By Ryan Fleming
Sammy is preparing for a big event, due on June 6th. Set your calendars.
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The Sixty-third Vignette Challenge is on the theme of Son of Steampunk, and can be found HERE.
This vignette was from the Fifty-ninth Challenge, on the subject of "We're On Strike".
The noon sun beat down on the ship in the estuary, to the enjoyment of the sailors gathered on deck. Since their arrival in the estuary, they had been waiting, more annoyed than anxious. By rights they should have been on their way to some well-earned leave, but the Admiralty had other ideas. At least they were not being sent to Russia. Petty Officer Currier could imagine nothing worse than following several weeks off the Shetlands with a trip to Murmansk. Instead, they had gone south, where the sunshine might not have been much but it at least existed.
A few of the sailors had their shirts off, as if pretending they were in warmer climes would raise the temperature. Currier allowed it; the sunshine relieved the monotony of the firing drills they had been running. It also took their minds off of one of their number being confined to quarters, on a whim, it seemed, by the officers. Sailors had been randomly confined throughout the ship, Currier had learned. It was not punishment; Currier had a good bunch. Nor was it anything to do with the plague; none of them had been ashore in a long time, for one thing.
If the Royal Navy wanted to put him and the rest of the crew to good use, they would have sent them home where they could protect their families. The Belfast and Glasgow Soviets may have been finally put down, but there were still the hordes of masterless men roaming England itself. Canadian soldiers mutinying, English soldiers deserting, rioting, burning down town halls. Those were just the rumours the officers let circulate, too. There were the even more hushed whispers of uprisings aboard Royal Navy ships docked down south. Currier could scarcely believe them, then he remembered how he felt in those hours he thought they were being redeployed to help the Russian Empire.
The sooner they completed this exercise, the better. He looked over at the city, smoke rose from multiple places. The Captain had told them that the police in the city had gone on strike and public order had broken down almost immediately. Their ship, still in its dazzling camouflage paint from the recent conflict, was there as a show of force he had told them.
All they had been doing since their arrival was waiting. Running the same practice routines they had been running at Scapa Flow watching over the German fleet.
The rioters had to tire themselves out soon, Currier hoped.
The sun had retreated over the superstructure when Lieutenant Murdoch approached them.
“Mr Currier, new orders.”
That was unusual. Orders usually came through the phones. Or via runner when the phones were not working, as was their wont, but the runner was never an officer.
“Aye aye, Sir.”
“Prepare to fire.”
“Yes, Sir.” Currier turned to the men and repeated the order.
The men grabbed the same dummy shells they had been using for drills for weeks.
“Stop!” Murdoch shouted.
“Sir?” Currier asked, confused.
Murdoch swallowed. He suddenly looked pale and a single bead of sweat fell down his temple.
“Prepare to fire, with live shells.”
Currier did not move; the men looked confused.
“Mr Currier, prepare to fire with live shells!” Murdoch repeated, his voice catching.
Currier repeated the order, as was military habit. His crew in turn fetched a live shell and loaded it into the gun.
“Another test, sir?” Currier quietly asked Murdoch as the men worked.
Murdoch did not answer, which told Currier all he needed to know.
It was not happening. It had to be a test, give the order and see who obeyed. The Army had proven themselves unreliable, and between Bolshevist and Fenian uprisings all over the country, not to mention losing both the Prime Minister and His Majesty to the deadly influenza, the Royal Navy had to be counted on. It had to be a test.
Currier looked up and down the deck. He saw other junior officers relaying the same orders to the other gun crews.
One crew, PO Davies, Currier saw, was having a heated argument with the lowly midshipman who had the misfortune to give the order to the towering Welshman. The junior officer was joined by a trio of armed marines. Davies cut short his tirade, but still looked rebellious.
More of the marines lurked just out of sight from each of the guns, including Currier’s own.
Bastards, he thought. You did not need armed persuasion for a test.
The phone rang behind them. It made Murdoch jump, but he had still lifted the speaker to his ear and moved close to the speaking tube.
“Yes,” he said monotonously. “Yes, yes. Noted. Yes, sir.”
Murdoch replaced the phone and glanced at his wristwatch.
“Fire on my mark, Mr Currier.”
His gun crew stared at both he and Murdoch in disbelief.
“Sir, I’d like to formally request that order in writing.”
Murdoch looked up from his watch and ashamedly shook his head.
There was a rumbling amongst the crew. Currier did not think they had seen the marines yet. Currier took a few steps forward until he was at the gun.
“Assume your usual positions. I’ll fire.”
“Petty Officer Currier?”
It was Fletcher, the young loader. So young he had barely arrived onboard before the Armistice.
“I think I know why they confined McCarthy to quarters.”
“I asked this morning: they took four men that I heard of, and they were all ratings. I think... I think they were all from Liverpool as well.”
Removing anyone that might be a problem, Currier thought. Though if they had done that properly, he would not see the marines struggling to load the gun from where Davies and his crew had been dragged away. Currier wished he had their courage, but he at least had enough to do the dirty deed himself.
Do I have to?
He could simply refuse to comply. He knew his crew would side with him instead of Murdoch, marines or no marines.
His foot was already on the firing pedal.
TODAY IN HISTORY – AUGUST 22ND.
On this day in 1919, the HMS Valiant shelled the city of Liverpool. The attack by the Royal Navy, the first of its kind on British civilians, was a major inciting incident of the 1919 Revolution. The incident was memorially dramatized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1939 motion picture Valiant, which split the action between a group of civilians in the city and those sailors on the ship who mutinied in protest at the order.
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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland after the UK was on the losing side in the Great War.