Work Sets You Free
“Work Sets You Free,” by David Barnett, is an original short story featuring the protagonist of the forthcoming novel Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (Tor Books [US] and Snowbooks [UK], September 2013). Gideon is a young fisherman in Yorkshire, England, in an alternate 1890, who embarks on a journey to find Captain Lucian Trigger, the famed Hero of the Empire, to deal with a mystery plaguing his home village. This story takes place as the naive Gideon sets off for London, but on the way encounters a very dark side to the British Empire's insatiable hunger for resources....
This original novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Claire Eddy.
What did it mean to be a hero?
It was a question Gideon Smith asked himself with increasing frequency as he strode along a road that became a track that became little more than a river of mud, the endless rain sluicing him from the black sky, tall hedges on either side giving him little clue as to where he was.
What did it mean to be a hero?
Back in Sandsend, the little Yorkshire fishing village where nothing happened, ever, they would be locking their doors against the creeping sea-mist, and—though few among the hardy trawlerman stock would admit it—against the tales of viciously fanged monsters abroad in the thick, yellow fog. Tales spread by the tongues of children, but coming so close after Gideon’s father had been lost at sea, his trawler the Cold Drake abandoned and lifeless on the morning tide.
In nearby Whitby the writer Bram Stoker would be sharpening his wooden stakes, searching now by himself for the blood-sucking ancient evil he believed had come ashore and was terrorising the countryside.
And Gideon had left them, left Stoker alone to tackle his Transylvanian vampire, left Sandsend at the mercy of the black-eyed creatures that stalked the mists. Whatever it meant to be a hero, Gideon Smith wasn’t it. But somewhere in Queen Victoria’s London, beneath the tracks of the rushing stilt-trains, in the shadows of the dirigibles passing high overhead, among the many miracles that were daily occurrences in the capital of the British Empire in the year 1890, he would find a hero. He would find the only man who could tackle the enemies and mysteries piling up to plague Sandsend. He would find Captain Lucian Trigger, the Hero of the Empire, whose globe-spanning adventures were recounted every week in Gideon’s favourite story paper, World Marvels & Wonders.
Captain Trigger would not be slopping through the mud like this in pitch blackness, with no idea how far he was from London. Gideon had begged a lift from a mail coach out of Whitby, but had been put off in the middle of nowhere. With each step he wondered if he was as insane as they thought him in Sandsend, with his tales of savagely clawed fiends and mysterious deaths at sea. They would tell him that he was grieving for his father, that he should be organising the funeral, preparing to inherit the Cold Drake and fish the seas off Sandsend, as Arthur Smith had done and as Gideon Smith was expected to.
He might have turned back, then, sodden and miserable and trying not to think about his father, lost at sea, had the track not widened and become firmer underfoot, and had he not spotted a light in the distance, towards which he began to trot with renewed vigour.
It was a way station of some description, an old coaching inn. Gideon might be able to use his meagre resources to beg for a bed for the night, even if it had to be in the stables. He peered through the driving rain; there was a vehicle parked outside, what looked like a long steam-omnibus. Even closer was the faint glow of a tobacco pipe, attached to a dark figure sheltering in the lee of the omnibus.
Gideon got close enough to hail him, a short, wiry man with a rattish face dominated by a huge, gout-ridden nose, dressed in a shapeless brown suit and with a battered derby on his head.
“Looking for a ride?” said the man as Gideon joined him in the shelter of the vast, black-painted vehicle. It was a grand thing. He held out a gnarled hand. “Name’s Cattermole.”
Gideon took the proffered hand warily. “Gideon Smith.”
Cattermole nodded. “Well, Gideon Smith. Need a ride, do you?”
Gideon nodded. “I’m bound for London.”
Cattermole rubbed his chin, taking in Gideon’s bedraggled appearance, the dark, curly hair plastered to his forehead and collar. “Mighty expensive, getting to London. Still, there are ways to travel, for those as are in the know. If you know what I mean.”
“Not really,” said Gideon.
Cattermole smiled. “I can get you on this omnibus heading south. Mighty fine vehicle. Sprung seats, food and drink laid on.”
Gideon regarded him suspiciously. “And how much does that cost?”
Cattermole leaned in close, and Gideon wrinkled his nose at the man’s foul breath. “That’s the thing, Mr Smith. Not a penny. Not even a ha’penny. Free, gratis, and for nothing.”
Gideon looked away. “You’re taking me for a fool, Mr Cattermole. Try someone else.”
Cattermole laid a hand on Gideon’s arm. “Not so rash, Mr Smith.” He paused. “My, you’re a strong feller, ain’t you? Just the sort to get passage on the omnibus. They don’t let just anyone on, you know.”
“And who are they?”
Cattermole led Gideon around the vehicle to the side door, where there were two dozen or so men milling around it, and beyond them figures in long black gowns and headdresses.
“This is the Ascension,” said Cattermole. “And them is they. The Impoverished Sisterhood of the Stony Resurrection.”
“Nuns?” said Gideon.
“Exactly,” said Cattermole. “Nuns.”
“And they . . . they what? Take people as a charitable gesture or something?”
“Exactly, Mr Smith. Brains as well as brawn, I see. A charitable gesture. You get on the omnibus, signs a form, and off you all go.”
Gideon’s eyes narrowed. “A form? What kind of form?”
“Oh, the usual,” said Cattermole airily. “They got to feel they’re getting something back for their charitable gesture, see. They’ll want you to sign a form saying you’ll devote your life to the service of the Almighty. Just a formality, of course. I mean, who doesn’t devote their life to the service of the Almighty anyway? Like I said, just a formality.”
“And they don’t want any money at all?” said Gideon.
Cattermole shrugged. “You being there and signing the form is payment enough for them nuns.”
Gideon pondered for a moment. His dad had always said that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was. He looked at Cattermole. “What’s your part in all this?”
Cattermole looked at his hands. “Just doing my bit for the Sisterhood,” he said. “Part of my life of service to the Almighty, and all that.” He glanced around. “Anyway, you interested? If not I’ll move on, find some other passengers.”
“All right,” Gideon decided. “Take me to the Sisterhood.”
Cattermole showed him two rows of rotten tooth stumps. “Good lad. Soon be on your way.”
Gideon allowed Cattermole to lead him to the knot of men waiting in the rain on the muddy track outside the coaching inn. They were all somewhat down at heel, their boots worn and patched, their shapeless clothing ragged with the memory of better days and bad times. Gideon stood alongside a man wearing little more than tattered rags whose lined face and callused hands spoke of a lifetime of toil. He looked kindly at Gideon and smiled.
Gideon held out his hand. “Gideon Smith, of Sandsend.”
The man shook his hand. “James Prudence, of all over the place. I go wherever the work is.”
“You’re headed to London, too?”
James’s eyes shone in his grimy face. “I done forty years of hard work on farms, in mills, on the sea. Wherever it is. Then I had a word with myself. Said to myself, James, why you work your hands to the bone day in, day out, year in, year out, for just enough money to put bread in your mouth, and sometimes not even that? Why not go to London, and find work there? I done time as a gamekeeper, in me youth. Maybe I’ll find work in the zoo, tending the elephants and whatnot. You?”
