The pressgangs never came around here. Why would they? Pickings for naval impressment were slim here in Albany.
As one of the kingdom’s more remote regions and situated at the petering end of the Good Hope trade wind, the place was populated predominantly by farmers. Granted, there were plenty of scrapyarders and a handful of steel workers here, but experienced sailors were few and far between.
And yet, the dreaded pressgangs had arrived.
Rumours had been trickling in for a while now of young men snatched away from towns on both of Albany’s inhabited planets. The stories alleged that a small party of sailors and Royal Marines were swooping down on these poor lads and summarily pressing them into service — with not a word received from any of them since.
Admittedly, it was beyond doubt that war was brewing between the Royal Britannic Kingdom and la Fraternité Tricolore. And if these two great spacepowers were indeed moving closer to armed conflict once again, it was understandable the Royal Navy needed fresh meat to fill its man-o-wars.
Still, the pressgangs were typically deployed in the more heavily populated, spacefaring systems and generally plied their underhanded work around orbital ports and commercial dockyards. It was bizarre that the crimps were descending planetside to steal men away. The navy must have been desperate.
Nevertheless, while the pressgang may have been new to this region, their reputation was not.
Once taken, pressed men were never permitted planet-leave for fear of desertion. During the previous war, the majority of those snatched away remained aboard their warships until the day peace was declared seven years later; some even longer that that. During that dark period, many sweethearts had found themselves new suitors, many wives had taken lovers and many children had grown up without fathers.
Of those men who did eventually return home, a great deal were broken: some physically, some psychologically. Farming folk and family men weren’t intended to sail warships, especially in a conflict of such brutality. But the navy didn’t care who they got or how they got them — so long as they got them.
No, the pressgang was a terror. You didn’t want them on your doorstep.
And yet, while impressment into service was a wholly unpleasant affair for those concerned, young Edward Starling couldn’t help but view the whole matter through the excitable eyes of a teenager.
Spaceborne naval warfare had always fascinated Edward. His bedroom wall was adorned with a tatty recruitment poster of the mighty HMS Bellona – a 258-gun ship-of-the-line — and he would often imagine himself leading a team of topmen aloft the shrouds to take in sail before the ship tore apart in a solar storm, or hauling the gun tackle alongside his raucous, heroic comrades to run out their cannon while enemy neutron spikes tore across the deck and the noise, the smoke and the buzz of battle stimulated his every fibre. Or perhaps he’d look better wearing the scarlet coat of a Royal Marine stood lining the gunwales, musket-in-hand, set behind a row of eighteen-inch bayonets gleaming in the light of a nearby moon, ready to repel the boarding party of some brazen pirate cartel.
But these were just fancies.
Young Edward’s parents weren’t quite so enamoured by the Royal Navy and swore they’d never give consent for their only son to enlist, meaning he’d to wait two more years before joining up. And while the thought of being stolen away by the pressgang terrified him, that wouldn’t happen any time soon either. Only those aged fourteen or above could legally be enlisted in such a manner.
Edward was still six months away from that age.
Then, on returning from school one evening, the sinister reality of the gangs really hit home. As Edward entered the small granite dome in which he lived, he saw his aunt and uncle were both visiting. And both were distraught.
Three days earlier, in the nearby town of Berker’s Camp, the pressgang had descended on the Saw and Hammer at signing-off time. The sailors knew exactly when to strike as the inn had been chock-full of yardworkers eager to spend their week’s wages on getting drunk and — perhaps if they were lucky — grabbing themselves some female company for the evening.
For some unlucky young lads, though, it was they themselves who were grabbed that evening.
Apparently, fifteen-or-so armed men had entered the inn, claiming to be about the King’s business and asking for volunteers to sail away to adventure and glory. When no man came forward, they swiftly piled into the throng and nabbed the first men they could lay their hands on, dragging them off to who-knows-where.
The yardies put up a decent enough fight, but the cudgels had done their masters’ foul bidding and many a lad lay broken on the floor before the gang’s work was done that night.
And six men didn’t return home: one of them being Edward’s favourite cousin, Henry.
The town council promptly wrote a harsh letter of complaint to the system governor and they demanded an explanation from the local Royal Navy commander.
Yet, just two nights later, the pressgang was back. Not in the same town this time but, nonetheless, all those who saw them arrive knew exactly what they were about.
And one person who spotted them, was Edward.
They were a dangerous looking bunch, but that didn’t bother him. Being just thirteen – and with the papers to prove so – Edward had nothing to fear from these men, so he didn’t try to hide. He simply stood on the side of the street as they marched right past him; their odour a heady mixture of stale sweat, smoke and alcohol, all combined with an acrid, chemical smell of some kind.
