and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
"Captain's log, stardate 2412.5," said John quietly. On the fo'ward screens he could see nothing but space and stars, unfathomable and uncharted. At Swallow's stern, he knew, her mothership Beckfoot slid silently away into the Birkeland current, but Swallow herself and her faithful crew were headed for unknown waters. "Our mission," he said, "To boldly go -"
"Titty, have you seen the scouring pads?" asked Swallow's mate. "Only, Roger's already fussing about the battery connections."
"Plundered by pirates," said the ship's able seaman. "With machetes."
"Oh, never mind," said the mate, "They're in the hamper with the emergency con lights."
"To boldly go," said John, "where no human has gone before."
The mate looked up and coughed.
"Creature," John amended.
"Ship's cat," added the ableseaman.
"But we left her on the Beckfoot with Bridget," said the ship's boy, peering up from the open engine hatch.
"It's the principle of the thing," the ableseaman said severely.
Out of Beckfoot's windshadow, Swallow heeled sharply, her solar sails catching the eddy of the trade wind. Streamlined, her shallow hull skimmed over the current: her ropes were new, her sensors realigned, and her paintwork gleaming. Although the ship's boy was happily tinkering with her engine, with the wind behind her Swallow ran silently under sail alone. The stars in front of her bow spun into infinity.
"The explorers set forth into the unknown quadrant... " Titty breathed.
John trimmed the sails, feeling Swallow pick up an extra knot almost before her anemometer recalculated. Hidden under the hatch, Roger was making contented banging noises, and in Swallow's tiny galley Susan was already unpacking the stores. His heading was true, the compass needle swinging only a little as Swallow negotiated the ripples of Beckfoot's wake, and his little craft as spaceworthy as he could make her.
"Which one is ours?" asked Titty.
"That one," said John. "The third star to the right, past the asteroid belt?" He checked the heading again. Swallow had settled to her course, reaching forwards at a steady rate. She was never going to be a racing clipper, but John felt a surge of pride in his sturdy, hardworking little ship.
"Do you think the aliens will be friendly?" asked Titty.
"Of course they will," said Susan stoutly. "John, tea?"
"Hot grog," said Titty.
"Well done, Mister Mate," John said, because in the fuss of getting all their supplies aboard and stowing them safely, doublechecking the life pods and the dioxide scrubbers and consoling the Ship's Baby, it had been a long time since breakfast.
"Don't eat too many," said Susan, "We've only brought two packets."
"Did someone say biscuits?" said Roger, clambering from the hatch with a smear of grease on his nose.
"Ginger," said Titty. "Ship's mate came up trumps with the stores. How are the engines?"
"If daddy had let me fit the particle accelerator," Roger said, "We could be up to warp speed."
"What about the batteries?" asked John.
"We're at thirty percent and charging," said Roger, peering at the dials. "We could try the engines?"
"Not while we've got a following wind," said John. "I don't want to waste the power while we don't need it."
"Aye, aye, sir," said Roger, and took a big bite of his ginger biscuit in consolation.
Susan was staring out at the stars. "Look Titty," she said. "There's Alashain, where daddy rescued the Empress."
"Is that where mother blew up the space station?" asked Titty.
"No, that was Altair," said John absently. He was frowning at the instrument panel, plotting Swallow's course. They were lucky to have a following wind, but there was a yellow gas giant three points ahead that promised turbulance, and if he was to hold Swallow steady...
"Oh, look," said Titty.
One of the stars was moving.
"There's not supposed to be anything else in this quadrant, is there?" asked Roger.
"No," said John, calling up Swallow's long range scanners. The screens blurred into data streams, and steadied, focusing. For a moment all they could see was the barren rock of a stray asteroid. Then, suddenly, shooting out from behind it, came a small vessel the size of Swallow. Her sails were set, and she heeled sharply into a wind that must come from the Shapley nebulae beyond. Running schematics, John realised with a moment's chagrin that the ship had to be sailing a point or two closer to the wind than Swallow, her centreboard cutting through the current and holding her steady.
"Smugglers," said Titty.
"We don't know yet," said John. Then, sharply, to Roger, "Radio silence, please."
"Aye, aye, Cap'n," said Roger, and switched off the communicator.
"They could be traders," said the ship's mate doubtfully.
"Out here?" said her ableseaman.
Onscreen, the other ship tacked sharply. As she did, her hull lifted, and they could all read her name.
"A, M, A... " John said. "Amazon. Mister Mate, could you check the logs -"
"Look," said the ableseaman.
Free to fly in the wind, Amazon's flag unfurled from her mast. It was black, and on it, as clearly to be seen as if she and Swallow were moored side to side, were a skull and crossbones.
"Pirates," said Titty, with relish.
"Batten down those stores, Mister Mate," John said. "Roger, I need that engine ready to start the moment I say the word. Titty, take the helm. I need to plot our course. We're going to outrun them."
Gallant as she was, Swallow was not built to skim the wind, but John tried his best, taking advantage of every breeze and every ripple in the currents. At his side Titty was intent on the compass, her hands on the ropes as steady as John's own and so swift to react to his voice it was almost as if Swallow answered to her Captain's thoughts and not her helm. At the engine panel, Roger was poised to jumpstart Swallow's solar thrusters, although with only enough power for emergencies, John was reluctant to use them unless he had to. Every moment the sails were up meant more power for the charging batteries.
