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Five Things That Never Happened To Aubrey & Maturin
Three: All The Wonder
For I dipped into the Future, far as human eye could see; saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.
-- Alfred Lord Tennyson
Captain Aubrey looked up from the last of the pre-launch paperwork for a moment to watch the maintenance crew put up the bulkheads that would carve off the end of his stern cabin into a separate living suite. It was not that he regretted the loss of space, although it was a pity to spoil the sweeping view of the starfield out of the stern windows: he had traveled farther with a great deal less room to call his own. But even if this intelligence-officer might have been stowed in a box, Jack should still have preferred not to have him aboard.
On the face of it the mission might have been an ideal one, just the sort he liked best: independent cruising to the neutral port of Velora with an eye out for Arbonnais shipping or men-of-war along the way. But he had been directed to 'consult and advise' with this Maturin: as vague as could be imagined, and nothing good could come of it. It was not simply that he hated taking his ship and crew on a mission without knowing their eventual purpose, but this agent could tell him anything he liked, and if Jack did not care for the operations that should appear to be necessary to accomplish his ends, he could easily be brought by the lee when they returned.
The Surprise ought not even have been going out again yet; she was now due for a full refit, and if this mission stayed precisely within its parameters, by the time they returned to Commonwealth space she would be just within the absolute limit prescribed by service regulations. Commodore Harte had undoubtedly stretched several points to force this mission upon him. Under such circumstances, being forced to share his living quarters was merely adding a very small insult to injury.
"Yes, come in, Tom," he said, when his first lieutenant knocked; she looked angry, and he raised an eyebrow. "Do we have our tide?"
"Yes, sir," Pullings said, handing him the chit. "At six bells this afternoon."
It was outrageously soon: another of Harte's petty revenges. Jack swore and pushed himself up from the desk. "Pass the word for Mr. Mowett," he said. "Has Dr. Maturin come aboard yet?"
"No, sir," she said, entering Mowett's signal on her control pad as she spoke. "He hasn't even yet reported back to base station; I called down to see. Also, I am sorry to report the surgeon, two of the midshipmen, and seventeen hands are on leave on the station and haven't answered their hails."
Undoubtedly they had debauched themselves into insensibility. He could scarcely blame them: an eight-months' cruise ahead with precious little shore leave, and no one of sense expecting the tide to be scheduled before Wednesday. "We'll leave them behind if necessary, without demerit marks; the assistant-surgeon will have to do. But we cannot go without we have Dr. Maturin aboard. Do they have any information as to his location?"
Pullings hesitated. "Station logs show him -- well, sir, they show him as on-planet."
Jack stared. Plymouth was pretty enough to look at from space, streaked with red and gold and violet, but if not for the gravity well in this system that made it an ideal launch and land point, the Empire would never have bothered with it. As it was, the planet was not twenty years into terraforming: a man couldn't go onto the surface without a full biosuit, and only the miners and t-formers did as much.
He shook his head; he could scarcely imagine the man had arranged some sort of rendezvous on the surface, but whatever his reasons for being there, he would have to be gotten back. If they missed the tide, there would be hell to pay with Launch Control, and the ship would start the journey sullenly. The Surprise might not be the largest nor the heaviest ship of her class, but every man aboard prided himself on her speed and fine handling; to miss a tide in a lubberly way, even a maliciously scheduled one such as this, would certainly cast a pall over the company.
"I will attend to him; see to the gunroom stores yourself, and then speak with the purser to confirm our oxygen and hydrogen levels. For everything else I am confident we can scrape by, though we will have to put in at Baltic for resupply instead of Marline."
"That will disappoint the hands," Pullings said, making the note. Marline was a class-III system, highly-developed, with as much entertainment as you could ask for anywhere but the Core Worlds, while Baltic was little more than a waypost like Plymouth.
Jack regretted the change himself, but there was no help for it. "The tide comes first," he said, as Mowett came to the cabin door.
Four hours later, the ship cast into frantic disarray by the last-minute preparations and yet somehow everything in readiness, the tide pulsing out from the base generator and already sending visible distortion waves through the space off his prow, Jack was perfectly ready to strangle Maturin on sight: six blue-peter signals fired down to the planet below, the ship's cutter docked at base station to bring him aboard without the loss of a moment, and not a sign of him. There was nothing whatsoever to be done, of course; his orders -- his damnable orders -- were perfectly clear. He was expected to be carrying Dr. Stephen Maturin when he put in at Verona, barring death or disaster, and officially the Navy did not consider missing a tide as such.
