball and rifle shot while engaged in heated skirmishes with the French fleet. He suppressed his thoughts and extended his right hand.
“It’s a… pleasure, of which I am certain, Mr…ah…”, said Byron.
“Charles Pitcher, Commodore Schiff,” he replied and extended his hand. Byron was taken aback. ‘This is Pitcher?’ he thought. He always trusted that handshakes were the best way to learn the making of a man. The handshake felt weak, clammy. Byron retracted his hand quickly but resisted the urge to wipe them on his pants.
“You have a fine shipyard Mr. Pitcher,” stated Byron haltingly as he watched the carriage pull away for its return trip back to Gravesend. For a moment, he felt the impulse to chase after it. He turned back to Pitcher and looked over his shoulder at the three ships berthed in the quay.
“Thank you. We’re proud of the work being done here. We have plans to expand the yard into the Northfleet moorings which will give us capacity to handle up to twelve more ships,” he bragged, then continued, “ I see you’ve noticed our latest? The ship on the right is the Kent and your newest command. She just finished her trials last week,” stated Charles, looking more than a little pleased with himself. “Her trial runs are difficult to believe.”
“Yes they are,” said Byron. “I was reviewing those numbers on the way here this morning.”
“Well, Commodore,” said Charles, pausing a taking a deep breath. “I understand The Kent is part of the reason you’re here. I realize that you must have a great deal of questions regarding the transfer of command and your orders?” asked Charles.
To Byron, it was the understatement of his naval career. He had nothing but questions after he had reviewed the briefing for a second time the night before. The command-level briefing papers were seriously lacking in details and were presented with none of the traditional ceremonial command transfer processes. In spite of the lack of information and a depressing lack of pomp and circumstance, orders were orders, and his position with The Membership left him no choice but to report back to England.
As both he and Charles started to walk toward the steps that lead up to the portico of Ashton Hall, Byron reflected back on the day he received the orders for command transfer. The orders were given to him from a common clerk at the Royal Navy yard at Freetown. Immediately upon opening the documents, he saw the highly recognizable symbol of The Membership emblazoned across the top of the sealed document indicating it was from The Membership, just above the Royal Navy emblem.
Byron had never received an order of this type in his career, but as part of The Membership, he knew the implications. He made immediate travel arrangements and awaited arrival of the ship that would take him to England. During the wait, Byron handed over command of the South Atlantic Fleet to Commodore Frank Paddock, a capable, but uninspired officer who was simply waiting out his time to retire from the Royal Navy.
Sierra Leone, with its sun swept beaches and graceful palm trees, was a beautiful place to stay, but the vague transfer orders made him impatient. He tried to imagine what it was all about as he took leisurely strolls on the white beaches. After a week, his transport arrived. It was the sixth rate HMS Andromeda which was a small, but capable frigate. Byron was more than ready to set sail. He sealed Admiral Jamison Thorpe’s orders, ensuring no one else would view them, and boarded for England. It was an aggravating two weeks of uneventful weather, pacing the decks and trying to second-guess the meaning of his orders. The high points of the trip were the endless dull conversations with the ship’s captain who had to be the most boring person he had ever met in her majesty’s Royal Navy.
Returning his thoughts to the present and as they walked up a short flight of stairs that lead up the large portico, Byron said, “I have to admit Mr. Pitcher, I most assuredly have questions. What could possibly be more important than putting a damper on The Corporation and its attempts to keep the bad business of slaverunning? The Medusa and the South Atlantic Fleet had captured eight runners in less than six months’ time.”
“I understand sir. And trust me, I played no part in the decision. But I should say this. You are the right man for the job. Let there be no doubt about that. But let us say no more of this matter. We must wait to discuss your purpose when we are inside and behind closed doors. This is a delicate situation best handled by the gentlemen you are about to meet. They currently await your arrival,” Charles informed Byron as they passed through the doors and into the building. He pulled out the pocket watch and quickly glanced at it. As they walked, Charles pointed out various departments that opened unto a cavernous hallway paneled completely with dark wood. He was quite proud of his new building and the shipyard he owned. Along the walls, hung dark, serious portraits of men Byron did not recognize. He thought they were most likely members of the Pitcher family because they looked like Charles. At the end of the hallway were a set of tall, wood paneled doors.
Beyond, Byron could hear the muffled, but raised voices of several people trying to talk over one another. A heated dispute was underway on the other side of the doors. Charles reached for the brass handles, but hesitated for a brief second. Finding his resolve, he smiled animatedly, stepped forward and pushed open the two doors with a flourish.
‘Pitcher definitely has a flair for the theater,’ thought Byron cynically. ‘He needs to spend a few nights on the Medusa in the midst of a tropical storm and some real drama.’
(I might post Chapter 2--still deciding)