“London.” Gideon nodded. “Not for work, though. Trying to find someone. Do you know Captain Lucian Trigger?”
James smiled. “The Hero of the Empire, from the penny magazines? What do you want him for?”
“Trouble back home,” said Gideon. “And only he can help.”
“Then you’ll find him in London, if you’ve a mind to,” said James. “Everybody who’s anybody is in London.” He straightened up. “Aye, look, they’re opening the doors.”
There was a driver in a smart black uniform and three nuns, all with scrubbed, plain faces and broad smiles. One of them, brandishing a clipboard, stepped forwards and cleared her throat. She said, “Gentlemen. My name is Sister Annunciata and I welcome you most warmly to the embrace of the Impoverished Sisterhood of the Stony Resurrection. I can see that you have all had hard lives, that you are no strangers to hard work. Please allow yourselves a moment’s respite from the privations of life, relax on board the Ascension, and avail yourselves of the food and drink we have on board.”
There was an agreeable murmur from the gathered men. Sister Annunciata said, “When you step on board the Ascension you are freeing yourselves from the shackles of your old lives. You are entering into service with God. Allow us to carry you, in comfort, to your new lives.”
There was a round of spontaneous applause, and Sister Annunciata smiled broadly and handed the clipboard to another of the nuns, who sheltered it from the rain beneath her wide wimple. “Please step up, one by one, and give your names, ages, and recent work history, if any, to Sister Margaret Mary, then please be seated on the Ascension and we shall very shortly be on our way.”
When Gideon got to the doors of the omnibus he waited while James gave Sister Margaret Mary a potted history of his employment, which ran to half of her page, then told the nun his name. “I’m twenty-four next birthday,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ve only ever been a fisherman.”
“A most noble pursuit.” The sister smiled. “Our Lord himself commanded his disciples to be fishers of men.” She cocked her head on one side and surveyed him. “You look to be a strong specimen, Mr Smith. Strong indeed.”
Gideon felt himself flush. “How long will it take to get to London?” he asked.
“We shall make good time to our destination.” Sister Margaret Mary smiled.
“I am rather tired,” he said. “I should like to sleep on the omnibus. Will someone wake me before we get to London?”
She smiled again. “You shall be awake well before London, Mr Smith. Now, if I could trouble you for your signature, or mark?”
Gideon tried to read the closely typed form that the nun held out to him, but all he could make out was something about a lifetime of servitude to the Lord, just as Cattermole had said. Gideon shrugged and scrawled his name, and climbed aboard the omnibus.
The aisle between the rows of double seats was wide and thickly carpeted and Gideon took a seat near the window halfway down. The omnibus was well insulated and he could feel a current of cool air flowing over his face from somewhere above. The Sisterhood might be Impoverished, but they had spared no expense with the Ascension. James sat down beside him and looked around reverently.
“Grand, this is, Gideon. Grand as anything I’ve seen.” He smiled broadly as one of the nuns pushed a small cart along the aisle, handing out mugs of tea poured from a huge silver pot and sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper. “Aye,” said James, looking with watering eyes at his corned beef sandwich. “As grand as anything I’ve seen. God bless the Impoverished Sisterhood of the Stony Resurrection.”
As the driver fired up the omnibus, Gideon saw the nun Sister Annunciata talking with Cattermole. From within her habit she produced a roll of money, and he took it with an obsequious bow. So he wasn’t just working for the furtherance of the Almighty, then, thought Gideon. Sister Annunciata joined the Ascension and the omnibus motored smoothly along the dirt track, the hedges brushing the vehicle on either side. The furnace and coal supplies were hidden in the bowels of the vehicle, and the Ascension built up an impressive head of steam. Gideon watched the dark countryside flash past through the window, and James spoke in animated tones about the London Zoo, where they had snakes as long as five men laid down head to toe, great white sharks swimming in massive vats of brine, herds of elephants from Africa and India. There was even an empty enclosure waiting for the fabulous, extinct beasts that Professor Rubicon had vowed to bring back from the Lost World he was convinced lay on an island hidden in the uncharted regions of the Pacific Ocean. Gideon’s eyes began to droop as James’s voice lulled him into a state of drowsy relaxation, and soon he was snoring gently.
Gideon was in a deep, dreamless sleep when James nudged him awake. He blinked and yawned, and peered through the window. It was still the middle of the night, and the omnibus was shuddering into a gravel courtyard. He could make out what looked like a big house, shrouded in darkness. He said, “Are we in London already?”
“No.” James frowned. “Nowhere near. Somewhere south of Leicester, I think, perhaps even into Warwickshire. Maybe we’re stopping to take on more coal.”
Sister Annunciata appeared at the front of the omnibus while the other nuns lit gas lamps along the interior of the carriage. “Gentlemen,” she said. “I trust you all had an agreeable journey?”
“Why have we stopped?” called out a voice.
Sister Annunciata smiled again. To Gideon, it seemed to be the smile of one of those great white sharks James had been going on about. “We need to rest, in preparation for the next leg of the journey. You will each be given a bed and water, and breakfast in the morning.”
“Then we go on to London?” asked Gideon.
Sister Annunciata smiled her shark’s smile. “Please leave the Ascension in single file and follow Sister Margaret Mary to the abbey.”
Gideon stood and followed James along the aisle and to the doors. The building ahead of them was indeed an abbey, in the simple, austere style that Gideon recognised from a description in an old Captain Trigger adventure as being in the Cistercian manner. There was a single, low tower rising from the stone walls, and at the front of the building two wide, double oak doors were being opened, letting the light from oil lamps within illuminate the courtyard. Gideon couldn’t see beyond the abbey, but all around the gravel yard in which the Ascension had parked there were high walls. Behind them, a pair of strong wooden gates were being closed.
“Welcome to Colliery Abbey.” Sister Annunciata smiled. “Our home.”
“Home?” said Gideon.
She nodded. “The home of the Impoverished Sisterhood of the Stony Resurrection.”
Gideon followed the line of men into the cold, stone corridors of the abbey, which were spartanly furnished and dimly lit. There were several nuns of the Sisterhood, handing out blankets and cups of tepid water. The men were taken down a corridor to a series of doors and Gideon and James were shown inside a small room, little more than a cell, with two bare wooden bunks and a wooden bucket.
“We shall call you for breakfast,” said the nun.
“And what time will we depart for London?” asked Gideon.
“You will get all your answers at breakfast.” The nun nodded, and pulled the door closed behind her. Gideon heard the finality of a key turning in the lock and when he tugged the door it was shut tight.
“We’re locked in,” he said, turning to James.
James was already arranging his blankets on one of the bunks. “No sense worrying about it. I’m sure a place full of nuns doesn’t want strange men wandering about the place. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting some more kip. I wonder what they’re laying on for breakfast?”