"Sir, the cutter is hailing: Dr. Maturin aboard," Blakeney reported, a slightly unprofessional relief in his voice: he was very young, and this was only his second cruise.
Jack quelled his own unbecoming urge to sigh. "Clear them for approach, Mr. Blakeney, dock two, and inform Launch Control that we request clearance."
"Launch Control confirms, three points to starboard, and wishes us fair winds and fine sailing, sir."
The cutter was flying across the gap a little faster than was quite regulation, but Calamy was piloting her and knew his work; even as she came Surprise's masts were sliding out and the anchors unlocking from the base. "Dock two reports cutter landed, sir, and --" Blakeney stopped a moment, then said, very low, "and medical emergency, sir."
That was very bad; an accident at the start of a journey was the worst sort of luck. He spared one uncharitable moment to hope it was the agent and not one of his men. "Pass the word for Dr. Higgins, and warn him we will be on the tide in five minutes. Bonden, bring us about three points to starboard."
Surprise was gliding free now, and with his hand on the wheel he could feel her shudder happily as her prow caught on the first gravity waves. A few more slow minutes of ripples going by, feeling the strains and waiting for the right wave: he was determined to catch the tide on the first attempt, to try and counteract the gloom that had already descended on the deck. Another shudder: the next one, he felt intuitively, would carry them. "Mr. Allen, let fly main and mizzen sails and topsails," Jack said, and on the display he could see the glorious tangent sails unfurling and snapping into place. The fringewinds belled them out, the wave raised her up, and she took the tide like the sweet-sailing pet she was.
Realspace blurred away, the distant stars elongating and finally vanishing, then they were in the eternal night of sailspace and a strong wind was blowing four points and twelve from starboard, the aether frothing away around the ship's spiral prow. Jack joined the sailing master at his station. "How stands the foremast, Mr. Allen?"
"Well, sir, I should not like to see her take more than fifty kilotons of pressure, but with the wind as it stands I think we can safely press on more sail."
Jack nodded. "Foresail and topsail, then, and rig all topgallants." He stayed to see her making eleven knots handily, the gravity current smooth and the wind steady. In a few hours he might try setting staysails to gain a few extra knots, but for the moment he was content to let her and her crew settle into sailing again, and a less pleasant duty required his attention. "Mr. Pullings, the deck is yours; I will be in sickbay," he said.
"Aye, sir," she said, taking up station on the quarterdeck.
He walked quickly, going past the dock first, taken aback by the ugliness of the scene. The cutter looked very bad indeed, prow smashed in, the pilot's seat torn away, and bright red gobbets of blood still visible floating in the suspension field that covered her. Mr. Lamb and the engineering crew were busily working on the broken docking equipment; they did not even notice him looking in, and he did not interrupt them.
Fear for Calamy quickened his step further, and he reached the sickbay very shortly. The cutter's crew of two, both looking very shaken, were at the observation window looking into the operating theater. They hastily saluted as he joined them, and made room: inside the sterile room, Calamy was on the table, white and glassy-eyed in stasis, and his right arm was very plainly severed.
Jack closed his eyes a moment in sharp grief and guilt. If he had known, he might have been able to call off the launch; now it was too late. Only the true three-decker behemoths had enough spare power to carry a regen tank. The lack was one of the worst hazards of Navy life, and the saying 'tell a spacer by his scars' was wholly accurate. Even the meanest planet or base possessed at least one hospital with a regen tank; Plymouth had one; the Surprise did not, and so Calamy would be maimed forever. His sword-arm, too, and he had been so very promising.
"The neural extractor, if you please," an unfamiliar voice said inside the theater, and Jack looked again. Higgins was not the man operating; instead a stranger in a disreputable black coat was working at speed, while Higgins hovered on Calamy's other side and handed him instruments. Jack frowned, puzzled: the man was operating on the arm, bizarrely, and had the severed limb attached to a blood supply.
Jack leaned closer involuntarily, just as the two crewmen did. The stranger had lifted the arm and aligned it with the stump, and before their fascinated and appalled eyes, he reattached the limb, connecting blood vessels and thin trailing filaments, then bone and muscle and skin.
"Withdraw the stasis field from the circulation system." A little blood began to ooze from the wounds, and now Higgins wrapped the standard tissue-regrafter used to treat puncture wounds around the injury. The stranger bent over the arm, reading the signal output, and nodded. "I will not call the operation a success until we have observed a restoration of motor control, but our immediate work is complete. Twelve hours under the regrafter, then call me, and in any case for signs of rejection."