Edward’s first thought was to alert the townsfolk to their arrival, but it was already too late. He watched as the group entered the miners’ social club and returned just minutes later dragging a number of men with them.
On passing Edward a second time, a huge sailor broke away from his comrades and approached the lad, who panicked. Certainly, he would gladly join the navy, but not in this abrupt manner. Therefore, fearing for his liberty, the teenager managed to grab his papers and proof-of-age just before this brute reached him.
But it didn’t matter.
This man wasn’t concerned with the legality of the boy’s age and swept him up like he were a feather pillow. Edward made to protest he was underage, but the man’s coarse hand took a firm grip over his mouth and nose. Edward felt an immensely painful pressure in his lower neck.
Then things went black.
There it was.
That smell again.
It was this Edward noticed first, before his eyes were open.
His head was pounding, his neck hurt like hell and he had an ominous feeling of where he was about to find himself.
And, on peeling open his bleary eyes, his suspicion was unhappily confirmed.
The low beamed ceilings, the dimly lit space filled with naval apparatus, and the metal mesh deckplates on which he was laying made it immediately obvious that Edward was onboard a starship.
But it didn’t appear to be a Royal Navy vessel.
This ship was a mess. Equipment was strewn everywhere, sailors were lazing around, the smell was almost unbearable and much of the deck space was filled with junk and not the neat rows of cannon he’d seen illustrated in books. While Edward had never actually been aboard a Royal Navy vessel, he was educated enough to know that such ships were orderly and disciplined places, unlike this one.
The uniforms — or lack of them — were another giveaway. Certainly, the pressgang had been in uniform; there’d even been a pair of distinctive red-coated marines with them. But right now, there was not a navy uniform to be seen; just a gaggle of scruffy layabouts wearing a plethora of different garb from across the stellar-time world — much of it in a sorry state of repair.
Also, many men were sporting the characteristic Mohawk haircuts associated with pirates.
Edward, who was inside a small wooden cage with five other men all sat staring at the floor, began to panic.
Before long, a man came over and tapped a heavy pistol on the cage bars to get their attention. The prisoners looked up.
In a heavy Spanish accent he said, “Bienvenido a bordo del Guerrero. My name is Fernando, I am second-in-command of this ship, and you all now work for me. El Guerrero is your new home, and while here, you will do as told.” He smiled. “You may even like it, si? Any questions?”
One man spoke up, “Why are you pressing us into service? We’re just miners. We don’t know the first thing about sailing.”
Fernando smiled. “You have not been pressed into service, señor. Does this look like a military vessel? No, no.” He then holstered his pistol and walked away, saying over his shoulder, “You have been recruited into the Todos los Santos cartel. Welcome.”
So it was pirates snatching men away, not the Royal Navy.
No doubt they masqueraded as a pressgang to avoid the resistance they’d invariably meet should their victims realise who they really were. If it was known they were pirates then every man, woman and child close enough to smell their distinctive odour would set upon them as soon as they were spotted planetside. The small gang’s only protection from the locals was the hesitation in knowing resistance resulting in the injury or death of a King’s sailor was punishable by hanging. That, and the fact the gang were always armed to the eyebrows with pistols, swords and cudgels.
Edward had to admit, it was a rather cunning ploy and a very efficient method of filling a vessel with sailors; one which the men in the cage had fallen-foul of.
Still, the pirates didn’t keep them confined for long. After all, they didn’t want prisoners; they wanted sailors. The captives were soon released and each was assigned to a mess and left to get on with it. A few commands were barked at them in Spanish now and again, with boots-up-the-backside and cuffs-around-the-ear also seemingly acceptable forms of communication. For the most part, though, they were expected to learn the workings of a starship for themselves.
It was also plainly evident to Edward that escape was impossible. All he could see outside the portholes were stars. But the vacuum of space was just an obstacle he’d need to overcome, because he was going to escape.
He just didn’t know how yet.
Plus, he was shortly to be given a very good reason to think twice about such an endeavour…
Three days after their capture, two of the ‘pressed’ newcomers had attempted to steal a cutter and escape during the night. Their getaway, however, was thwarted and both had been caught and lashed to the very top of the mizzenmast. Early the next morning, the entire crew were then assembled on deck to witness the punishment of these two men.
The specific feature of a modern starship that allowed the crew to be on deck and ‘open’ to space like this was the ship’s protective Hauptman skin, or H-Skin: a transparent electron-magnetic particle stasis ‘bubble’ that surrounded the entire vessel keeping the atmospheric conditions stable and breathable for those inside it.