As James began to snore almost immediately after lying down, Gideon sat on the hard bunk and gathered his blanket around him, staring at the locked door. He had no idea where he was or how far from London the abbey lay. A very bad feeling began to fester in his gut.
Gideon must have dozed, because he awoke, still sitting and his neck aching, as six loud, booming bell tolls sounded. James stretched on his bunk and said, “Slept like a baby. They mentioned breakfast, yes?”
Keys rattled in the door and it was flung open, and Gideon and James joined the other men as they were led along the corridors to a large hall, laid out with many long trestle tables. It was empty save for the two dozen of them who had travelled down on the Ascension, who were all instructed to sit at the tables nearest the back wall, which seemed to be formed of large, windowless doors. Gideon heard a background hum of machinery and mechanical noise as he sat down next to James. Plates of bacon and eggs were brought out, and strong coffee and water supplied in large jugs. While they ate, the nuns waited beneath a portrait of Queen Victoria on the wall, then called for quiet as the door they had entered the room by opened again and a small, hunched nun with a lined, stern face and wearing a more elaborate wimple than the other sisters entered and took her place facing the men.
“Gentlemen,” she said in a strong tone that belied her aged appearance. “I am the Abbess, and I welcome you to Colliery Abbey. I trust you slept well, and have breakfasted heartily?”
There were murmurs from the men, mostly quiet dissent, thought Gideon. The Abbess smiled thinly. “That is good, for there is much work to do. I thank you all for taking passage on the Ascension, and for vowing to devote your life to God’s work.”
Gideon paused, the cup of coffee at his lips. He had a bad feeling about this.
The Abbess said, “Before we begin, however, I would like to tell you something of our Lord. Following his betrayal and death on the cross for your sins, he was buried in the cool earth. Mark chapter fifteen tells us how Joseph of Arimathea begged the body of Christ from Pontius Pilate: And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.
“It was the rock, the earth, into which the body of Christ was entombed that held him in trust until the time of the Ascension, when he rose to join his Heavenly Father at his right hand in paradise. Thus, the earth gives life, and continues to give life to us today, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety. Sisters . . .”
At the command of the Abbess, the nuns began to unfasten the doors at the back of the hall and slide them back, revealing the hidden scene at the rear of the abbey. Gideon gaped as sunshine flooded the hall and unveiled the vast field that stretched out beyond the doors. The noise became louder and its source apparent; Colliery Abbey was aptly named, for beyond the buildings lay the ravaged landscape of a coal mine, with three sets of tall pithead gear. There were men dressed in rags crawling over the site, pushing huge wheeled tubs of black coal along tracks that crisscrossed the land and, Gideon guessed, many more toiling underground. Now he understood why the hall had so many tables. There must have been hundreds of men working in the abbey’s deep mines. Tentatively, he raised his hand.
“I, uh, understood I was going to London . . .” said Gideon, to silence from the other men.
The Abbess frowned at him. “And who told you that?”
Gideon paused. The nuns had, in fact, never mentioned London. Neither had that weaslly swine Cattermole, now he came to think of it. He put his hand down and glowered. He had been duped. “You expect us to work in your mine to pay for our passage?”
The Abbess shook her head. “Just as the earth gave renewed life to Jesus, so it gives power to the Empire. London’s interests across the globe depend on the coal that fires a million furnaces. The Impoverished Sisters of the Stony Resurrection have made it their lives’ works to provide, in part, this coal. As Christ ascended to Heaven, thus does England ascend to glory, on coal mined at Colliery Abbey. So, no, I do not expect you to pay for your passage by working in our mine, sir.” She held out her hand and was given a piece of paper, which she read with narrowed eyes. “No, Mr Gideon Smith of Sandsend, not pay for your passage. You have signed this release vowing that you will spend your life working for the Lord.” The Abbess swept her hand towards the mines. “Welcome to your life’s work.”
Still numb, Gideon allowed himself to be organised into a work detail with James and half a dozen other men who had travelled on the Ascension with them, and led into the grounds of the colliery that spread out behind the abbey. He squinted in the morning sun at the high walls that surrounded the huge site. A middle-aged nun armed with a wooden clipboard checked off all their names with a pencil and said, “You gentlemen are lucky. You are to get close-up experience of the work we do here in the name of the Lord. Follow me.”
Gideon fell into line with the others as the nun marched towards the brick-and-wood tower of the nearest pithead winding gear. Eventually he found his voice and murmured to James, “This is ridiculous. They can’t expect us to stay here and work in the mines, surely?”
James shrugged. “We signed the papers.”
Gideon glared at James with fury. “So you are just going to accept it? Spend the rest of your life working here? What about London Zoo? The great white sharks?”
James didn’t turn around. “Like I told you. I go where the work is. These nuns put on a good table. They put a roof over our heads. I’ve been in worse jobs. And let’s face it, London Zoo was just a stupid dream.”
“But we’re prisoners,” hissed Gideon. James shrugged again in front of him and said nothing.
The nun led them to a broad-shouldered man with a craggy face, ridged with lines inlaid with what seemed to Gideon to be years of coal dust. He appraised them with a furrowed brow as the sister said, “New recruits for you, Mr Denholme. Fresh off the Ascension last night.”
Against the rhythmic backdrop of muted clanking and hammering from deep beneath their feet, Denholme looked them up and down. “Had a good sleep? Had a hearty breakfast? You’ll need it. Hard work ahead of you, chaps.”
There was a murmur from the men, which Gideon found maddeningly obsequious. Were they just going to accept their fates like cattle bound for the abattoir? The sister squinted at Gideon, and said, “Oh, and watch the one at the back. Our Mr Smith.”
Denholme smiled without humour. “Dissenter, is he?”
The nun nodded. “Thought he was bound for London, for some strange reason.”
“There’s always one,” said Denholme.
“So where are the others?” said Gideon. “The other dissenters? Have they left?”
Denholme barked a dry, dusty laugh. “Left? Mr Smith, is it? You think workers just walk out of Colliery Abbey? Take a look.”
Gideon followed Denholme’s outstretched arm and looked more closely at the stone walls that surrounded the site. There were towers with sloping wooden roofs at intervals along the boundary, and evidently some kind of walkway along the top of the walls. He could make out nuns in the towers and occasionally patrolling the walls. He looked closer. Were they armed? With rifles?
Denholme nodded appreciatively. “The other dissenters do what everyone else does. Buckle down and work, in service of the Lord.” He gave an unpleasant grin. “Some need more persuasion than others. Now come with me, gentlemen, and I shall show you your new place of gainful employment.”
The winding gear was double-headed, and thick steel cables plunged deep into a black shaft that was fenced off with wire. One of the sets of cables was winding with a terrible, protesting sound and a group of men were waiting with barrows and shovels for the huge skip, brimming with glistening lumps of black coal, which it fetched up to ground level. One of the men unfastened catches at the wall of the bin and the coal tumbled forwards, to be swiftly shovelled into the barrows by the men.