Yet for every move Swallow made, Amazon had a counter. Try as he might, John could not shake the pirate ship from her intersecting course, and slowly but surely, Amazon was gaining.
"Should we warn the aliens?" the ableseaman said softly, as Amazon's port tack brought her close enough to be seen with the naked eye.
"I think it's us they're after," said John grimly. "If they'd been after easy prey they'd have headed to the space station... Mister Mate," he called sharply, "I'm going to try forcing us down to the surface. It's going to be a rough ride."
"John, are you sure -" Susan started, and then Swallow's mate said, "Aye aye. Ship's Boy, strap in now. Where's your rebreather? Oh, Roger. It's a good job I brought a spare. Ableseaman, check that buckle before you fasten it... all secure, Captain."
Just two knots ahead, the small planet that had been their original heading spun slowly in the light of a Class II star. This close, it was almost possible to see the blue of her seas, and already Swallow was beginning to roll in the turbulence of the solar winds, disrupted by the planet's gravitational field. Just as if he were to use the kinetic energy of that spin to slingshot Swallow around the planet and speed her towards the Altair nebula, John pulled in Swallow's sails. On the course header he'd set, Swallow must look as if she would just clip the edge of the planet's atmosphere, her speed too slow to enter.
"Oh," Titty breathed, "Like Daddy did on Sham?"
"Yes." John said. He could almost feel the Amazon breathing down his neck. Her solar sails blotted out the stars at Swallow's starboard. "I'm going to back the sails. The moment I do, I need those thrusters on full speed astern. We need enough power to force our way through the atmosphere. Ship's Boy?"
"Ready when you are, Captain," said Roger, with an excited squeak to his voice.
"It's going to be rough," John warned. "Hold on tight." Then, just as Amazon's bow loomed up on the screen, John let the mainsail fly free. Screaming through the winches as it spun tight, his mainsheet dragged the boom across Swallow's hull, and in a moment John was tightening the sail again. As swiftly as he drew it in, the trade wind pressed it backwards against Swallow's mast, and at the same moment Roger hit the start button for the thrusters. Swallow's entire hull juddered when they kicked in, and her sideways slide was suddenly a screaming plummet towards the planet's exosphere. Holding his breath, clinging to the straps of his chair, John watched the knotometer creep up, his fingers crossed: 120 kph, 360, 860... they needed enough speed to make it through the Karman Line... 1200...
With a hypersonic boom that rattled his teeth, Swallow broke through. Suddenly, they were bathed in sunlight. The screen showed, not the darkness of space, but the muddy green of continents and the blue of planetary seas. For a moment the view spun dizzily, then, as Swallow's stabilisers compensated for her fall, it steadied.
"Golly," breathed the ableseaman, unclenching her hands from the safety harness.
"Oh, jolly well done!" whooped the ship's boy, before he pulled himself together and said, "Batteries at two percent, Captain. We'll need to recharge."
"Engines off," said John, and in a moment Swallow was quietly sailing downwards on her sails alone.
"That must be Rio," observed the mate, looking down. "John, do you think we should..."
"It's okay," John said quickly. "Daddy gave us the beacon."
"But we are exploring, aren't we?" said Titty.
"Yes," John said firmly, and set Swallow's bow towards the small lake with its rounded mountains familiar to them from so many holidays. Leaning gently into the planet's winds, Swallow followed her helm down to the surface, past the strange architecture of an indigenous landstation, spun gently around a small settlement where a couple of familiar aliens were already waving, and dropped herself to land so smoothly John could not stifle his proud grin.
But just as she was settling onto her landing pad, from overhead came a sonic boom so loud Swallow's hull shook. The screens flickered: Susan said something not at all becoming to the ship's mate, and Titty exclaimed, "We're under attack!"
Despairingly, as the screens showed Amazon hurtling down through the planet's blue skies with her sails belled and her flag streaming from her masthead, John thought, 'Won the battle, lost the war.' Then he said, "Crew, prepare for boarding."
Susan already had the ship's frying pan in her hands. Titty was scrambling for the bioscanner, and Roger had darted back down to the engines for his favourite spanner. By the time the atmospheric leveller had cleared them for disembarkment and the exit hatch disengaged, a flash of landing thrusters beyond the rocky spur of Swallow's harbour showed that Amazon had docked.
"We're not going to surrender, are we?" said Titty.
"Of course not," said John stoutly. He could already hear shouting.
It was the pirate captain who came over the rise first, a crimson scarf streaming from her space suit and a three-pronged trident in her hand, and behind her came her equally ferocious mate.
"Didn't think you had it in you!" she shouted. "Bravo Swallow! Fair mopped the floor with us, Captain John!"
John opened his mouth to say something about parley, but Susan got in first.
"Did you remember the ginger beer?" she shouted.
"Oh, bother the ginger beer," said Captain Nancy.
"But mother sent sausages!" yelled Peggy.