But, as the ship’s company looked on, the H-Skin was adjusted to just below the tip of the mizzenmast, exposing the two men’s heads to the vacuum of space.
The blood in their bodies now rushed upwards to protect their brains, but as their heads were laid bare to the freezing and pressure-less emptiness beyond, streams of it very quickly erupted from their bulging eyes, nose and silently screaming mouths.
Then, only seconds after the jerking bodies surrendered, the crew eerily resumed their duties as if nothing had happened, with a few bizarrely giving a macabre round of applause as they dispersed.
Whether it was the erupting arteries, the brutal cold, or the lack of air that killed these two so efficiently was unknown, but the message was clear:
Don’t try to escape.
By the end of his first month aboard El Guerrero, young Edward’s dreams of being in space weren’t quite living up to expectations. All he was ever tasked with was distributing food at meal times; collecting the dirties; cleaning, polishing and repairing the auxiliary solar sails; and undertaking any other menial task the crew could find for him.
Not once did he hear a kind word of compassion; he couldn’t understand what was said as he didn’t speak Spanish; he never spotted his cousin Henry and assumed him most likely dead; he quietly cried himself to sleep every night; he missed his parents terribly; he just wanted to go home.
But he was a long way from home.
El Guerrero was a French merchant sloop seized by these pirates and converted to carry twelve 24-gigajoule neutron spike cannon. While no match for a proper warship, the vessel was a scary predator for an unarmed merchantman to encounter.
She’d been underway for the entire time Edward was aboard, and they were now apparently in Los Iberianos space. Edward’s native system of Albany officially neighboured the Los Iberianos system of La Pinta, but that place was still over three billion leagues away from home. Consequently, to know he was now in the star system of a foreign nation for the very first time in his life was as thrilling as it was upsetting.
But more thrills were soon to come.
During his tenth week as a sailor, Edward was finally allowed up into the rigging and out along the yards.
To be so high above the deck, exposed to the magnificence and clarity of a solar system with just a piece of cable underfoot and a yardarm for balance was incredible. There wasn’t sailor yet who didn’t have a profound experience on being up in the yards for the first time, and Edward was no exception.
He also made friends with Pablo, another boy of the same age who was here after running away from the workhouse aged just ten. Pablo, now thirteen, took Edward under his wing, showed him the ropes, and taught him some Spanish.
And things began to look up a little.
Yes, he’d been dragged away from his life, his home, his friends and his parents. Yes he was here against his will. Yes there was no hope of escape. But, yes, there was no denying it: this was an adventure.
As always, Edward kept his head down and did as he was told. The teenager was still restricted to the ship’s menial tasks and never once was he given anything of importance to do.
He was surprised, therefore, when Woods, one of the ship’s senior men, called him out at dinnertime.
“You, lad. Edward isn’t it?”
Edward hadn’t realised Woods was British until now.
“This ain’t the navy, lad. No ‘sirs’ here if you please.”
Edward looked at Woods in silence while his messmates finished their supper.
“Come wi’ me.”
Edward got up from the makeshift table slung from the deckheads, kicked the chest he used as a seat against the bulkhead and followed Woods to the maindeck, where they stopped at the starboard gunwale.
“Ever fired a cannon, lad?”
“Here you go then.” Woods handed Edward a lanyard, which was plugged into the breach of a 24-gigajoule neutron spike cannon: an awesome piece of hardware that was currently run out of the gunport and ready to fire. Edward knew that if he pulled the lanyard, thus igniting the spark-fuse, an electrical surge would force the plasma charge to combine with the neutron shot and fire the cannon. But he did nothing.
“Well? What you waitin’ for?” Woods saw the boy’s hesitation. “Pull the bloody thing.”
Edward tugged on the thin chord and the fuse ignited with a sharp crack, followed instantly by a gut-wrenching crump. The cannon erupted backwards, belching smoke as it bucked violently back inside the ship, but its tackle held firm and the gun soon returned to a state of relative peace.
The blue/green energy spike shot away into space and, with no target to impede it, just zipped off harmlessly, eventually expelling all of its energy into the void. The young, would-be gunner stood with the firing lanyard held tight in his fist and watched it disappear.
Edward was exhilarated. That was easily and by far, the best thing he’d ever done in his entire life. He was beaming from ear to ear.
Woods tussled the hair of the energised youngster and laughed. “We needed to clear the breach ‘a this bad-boy and thought you’d fancy a go. Now, back to your nosh.”
As Edward returned to his unfinished dinner, he contemplated his new life in space and realised it was finally offering up the kind of experiences he’d always imagined it would.
The gritty reality of life as a pirate was about to come screaming into stark contrast, as two days later, they happened upon a victim.