Denholme pointed to the far end of the site, where Gideon could make out a squat steam engine sitting on a set of dead-end rails. “That coal goes into those trucks and off to all corners of the Empire. You will work in the satisfaction that the coal you dig will fuel Queen Victoria’s reign for many years to come. Now, any of you fine lads done pit work before?”
James nodded and raised a hand. “Aye. Did a bit up near Newcastle.”
“Excellent,” said Denholme. “Well, time’s wasting and there’s no better opportunity to get to work. Let’s get to the nub of the matter, shall we?”
Denholme punched a large button on a trailing line and the other set of cables began to wind quickly up, bringing into view an open-topped cage, just big enough for all the men to climb into. Gideon was the last one in, looking doubtfully at the black hole that extended God knew how far beneath his feet. He looked at Denholme. “How did you get into this work?”
“Same as everyone.” Denholme shrugged. “I was looking for employment and was lucky enough to meet with the Sisterhood, over at Manchester Piccadilly. Six years back, now. I worked hard and kept my head down, and eventually made supervisor.” He smiled at Gideon. “You do the same, and who knows? Perhaps you can have my job when I get too old for it.”
Gideon stepped into the cage and felt the abyss beneath prick at the soles of his feet. Denholme wrenched the cage shut and hit the button again, and they began to descend into the blackness with a sickening lurch and at a velocity that brought the taste of bacon back into his mouth. As the daylight above shrank to a tiny square and the hot wind whistled past his ears, he felt panic rising in his gut along with his breakfast. Gideon Smith had spent a lifetime on the open sea, or near it. He had never been indoors, save for the happy hours spent in the cottage with his father. And they expected him to give his life over to toiling in this hellish hole?
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he muttered, sweat pricking his brow.
“Ho,” said Denholme. “A panicker as well as a dissenter.”
Gideon looked around wildly, felt sick to his toes. Beneath him the cavernous shaft yawned like a hungry mouth, a hungry mouth reaching greedily up to him with invisible hands, to pull him into the blackness.
“I can’t do it,” he said, squaring up to Denholme. “Take us back up top. I’ll do anything but this.”
Denholme casually swatted Gideon away, into the arms of James, who took a firm hold of Gideon’s shoulders. “It’s all right, lad,” he murmured. “It gets people like that, sometimes. You’ll get used to it.”
Used to it? He’d die first. And that wasn’t a melodramatic boast. At last the cage shuddered to a clanking halt. They stepped out of the cave into blackness punctuated by the dim glow of oil lamps, James supporting Gideon. It was a wide cavern, but low, little taller than Gideon. Wooden joists with steel plates attached held up the black ceiling. As Gideon’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom he could make out several tunnels branching off the main space, with chalked numbers by each square hole.
“We’ll be taking tunnel five,” said Denholme. “Branching off into subtunnel D.”
There was a rattling of cables and Gideon saw the skip that had been unloaded on the surface clanking down beside the lift. There were tracks built into the ground, and from one of the tunnels three sweating men, stripped to the waist, pushed a small truck heaped high with lumps of coal. He took deep breaths, keeping his eye on the truck as he fought to bring his hammering heart under control, then followed the rest of his work detail down the tunnel marked with a chalked 5, and into the subtunnel, which brought up sharply against a sheer face of coal. There was an empty truck and several pickaxes leaning against the wall.
“It’s hot,” said Gideon.
Denholme smiled thinly. “That’s because you’re closer to Hell. We’re stealing coal from under the Devil’s nose, lad.”
Denholme lit another three oil lamps and hung them on hooks driven into the rough walls. “It’s tough work, but not difficult to grasp. Take those picks, hack at the wall, and fill this truck with coal. When you’ve done that, push it back along the tracks to the main shaft, and fill up the skip.”
James grabbed a pick and hefted it in his hands. “Off we go, then, lads. Let’s see if we can’t earn ourselves a reputation as the hardest-working team in the colliery.”
Gideon stared at him in the gloom. Denholme said, “That’s the spirit. There’s a bucket of water yonder, make sure you have plenty because you’ll dry out quickly down here. I’m going back up top, and I’ll come and get you when it’s time for lunch.”
When Denholme had gone, Gideon whispered to James, “I’ve got a plan. I’m going to get into the truck and hide in the coal in the skip. I reckon I can sneak into the train and be out of here with the next shipment.”
“I’ll have no part in that,” said James gruffly. He forced a pick into Gideon’s hands. “We signed a contract. We’ve got a job to do. Get to work.”
As James took another tool and began to haul it at the coal face, Gideon considered burying his own pick into the back of his stupid head. Instead, he set his jaw and hacked at the wall, grimacing as he was showered with dust and sharp pinpricks of coal. At least focussing on the work pushed aside the thoughts of the tons and tons of rock and earth between him and the blue sky. He couldn’t count on James, though. He would just have to find another way out by himself.
When Gideon heard the series of bells ringing, he thought he was hallucinating. Despite the oil lamps, the darkness seemed to have thickened during the morning’s work, and each breath he took came ragged and dusty into his lungs. Sweat prickled his brow and ran into his eyes, and he had long-since stripped off his shirt. His muscles ached and his mouth felt as dry as glass paper, despite frequent sips from the bucket of water, which was warm and brackish and had a film of black dust on top. Then Denholme, carrying an oil lamp aloft, appeared behind them and told them to down tools.
“Snap time, lads,” he said. He looked at the half-full truck. “How many of these you done?”
“This is our third,” said James proudly.
“Good work.” Denholme nodded appreciatively. “You’ve earned a break. Come on.” He looked at Gideon. “There’s something going on might interest you as well, lad.”
Denholme would say no more but took them back to the main shaft and up into the lift. Gideon had never been more happy to see daylight, to feel the sun on his head. He had half feared some apocalypse had robbed the world of the yellow orb he thankfully saw high in the sky. He looked back at the steel cage and blanched. He could barely bear to even think of going down into that hot, airless shaft again.
It was the first time that Gideon had seen in its entirety the body of men who worked the abbey colliery. There were perhaps two hundred, all lining up to wash off the coal dust or sweat in several barrels of water, before drying off on blackened towels and redonning their shirts, then heading into the dining hall. He wondered why they had never tried to storm the walls and simply run away. Even given the presence of the armed nuns patrolling the towers and walkways, surely the weight of numbers would ensure success . . . ? Then he noticed James’s face, smiling broadly at a good morning’s work, and saw the expression replicated all around him. These men were happy to be here. They had been given jobs. Given purpose. No matter that they were little more than prisoners in a labour camp. They were the sort of men who needed someone to tell them what to do, and were more than glad to follow orders. Gideon plunged his head into the barrel of water, gasping at the cold, allowing it to wash away the dullness he had felt creeping up on him in the depths of the mine. If he was going to get out, he was going to have to go it alone.
Despite himself, Gideon ate heartily of the cold meats and vegetables laid out on the long tables, and drank deeply of the weak beer the nuns served up. As the men were finishing their meal, the Abbess stood at the head of the room and clapped her hands together for attention.
“Gentlemen,” she said. “Today is rather a special day for Colliery Abbey, because we are saying good-bye to one of our number.”