"Very good, sir," Higgins said, gazing at the man in undisguised awe. Both doctors stepped out of the theater into the adjoining sterilization room, and came out into the main sickbay cleaned of blood. Higgins stopped, seeing Jack, and saluted; the stranger looked at him with interest.
"Dr. Maturin?" Jack said. "I am Captain Aubrey." They shook hands, and Jack was unable to keep from asking at once, despite the near-rudeness of it, "Calamy, his arm, did you...?"
"With the blessing, he will have full use of the limb," Maturin said, taking no offense. "The cut was an exceptionally clean one, and the operation presented no difficulties, although there is always the risk of an immunological response. We will know for certain within forty-eight hours."
"Well," Jack said, still incredulous, but the man's calm manner nearly demanded belief. He stared into the theater again: the arm was already looking more pink and alive. "Well. That is very good news, sir, very good indeed, and we are indebted to you. I have never heard of such a thing."
"Neither have I, sir," Higgins said, in his frank way. "I scarcely believe it having seen it done. It must be a very new technique, sir, surely?"
Maturin shook his head. "On the contrary. It is an exceedingly primitive operation, known for centuries," he said, very severely. "This reliance on the regeneration tank has crippled practical surgery. If we were on a planetary surface I dare say this young man would have been whisked off to the tank straightaway, the old limb left to rot, and then he should have had three years retraining the new growth. Under this procedure, in three weeks he will have sensation, in six full control, and before three months are gone he will have very little cause to remember the accident. It is the very shame of the world that it has not been further developed."
"Indeed," Jack said, still staring: color was traveling gradually but visibly up the arm. He recollected himself and turned back. "Indeed. Doctor, I fear you have had a sadly jarring welcome; perhaps you would care to rest? I hope you will join me for dinner." The invitation would in any case have been necessary, but Jack could now make it wholeheartedly: Calamy was a fine young officer, and this saving of his arm was something very like a miracle; it would put heart into the whole crew, and he could not help but feel grateful to the man, as inconvenient as he was.
"Thank you, sir, that is most kind in you; I would be glad of a chance to settle in, and to see to my cello: I fear it must have been sadly tossed about by our landing."
"Cello?" Jack said.
The distance to the stern was not great, but they walked slowly, and by the time they arrived at the newly-partitioned cabin, Jack knew that Maturin did indeed possess and play a true violoncello; that he preferred, as Jack did, the baroque and classical periods from Old Earth; that he had the Corelli Adagio in G by heart; and that he should very much enjoy attempting a duet after dinner. They stopped at the door for a long time, talking over several variations on the piece, until the ship's bells recalled Jack to his manners and he tore himself away. "I have been keeping you from your unpacking, Doctor," he said. "We keep to Navy hours here, so I will hope to see you at three for dinner."
So early out of realspace they still had plenty of fresh food, and the cook outdid himself by way of thanks to the gentleman that the whole ship already knew had saved young Mr. Calamy. Then, too, Maturin either did not know or respect the traditional sanctity of the captain and so was not shy of speaking first, which relieved Jack of the burden of carrying the conversation.
In any case, there was barely a pause to be filled. They spoke enthusiastically of music, favorite composers, the difficulty of finding and caring for instruments, and they did not wait for Jack's steward but stacked up the empty plates themselves so Maturin could spread out an arrangement which he had brought with him. It was not yet complete, but sufficient to show that he had a clear and penetrating feeling for the old piece: a tolerably complex one, with lovely interweaving melodies that would have been at the very edge of possibility for a single instrument to attempt.
They essayed the opening together, and in short order it was clear to both of them that they were excellently matched: the same degree of enthusiasm and moderate skill, with roughly equal grasp of musical theory. The last faint traces of reserve vanished on both sides; Jack eagerly assented to the prospect of altering the piece for cello and violin together as soon as Maturin had offered it, despite the commitment of time and shared company.
Surprise continued on her graceful way towards the Centauri Junction without incident: they were still in the main trade currents but far enough from the Core that they encountered no other vessels in their early weeks of traveling. It was easy, swift sailing, with nothing much to do beyond routine maintenance and gunnery practice. The two of them worked on the arrangement daily, and before they were a week out of port they were already on a first-name basis: it was absurd to be using "sir" to a man when you were quarrelling violently with him over the choice between two chords, or applauding him for a particularly lovely passage. They could be found at it, heads bent together over the sheets or at their instruments, from suppertime and late into the evenings, and often at dinnertime as well, except for those occasions when Jack invited some of his officers to dine with them.