The unlucky vessel, a merchant brig, had been snared between the Martinez mining station and the relative safety of the Queen Elizabeth trade wind. She was caught running her solar-powered ion propulsion drives off a single mainsail and two courses, the intention being to reduce ionic fuel consumption.
But on this occasion, the intended savings didn’t pay off.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
El Guerrero overhauled the unfortunate vessel by carrying her momentum as she left the apex of the trade wind two million leagues distant. Accordingly, the pirates were upon the hapless ship before she’d time to set her full spread of sails and get up to speed.
Edward was informed that if a fight ensued, his duty was to keep the guncrews supplied with charge from the plasma magazine two decks below. It would be hard-graft if a prolonged engagement developed, but equally, it would offer him a great view of proceedings from the portside gunwale.
As El Guerrero came parallel to the merchantman, she loosed a few neutron spikes towards her. This, coupled with the pirates’ obvious advantage in speed, soon persuaded the merchant vessel to surrender.
Or so it was thought.
Believing her to be capitulating, the captain of El Guerrero pulled up alongside his quarry.
But she turned out to be a quarry packing a hefty punch.
At fifty-yards distant, four well-concealed gunports swung open allowing four large cannon to emerge from the openings, sliding out like the pistols of an assassin. Being so close they couldn’t miss, and the merchantman loosed a broadside into El Guerrero, whose sides erupted in thunder, splinters and body parts.
But the pirates were too experienced to be deterred in this manner, and what followed was a brief but ferocious encounter.
The merchant ship was fighting for her life, and did so valiantly, but her gunners were no match for the attackers’ and she eventually succumbed to El Guerrero’s bombardment.
It was always a gamble to resist pirates and this time, it didn’t pay off. Those merchant crew members who survived the exchange were all thrown overboard, their final sensation in life to feel the spit boil on their tongues just before slipping into the freezing tomb of deep space. And what the crew of El Guerrero did to the two women they took from the merchantman was beyond imagination.
The screams emanating from below decks for the next three days would stay with Edward for the rest of his life, forever invading his dreams and turning them into nightmares.
They also reignited his craving to escape.
Over the next four months the crew of El Guerrero seized two more merchant ships, but neither resisted like the first. Nevertheless, assembling prize crews to sail these captured ships home, plus the men lost in the fight with the armed merchantman meant fresh crew were required.
And so, the men of the fake pressgang climbed into the boats and pushed off to find more unwilling souls.
Six hours later, though, instead of two boats returning full of new recruits, only a single vessel appeared. It contained just three of the original nineteen men, with one of them looking deathly pale and another sporting a blood-soaked jerkin.
It transpired that while trying to return to the boats with their victims, the gang had stumbled across a local militia running a drill. These lads didn’t care a jot for the Royal Navy uniforms and in the ensuing fight the majority of the pirates had been killed or captured.
And it was here that Edward saw an opportunity.
Between those men lost to the militia, those killed in the battle and those dispatched as prize crews, there were very, very few men left on board El Guerrero. Edward recognised it was now critical that extra crew be enlisted meaning — despite the recent setback — more pressings would have to be undertaken.
Yet, for the fake pressgang to get away with what they were doing, it had to be believed they really were from the Royal Navy. Therefore, they’d require at least one British speaker in the party. Unfortunately, however, there was not one man left aboard the pirate vessel who was British. Woods had been lost in the fight with the militia along with Baxter and Philips; the other newly-pressed men had been sent off with the prize crews; the captured merchant sailors who opted to join the pirates were all French; and the rest of El Guerrero’s crew were Spanish or Portuguese.
So, feeling bold, Edward chanced to try his luck and requested to speak with Fernando, the first officer.
The big man had frowned as Edward tried to explain in broken Spanish how the pressgang needed an Englishman to give it credibility. The enthusiastic teenager made it clear he wanted the honour of that responsibility, along with the recognition that came with it. He reiterated the case that should any locals hear a foreign accent among the pressgang, they’d smell a rat and set upon them quicker than they could say vámonos. Edward also took confidence in the fact the charade had to be undertaken in a Britannic system because the Fraternité and Iberianos navies didn’t employ pressgangs.
Fernando agreed to his request. He found him a tatty Royal Navy midshipman’s coat explaining he’d be ‘in command’ of the pressgang and that he’d do all the talking. He also reminded the lad of what would happen should he get caught trying to escape; to which Edward nodded emphatically in agreement.
In agreement that he definitely would not get caught.
Edward’s plan was simple. He’d accompany the pirates on their mission down to the planet, playing his part as the in-charge officer. When the inevitable moment of struggle arrived, he’d use the cover of the melee to make his escape and never be seen by these murderers again. He’d lie low for a few hours until confident they were gone, then get himself aboard a transport home.