Gideon perked up. Saying good-bye? So people did leave the abbey? At the Abbess’s prompting, a thickset man with a bald head and a drooping white moustache, flecked with coal dust, stood up beside her.
“Alois came to us two years ago,” she said, laying a thin hand on his broad shoulder. “He had been a customs official in Austria, but fell on hard times when the war between France and Spain spilled over into the Germanic countries. He was forced to come looking for work in England, and was lucky enough to meet the Ascension in Bristol.
“Unbeknown to Alois he had left his wife, Klara, with child. The family has been looking for Alois all this time, and finally came to us yesterday with the news that in April last year, Klara gave birth to a healthy boy. What is he called, Alois?”
“Adolf,” said the Austrian proudly.
“Young Adolf,” said the Abbess. “In light of this, we are releasing Alois from his contract to return to the bosom of his family. But we know that he will take with him the lessons he has learned here at the abbey, and that his time here has been well spent.”
Alois nodded enthusiastically, and said in heavily accented English, “I am very grateful to the Sisterhood for giving me this opportunity, and I will bring up my boy with the principles impressed upon me by the Abbess.”
She smiled indulgently. “And what will you tell Adolf of your time here, Alois?”
He beamed. “Work sets you free.”
“Could a young boy have a better start in life?” asked the Abbess. “Alois will be leaving tomorrow evening with the Ascension, which is due on a recruitment drive in Liverpool. I know we all wish him well. Alois Hitler, everyone—a credit to the abbey and an inspiration to us all.”
There was a robust round of applause and several of the workers stood to mill around Alois and congratulate him. Gideon joined them and the Abbess looked coolly at him. She said quietly, “So you see, Mr Smith, we are not monsters here. Quite the opposite.”
Gideon wondered just how much pressure had been put upon the Abbess to free Hitler by his government, but let it pass. He gave the old man a pat on the back and went out into the sunshine, where James was having a smoke before the afternoon shift started. He looked at Gideon. “Settling in any better?”
“Never,” spat Gideon. “This is . . . inhuman.”
James took a long, thoughtful drag of his cigarette. “Back in Newcastle, when I worked the pit, they had children doing some of the jobs we’re doing today. Children, Gideon. You want to talk inhuman? At least the Sisterhood is keeping the bairns out of the mines.”
Three workers in clean overalls and with blue armbands on their left sleeves passed by as Gideon ruminated on this. He said, “Who are they?”
Denholme, who was striding up, answered. “Crew of the Ascension. It needs six to keep moving. Uses an awful lot of coal in its double furnace, beneath the main carriage.”
“And how does one get to crew the Ascension?” wondered Gideon aloud.
Denholme laughed. “It takes more than one morning’s work down the pit. Only trusted workers who have put in their time get to make the grade.” He looked appraisingly at Gideon. “Something to work towards, perhaps. Who knows, give it ten years, you might be wearing that blue armband. Now come on, you lot, back to work. That coal isn’t going to dig itself.”
Gideon trailed the other men as they went with a hateful jollity back towards the mineshaft. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do one more afternoon down there, let alone the rest of his life. He could barely breathe even thinking about it. He stopped and surveyed the high walls, the nuns patrolling with their rifles. Surely they wouldn’t . . . they were nuns. Nuns didn’t shoot people. They didn’t keep men as slaves. Gideon shook his head. He wasn’t going to put up with it a moment longer. He was fast, and strong, and young. He could do it.
Throwing his tools to the ground he set off at a sprint towards the nearest wall. It was made of rows of stone setts, which afforded plenty of hand and footholds. There were shouts and he could hear the sound of running feet behind him, but he simply picked up his pace. Ahead, high on the walls, the nuns gaped at him for a moment, then looked at one another, as if unsure what to do. Gideon kept running, the wind blowing his hair behind him, the beautiful, free wind that had coasted along from God knew where. No, they would never take him back down there. He would rather die. A group of ragged, coal-black men scattered in front of him and Gideon leapt onto the truck they had been pushing, launching himself off it and towards the wall, which he clung to like a cat. Above him he heard the distinct sound of the rifles being cocked but he didn’t care. Better to be riddled with bullets while aiming for freedom than live a slave.
“Wait! Don’t shoot!” sounded a voice from behind him.
Gideon ignored it and continued to climb, but felt a firm hand grasp his belt. He turned as he was pulled from the wall to see the grim face of James Prudence, with Denholme and the others running up.
“You bloody fool,” hissed James, then punched him hard in the face, and with dismay Gideon sank into a black pit once more.
Somewhere in the darkness, hovering between sleep and wakefulness, Gideon heard the chiding voice—or at least, what he imagined the voice to sound like, as he’d never heard it, of course—of Captain Lucian Trigger.
Have you learned nothing?
Gideon struggled to sit up, but blind and bodiless he failed.
Have you learned nothing? All those years, reading my adventures . . .
“But what would you do?” said Gideon into the void.
Gideon thought. Gideon remembered. The pages of adventures he had devoured every week, the knowledge that had filled him since he was a small child, every single Lucian Trigger episode springboarding him into yet more learning, weekly trips to the library in Whitby to consult maps of the world and trace Trigger’s far-flung voyages, huge historical tomes, books on science and nature.
What of when Trigger was trapped by the Sasquatch in the North American forests, tracking a party of French hunters who had taken to raiding the settlements on the hinterlands of the British American territories?
What of Trigger’s incarceration in the dreaded Castle of Ice in the depths of the Antarctic wasteland?
What of the Bottomless Pit in Rangoon, the Temple of Rats in Jaipur, the Rhinegold Trap? What of the Texan bandits who tried to take him in the wild badlands north of the Mason-Dixon Wall, Queen Victoria’s response to those southern states who seceded from British rule in protest against the abolition of slavery?
What of Trigger’s time in Bedlam?
Hypnotised by the German villain Markus Mesmer, Trigger was taken to the madhouse, to the Royal Bethlem Hospital. What was it Trigger had said during that adventure? Already it was becoming clear to me that brawn would not win the day.
How had he escaped? Think. Think.
The laundry. He had hidden in the laundry baskets being taken out of the hospital.
In the darkness, he felt that Trigger must have smiled.
Even when the fox is caught in the trap, his cunning is undiminished.
Gideon stood by the window on the fifth floor of the infirmary and watched the sun sinking. The whistle had just blown for the end of the day’s shift, and the men, dirty and tired, were streaming from the three shafts to the dining hall far below where he stood. He tried to pick out James Prudence from the river of dusty men, but they all looked alike from that distance. Gideon wondered if James had earned himself some special privileges for so heroically foiling his escape attempt. An extra portion of meat at supper, perhaps. Another ladle of boiling water for his bath. Gideon hoped James was feeling pleased with himself. He’d taken Gideon out with one punch of his meaty fist, spreading his nose across his face, or so it felt like. Gideon stepped back and inspected his ghostly reflection in the thick glass. His eyes were rimmed with black bruising and his nose was swollen and delicate. His head hurt at the back where it had snapped back against the stone wall, knocking him out. He’d woken an hour ago, in the metal cot in the infirmary, a young nun who refused to meet his eyes arranging a jug of water and a cup on the bare bedside table. Gideon had asked her where he was and she’d explained about the infirmary, five floors up. He’d asked her what her name was, and she’d blushed and scurried out, locking the heavy wooden door behind her. He waited for what he thought was inevitable: a visit from the Abbess.