Dangerous. But simple.
And then, four nights later, the pressgang was ordered to board El Guerrero’s orbital launches and head-out.
Once planetside, they moved fast and located a tavern that looked busy.
The place was heaving with bodies and the pressgang filtered in through the door and spread out around the walls, weapons clearly on show. Edward adopted his role, addressing the drinkers with what he imagined the leader of a pressgang might say.
“In the name of His Majesty King George the Tenth, who of you will take the King’s shilling and enlist with us today!”
The crowd in the bar all put down their drinks and stared at the sailors. They outnumbered the pirates by at least four-to-one. But they were also unarmed and drunk. Realising they were cornered and the implications of the armed men stood before them, a mixture of fear and aggression appeared in their eyes and the tension in the room rose significantly. Edward sensed this and made ready to scarper as soon as the pirates waded in.
Which they did about two seconds later.
As his shipmates ran past him, shouting and swinging their cudgels, Edward simply stood his ground. In an instant, the action was in front of him, the door was behind him and he knew he’d to act fast in order to avoid both parties in this contest. He turned and made his bid for freedom.
On reaching the door, however, two local lads appeared right next to him, obviously with the same intention in mind. Just paces from escaping the chaos in the tavern, all three stopped and glared at each other, not quite knowing what to do. The two locals didn’t know whether to fight the navy officer or flee. Edward didn’t know whether to draw the sword from his belt or find another exit. In the end, he kept his composure and said just one word to them.
And that was all the persuasion they needed.
All three lads bolted from the building and went their separate ways.
As soon as Edward was out of the tavern, he was out of his midshipman’s jacket and he was out of the area as fast as he could manage.
He was free.
All he had to do now was lay low.
He found himself a quiet alley and waited. In the morning he’d make his way to the orbital docks and find a ship he could work his way home on.
After all, he was a sailor now.
It didn’t take Edward long to get to the docks, as the shuttle terminal was close to his hiding place.
He made his way to the quayside employment office and, with the uncanniest of luck, secured a position on a sloop headed for Albany that very night.
When the hour finally arrived to present himself at his new ship, he got a shock.
A very nasty shock.
Blocking his path to the gangway were three men wearing Royal Navy uniforms.
They clocked him straight away and before he could even think what was happening, two of them had a hard grip of him.
“Sorry, lad,’ said one, “but you ain’t sailin’ on that ship tonight. You’re in the service of the King now.”
Edward was scared, and not a little confused. All around him he could see dozens of uniformed men accompanying merchant sailors from their ships and leading them towards a huge warship at the end of the quay.
Then he realised with horror: this was a pressgang. A real pressgang.
Well, it was actually more of a pressmob. But nonetheless, it was genuine — and more to point — it was legal.
And that aspect, he realised quickly, could bring him salvation.
“Wait,” said Edward, “I’m only thirteen.”
The sailors stopped.
“Can you prove that, boy?”
Thankfully, in planning his escape this night, Edward had pocketed his identity papers, which he duly handed over.
The sailor looked at them briefly, and then chuckled.
“Happy birthday, lad.”
Edward blinked in confusion.
“Forget when you was born, eh?” said the man returning the papers and nodding to his comrades to take hold of the boy again, “You’re fourteen as of today, so I guess you is comin’ with us after all.”
What rotten luck.
During his months with the pirates, Edward had lost complete track of time. It turned out that today was his fourteenth birthday, and that made him legal fodder for the pressgang.
As this realisation sank in, he let his eagerness at seeing home subside, he hung his head and he let the two sailors lead him down the quayside.
They took him aboard the frigate HMS Intrepid, locked him in the hold with a number of other men and, for the second time in his short life, Edward found himself captive aboard an unfamiliar starship.
Despite the gloom below decks, he actually recognised one of the boys from the doorway of the tavern amongst the captives and, strangely, Edward felt more sorry for him than he did for himself.
But that was not all.
He also identified a good number of his former shipmates from El Guerrero.
In a rather odd and neatly poetic twist of fate, it came to be that a fake pressgang had ironically gone and got themselves snagged by a real pressgang, and the tables had been flipped in an almost — almost — funny turn of events.
And so, as young Edward now contemplated the foreseeable future spent aboard a cramped, harsh and dangerous Royal Navy warship, he at least took comfort in the fact that justice had been served.
But in spite of this, Edward resigned himself to not going home any time soon. He also realised he’d been extremely unlucky to be caught in such a way…
…because the pressgangs never came around here.
by Gareth Eynon