And waited. And waited. His stomach rumbled as he paced the tiny room, and he stood at the window again, watching the shadows lengthen and merge in the darkening colliery. Far beyond the pitheads and the slag heaps he could make out a small corner of the abbey grounds given over to what he first thought were saplings. His heart sank as he realised what they really were: wooden crosses in ordered ranks. It was a graveyard. When those nuns said a life in service to the Almighty, they really meant it.
The locks in his prison door slid back and he turned, but it was not the Abbess come to punish him. The young nun brought in a tray of food, her head bowed, and laid it on the bedside table. Gideon watched her for a moment from the window. He could overpower her, he thought, rush past her into the corridor. But then what? How would he get out of the abbey? Captain Trigger was right. Cunning was the key. Brains, not brawn.
“I wasn’t expecting supper,” said Gideon. He cursed himself. He had never been much good at talking to girls and wished he could come up with some line of patter just like Captain Trigger, that would hold her attention.
She looked up at last. She was quite pretty. “We’re not about to starve you.”
“I thought that might be part of my punishment.”
She pulled a face. “You’re in the hospital wing, not the prison. You took a nasty blow out there.”
Gideon twitched his nose and winced at the pain. James had given him a good old whack, and no mistake. The nun looked about to leave and he said hurriedly, “I thought the Abbess might come to see me.”
The girl allowed herself to smile, then chased it away with a frown. “The Abbess? Come to see you? Why?”
“Well . . .” said Gideon. “The escape attempt . . .”
She shook her head. “You think the Abbess comes to see every newcomer who tries to escape? Dissenters are ten a penny. She’s far too busy for that.”
“What happens to them, then?” said Gideon. “What punishment do they get?”
The nun shrugged. “You were lucky your mate give you a belting. If you’d got any farther . . .” She looked out of the window beyond Gideon, and he followed her gaze to the silhouettes of the armed nuns patrolling the high wall, and the graveyard beyond the mines.
“They should have shot me,” blurted Gideon. “I won’t go down that pit again. I can’t.”
“You will,” said the girl. “You’ll have to. But not yet. We’ll put you on light duties for a few days.”
Gideon continued to look out of the window. At the far end of the compound was a small gate set into the wall, and he noticed four nuns pushing a small truck along the rail tracks towards it. A truck piled high with what looked like dirty linen. He could only just see beyond the wall in the gathering gloom, but was that the glisten of a small river or beck in the countryside?
“So there’s no punishment?” asked Gideon carefully.
The girl smiled. The action lit up her face. Gideon felt a sudden pang, somewhere in his stomach. He’d never had time for girls, not with the fishing. And there were no girls in Sandsend that met the admittedly high criteria he’d set for himself after a lifetime of reading the adventure stories. She must be honest and pure and beautiful and brave and . . . Run away with me, Gideon wanted to say to the nun. Let’s go and have adventures together.
“There’ll be reeducation,” she said. “Remind you of your contract. Help you to serve God. Scripture lessons, Bible study, that sort of thing.”
“And will you be there?” Gideon surprised even himself with his boldness.
She raised an eyebrow. “No, that’s not part of my duties.” She straightened. “Speaking of which . . . .”
“Wait! What’s your name?”
She gifted him another thin smile. “Sister Immaculata.”
“Your real name,” insisted Gideon.
“Charlotte,” she said, then turned and left, locking Gideon in with his thoughts.
Sister Immaculata—Charlotte—returned an hour later to take Gideon’s empty supper things and to refill his water. “Any pain?” she asked as she lit the oil lamp that hung from the centre of the room.
“Only at being locked up here,” said Gideon. He was seated on the thin mattress of the bed, and had been leafing through the only reading matter he had been left until the gloom made reading impossible. He waved the leather-bound book at her. “What does your Bible say about slavery?”
“You’re not a slave,” she said, gathering his empty plates. He had thought about secreting the knife in his clothing, but had decided against it. She would have noticed, and it would have made the plan fermenting in his mind all the more difficult. She said, “You’re a worker.”
Gideon forced a humourless smile. “Workers get wages.”
She turned to him, her eyes shining in the light from the lamp. “And you’ll get the best wages of all. Admittance to the kingdom of Heaven, after a life of servitude to the Lord.”
“And in the meantime, I have to live here”—he swept his hand at the dark vista of the colliery, where men still toiled on the night shift beneath flickering oil lamps which dully lit the site—“and doubtless have my lungs pack up and my eyesight fade before I’m thirty.”
She said nothing, and wiped her hands on her tunic before picking up the tray. Gideon said, “What about you? Do you go home after you’ve worked here?” He suddenly felt hungry for news of the outside, no matter how banal.
Charlotte shook her head. “I am in servitude to the Lord as well. Since I was seven years old. The abbey is a great friend to the surrounding villages. It provides for families in return for service.”
Gideon stared at her. “Your family sold you to the abbey? Then you are as much of a prisoner here as I am?”
“They gave me the opportunity of working in service to the Lord, in return for a financial donation to compensate for the loss of earnings I would have brought in,” corrected Charlotte. “And I am not a prisoner. I sometimes am allowed outside, in the company of other sisters.”
Gideon was silent for so long Sister Immaculata turned to go. He stopped her with a quiet word. “Wait. Does no one escape? No one tries to close this place down?”
“The work we do here is very valuable to the Empire,” said Charlotte softly.
“More valuable than liberty?”
“Perhaps you have answered your own question,” said Charlotte. “After all, no one has tried to close down Colliery Abbey.”
“Then William Wilberforce might never have even bothered,” said Gideon. “John Wesley might never have been born. In the heart of England, we behave no better than the warlords of Texas who we profess to hate because they put men in chains.”
“I should go,” said Charlotte. Was there a note of uncertainty in her voice?
Gideon nodded in the gloom. “You probably should. However . . . you spoke of light duties, along with my reeducation. What kind of light duties?”
“The kitchens, perhaps,” said the nun. “Or the laundry.” She coughed and he turned back to her. “I really have to go. I’ve wasted too much time with you already.”
“The laundry,” said Gideon quickly. “I’ll work in the laundry.”
She gave a tight smile. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Roused at six, Gideon was given a light breakfast to go with his light duties and taken by a stern-faced nun most emphatically not Sister Immaculata down to the laundry room in the cellar of the building that also housed the hospital wing. He had sneezed a shower of blood droplets onto his own pillow in the night, and his first task was to go and collect all the bedding from all the rooms occupied by men, this being a weekly occurrence and Gideon being fortunate to start his duties on the day this took place. As he pushed a wheeled wicker basket around the warren of corridors, he ran into James Prudence, on his way down to breakfast.
The big man regarded him for a while, then held out his meaty hand. “No hard feelings, eh, Smith?”
Gideon shrugged and allowed Prudence to enclose his spade-like palm in a crushing grip around his. “I suppose not.”
“If I hadn’t clocked you, them nuns would’ve shot you,” said Prudence. He jabbed his thumb into his chest. “We broke the month’s records for coal gathering in the pit yesterday; they’ve made us team of the week already. Can’t wait to get you back, Smith. How long they got you on ladies’ work?”
Gideon smiled, though it hurt his nose. “I’m not planning on doing this very long.”
James clapped him heartily on the shoulder, and Gideon winced. “Good stuff. Be good to have you back. We keep up our productivity, they say we’ll get extra portions at supper.”
Gideon watched him go with loathing. Either he didn’t know he was a slave, or he didn’t care. Was a dry bed and a full belly that important to men like James Prudence, that they would happily sign away their freedom? Gideon continued to drag the sheets off the bunks in the cells, most of the linen lined with coal dust despite the fact the men had stood beneath piped hot water in the washroom at the end of every shift, some of it speckled with blood coughed up by dying lungs, yet more stiff and sticky with the midnight toiling of men surrounded by women but forbidden from even lustful thoughts.
As he’d been instructed, Gideon returned with the filled basket across the courtyard towards the ramp that led down to the cellar beneath the annexe that contained the hospital wings and, on the lower floors, administration and prayer rooms. There were other men working in the laundry, mainly those with disabilities or of an advanced age. They looked—those with full eyesight, at least—hungrily at Gideon, as though they could leach the vitality and strength from his young limbs. The place seemed to be run by a one-legged man named Hayle, with a wizened, bald head, who directed the other workers in their tasks. Occasionally, a nun would breeze through the laundry to ensure everything was up to speed, and Hayle would fawn obsequiously. Each full wicker basket that Gideon delivered was queued up by a pair of low double wooden doors. As he returned with his fifth or sixth basket, after a lonely lunch break of bread and cheese in the back of the laundry, he asked Hayle where the linen was cleaned.
“In winter we does it in here, boils up these big vats,” he said. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face for the steam.”
“And in summer?” asked Gideon.
“In summer we saves coal and takes the linen down to the brook that runs past the abbey, beats it on the rocks.”
Gideon remembered the nuns wheeling the baskets that he’d seen from his room. “Is that to be my job, then?”
Hayle sneered. “Yer, like we’d let you do that, who just yesterday tried to climb the walls.” He shook his head. “Finish up and get back on your rounds; look, the sisters are coming to take the first lot down to the brook, and you’re only halfway to getting all the sheets in.”
As Hayle went off to tug his forelock at the quartet of nuns who had appeared in the laundry, Gideon made a show of noisily washing up his tin plate and announcing he was off to gather more linen. Misdirection, Captain Trigger would have called it. Get your audience looking at one thing while you’re doing another. Trigger had learned valuable lessons from his adventures with the noted illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne. While Hayle was talking to the nuns Gideon dropped to all fours and skittered across the tiled floor of the laundry to the last wicker basket he had lined up, and dived in. He burrowed to the bottom, closing his nose to the combined odours of the sheets that came together in an acrid palette, and waited.
Gideon’s plan was simple, because he had learned from many Captain Trigger adventures that the simplest solution was usually the best. Occam’s razor, Trigger often called it. One by one, the nuns would wheel the baskets across the site and to the wooden gate Gideon had seen from his room, let themselves out beyond the colliery wall, and beat the sheets against the stones in the clear, running water of the brook. When they pushed Gideon’s basket through the gates he would leap out and flee across the countryside, hoping that the nuns who patrolled the walls would be pointing their rifles inwards towards the site. The land beyond the abbey was clear for a couple of hundred yards and then there was a line of trees, which he would make for. And he would keep running.
In his head Gideon counted off seconds and minutes, timing how long it took each basket load to be washed. He heard the laundry doors swing open and the next basket being wheeled out after sixteen minutes. There were four more baskets ahead of his; that meant at least an hour before they took his. Would his presence be missed in that time? Perhaps he should have chosen a basket closer to the doors. But he could hear Hayle and his crippled cronies shuffling about the laundry; there was nothing for it, he would just have to wait it out.
The nuns must have worked quickly, because he felt hands pushing his basket farther forwards, and the sudden sounds of the clamour of the colliery. Was it his turn already? He risked pushing his head, wrapped in a hood of a sheet, upwards a little. He was outside the laundry, under the blue sky. His basket had been wheeled out ready; there was one more ahead of him. He saw the nuns taking the basket a little way down the track; then one of them called out, “Where did you put the dibber, sister?”
Dibber? Gideon shrank down a little as one of the nuns peeled off from the group around the basket and located a long wooden stick, like a broom handle. To Gideon’s dismay she began to stab it into the linen of the basket in front, swishing the sheets around. She said, “This one’s all clear.” Then the nuns grasped the basket and wheeled it off towards the gate.
Gideon swore silently. He should have known that an abbey where they had nuns patrolling with rifles would not simply trust that baskets full of linen were empty of stowaways. He cursed Captain Trigger and his Occam’s razor. Had Trigger really escaped from Bedlam in this way? Gideon felt suddenly stupid. How could he have hoped this would work? He would be found out and who knows what punishment the Abbess would inflict on him for a second foiled escape attempt?
As he dithered in the depths of the stinking basket a low, sonorous horn sounded. It was the shift change. Sending up a prayer of thanks Gideon peeked out from the basket again as a river of dirty men flowed around him. It was rapidly becoming apparent to him that although he was intimate with the adventures of the Hero of the Empire, he was no Captain Trigger. Taking a deep breath he slid snakelike out of the linen, picked himself up, and joined the lines of workers as they headed towards the squat shapes of the wash-blocks.
The wash-blocks were a series of long brick outhouses to the side of the main abbey building, where pumped water was sprayed down from hoses attached to the tiled wall to help the men wash off the detritus of the day’s work. Gideon joined the end of a line, hoping no one would comment on how clean he was for a man who’d done a shift down the pit. Inside he stripped off and stood under the cold water for a long time, until the other workers had gone to prepare for the evening meal. The immediate danger was past, but what should he do now? Before very long he would be missed at the laundry, if he hadn’t been already. Think. Think. But he could think of nothing, and the door to the wash-block opened again. Was he discovered?
Three men joined him, and he opened one eye and recognised them as some of the Ascension crew who had passed him by earlier.
“Are you two shipping out tonight?” said one.
“Aye,” said a man with a beard. “Taking the Austrian out. We want to be set up in Liverpool by dawn. We’re going out before dinner, as well. Hope the kitchens have put us some snap together. You not out tonight?”
The first man shook his head. “Did the Pickering run.”
“Me too,” said the third, a thin man with a bald head. “They still put me on Liverpool.”
The first laughed. “Better than digging coal though, eh?”
Two of the men finished up quickly, leaving Gideon and the third man, the thin bald one, alone in the wash-block. Catching Gideon glancing at him, the man nodded curtly and turned the tap to kill the water. On the wooden benches opposite the wash area lay his neatly folded overalls, the blue armband on top of them.
Gideon killed his tap and went to dry off, not far from the thin man in the empty washroom. The man caught him looking again and said, “Did you want something?”
Gideon smiled. “Just something I wanted to ask about the Ascension.”
“Oh? What was it?”
What was it Captain Trigger had said? Already it was becoming clear to me that brawn would not win the day. Was it possible that Trigger was not always right? Gideon couldn’t think of anything smart or clever to say, so just quickly closed the gap between them and hit the man as hard as he could in the nose. Gideon had never hit a man before, and it was a messy, clumsy business. Blood exploded from the man’s face and he sank to one knee, gaping at Gideon in bewilderment. Gideon shook his fist where it had connected with the man’s sharp but now shattered nose bone, then kicked him square in the face. The man sprawled out, but was still awake, so Gideon, in a fit of rage that shocked even himself, tore a wooden slat from the bench and brought it down sharp on the other’s head. Finally he was out, and Gideon stood there, breathing heavily.
“Sorry about that,” he said quietly, checking the man was still breathing. “I’m not normally what you might call the violent type. But needs must.”
Gideon dressed in the man’s overalls and secured the armband on his left sleeve, then tore his own clothes into strips. With one he tightly gagged the unconscious figure, and then tied his hands and ankles securely together. He hoped he would be all right until they found him. There was no obvious hiding place, so Gideon rolled the man under the bench, hoping that nobody would check the wash-block until much later. He took a bucket from the lavatory and swilled the blood away, then switched off all the taps so that if anyone did pop their head into the washroom, there would be no need to dwell there. The man had a cloth cap with his uniform, and pulling it on his head and down over his bruised eyes, Gideon headed out of the washroom as casually as he could, and towards the abbey. There was a clear run from the washroom to the front courtyard, where nuns stood sentry at either side of the large wooden gates.
Gideon edged around the building towards the front courtyard, pulling his cap tighter and keeping his eyes on the ground as he passed three nuns walking in the opposite direction. The Ascension was parked on the gravel, before the locked gates, and Gideon could see that the bottom half, which housed the engines and furnaces, was open. There were five crewmen there, and Gideon watched as four of them peeled off in twos and headed back towards the abbey, no doubt to collect Mr Hitler and some supplies for the journey to Liverpool. He looked up at the clock tower. The men would be gathering for the evening meal and he would very shortly be missed, if in fact Hayle hadn’t already raised the alarm. He hoped the Ascension got moving quickly.
Gideon swiftly crossed the courtyard and peered inside the vehicle. It was mighty hot, and the furnace was already stoked. There was a good head of steam building in the pipes, and the remaining crewman, a thin-haired chap with a glass eye, turned to him. Gideon saw he’d been swigging from an earthenware bottle, which the man guiltily put down.
“Who are you?” said the man. “Where’s Fellowes?”
Gideon climbed in the small space and realised he hadn’t got a workable story. He sighed and, sending a silent apology to Captain Trigger, punched the man in the face. He slumped against the wooden wall and slid to his backside. Gideon shook the pain out of his hand. He’d never before hit a man until he was unconscious, and now he’d done so twice in the space of an hour. Gideon took the bottle and sniffed it. Whisky. The Ascension crew were quite the chosen few. Hearing the crunch of boots on gravel he swiftly propped the man against the wall by the furnace and turned expectantly.
“Who are you?” said the first face to peer around the door. “What’s up with Peterson?”
Gideon mimed putting a bottle to his lips and the man sighed. “Not again. The Abbess’ll have his guts for garters if she catches him drunk on the job. We’ll just have to make do until he sobers up. Anyway, who are you?”
“Fellowes is ill,” said Gideon quickly, pulling back into the gloom of the engine room. “They sent me to replace him on the Liverpool run.”
The man’s eyes narrowed as the other crew members began to load coal and snap tins into the engine room. “You’re new, ain’t you?”
Gideon nodded. “I was a fireman on the Settle to Carlisle, so they asked me to fill in on the Ascension, see how it goes.”
Apparently satisfied, the man crawled into the engine space. “You’ll have to shovel coal until Peterson wakes up, then. They’ve got the Austrian on board so we can get off soon as the Abbess has had her say.”
Gideon panicked. Was the game up? He grabbed a shovel and said, “This firebox needs more coal. I’ll get it fired up.”
Through the door he could see the bottom half of the Abbess, flanked by two other nuns. She was talking to the man who had just turned up, evidently the leader of the crew. Gideon prayed that he wouldn’t mention him, and he didn’t.
“Godspeed,” croaked the Abbess, and the man climbed in and pulled the doors closed.
“She all set?” he said.
Gideon nodded, sweating in the confines of the dark place. The man said, “Let’s get this show on the road, then.” He banged three times on the low ceiling, evidently a signal to the driver that they were ready, and as the abbey bells began to ring, the Ascension jerked forwards in a cloud of steam. Gideon couldn’t see out of the steam omnibus, and held his breath as the vehicle surged forwards, gathering speed, until he was sure they had passed through the gates. He continued to pile coal onto the furnace, until the man said, “Hold your horses, sunshine. We’re not going to the moon.”
Gideon smiled wanly in the dark. From the glow of the blazing coals, he could see the man studying him. “Settle to Carlisle line, you say?”
Gideon nodded. Behind him, he sensed a movement and Peterson groaned. The man said, “Ah, the old bugger’s waking up.”
Gideon, bent over, backed towards the doors as Peterson came round and spat on the floor. They were travelling at a fair lick now, putting beautiful distance between Gideon and Colliery Abbey. But was it enough? Peterson rolled his eyes and then his gaze settled on Gideon. “That bastard hit me!”
The other men all turned to him. Gideon smiled, kicked the doors open as hard as he could, and tumbled out with a small wave.
He hit the road with such force that it knocked the breath from him, but not the consciousness. The Ascension was powering on along a country lane, towards the sinking sun. Would they stop? Gideon didn’t wait to find out. He had torn all his shirt and felt blood on his right arm, but otherwise was unhurt. He got to his feet, shaking the groggy feeling from his head, and plunged over a drystone wall and into a field of swaying corn. Hunched forwards, he ran at full tilt through the field, roughly heading south until he had left the road far behind him. He crossed three more fields and allowed himself to rest only when the sun was on the verge of disappearing. He had no idea where he was, but at least he was free. He could see no signs of human habitation, so decided to continue walking south. Surely that would bring him to London eventually. There he would find the Hero of the Empire, and save Sandsend.
What did it mean to be a hero? He had no more idea, nor was he as certain that Captain Lucian Trigger had all the answers. Coughing up the dust of Colliery Abbey that still coated his throat, Gideon wondered whether one hero was enough for this world.
“Work Sets You Free” copyright © 2013 by David Barnett
Art copyright © 2013 by Nekro