Stephen noticed after a month of traveling that the room was somewhat constrained, and made out the temporary nature of the bulkheads that gave him his own living suite. He at once offered to give it up, insisting that the sleeping-cabin alone was more space than he needed, and Jack yielded with only a brief demurral to assuage his guilt at invading Stephen's privacy. He was by nature a social animal and had never particularly enjoyed the captain's solitary state: he was secretly very happy to use the removal of the bulkheads as an excuse to insist that Stephen make himself free of the whole cabin, so that they naturally came to lead a companionable existence, sharing meals, exchanging brief conversation throughout the day, reading and working together quietly when they were not engaged together upon their music.
The engineering crew took down the bulkheads with many sly looks and small, knowing smiles. The ship's gossip had them lovers after the first week, unsurprisingly, and for his part, Jack would happily have made their belief fact, except for the two small stains upon his happiness. For the first, he knew, as the crew did not, that Stephen was an intelligence-agent and not some minor government functionary, and secondly he had no idea how Stephen would receive the suggestion.
Stephen was not, after all, a Navy man, with long stretches in sailspace and the ten-to-one imbalance between the genders to give him incentive to acquire the taste. Even when shore leave was possible, finding a willing partner was a very hit-or-miss affair for a spacer, and virtual reality tanks outrageously expensive; officers and hands alike, most of whom came aboard between the ages of twelve and sixteen, learned to make do amongst themselves or chose a different career. But it was different for landsmen, and Stephen might very well have gone his entire life without even considering taking another man to bed.
Were this the only concern, Jack would have run the risk: he was tolerably sure that even if Stephen was not interested he would not be offended, and that he himself could take a rejection lightly enough not to endanger their friendship. But the secret mission hung over him like a black cloud. Stephen had said nothing regarding his work since coming aboard, and Jack could not be the one to raise the issue.
It would have been very easy to forget, for Stephen had begun by going frequently to the sickbay to observe Calamy's progress, proceeded by answering Dr. Higgins' timid requests for assistance with every other case that offered even the slightest difficulty, and ended by accepting the position of acting-surgeon officially, to the delight of the crew. It was already by then known shipwide that he was from the Core Worlds, from Trinity, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Physicians there, with three specializations and a swarm of articles to his credit. Jack longed to ask how he had come to be involved in intelligence-work, but of course this was as impossible as asking for details of the mission before he chose to volunteer them.
It was the only point of reserve standing between them, but a powerful one. Jack said nothing, remained chaste, and did his best to be content with the friendship that steadily increased as the long months of traveling crept past.
Two days to the Centauri Junction, and Jack woke abruptly in the early hours, roused by some unconscious perception. He rolled out of his cot and ran out of the cabin, not taking time to shift into uniform from his loose pajama trousers; he came up on deck barefoot even as Mowett was saying to the signal midshipman, "Pass the word for the captain."
Mowett saluted with an anxious expression and spoke without waiting to be acknowledged. "Sir, the current has picked up, drawing along our line of passage, and we have no explanation for it. But the wind is steady, four and two points from larboard."
They were doing a steady seventeen knots, the mast pressure was unchanged; this jump in the current might be nothing more than some random freak, a gravity anomaly in realspace somewhere behind them, sending tidal waves along. Jack put his hand on the wheel: the ship was uneasy, an odd hesitant griping that she never gave in a smooth current, though for the two fathoms down their instruments could read all remained steady. "Reef topgallants and bring down the foremast," he said, and stood there waiting while the crew set about it. They could lose a week's cruising or more if they came into the junction too slow and missed the tide into the Bering Channel that would take them first to Baltic and Verona, but he disliked the feel of the current.
He had been on deck less than an hour when the cross-winds began to blow: a first surprising gust out seven and nine points from starboard, and the mast pressure warnings lit up across the board as the sails billowed wildly back and forth. The ship groaned; if the weak foremast had been up it would certainly have carried away, and though Jack roared orders at once, it was a near thing for the mizzen.
Stephen came on deck thirty-two hours later into a tense, controlled scene: Jack had not left, nor Mowett; Pullings had been on only an hour less; all hands were roused and on emergency rotations, and reports came in from all decks in steady, measured intervals. They had nearly foundered twice already in gravity pools that formed without warning except from the Surprise giving a small hitch and trying to twist under the hand, and aether was seeping in through the ship's seams, requiring frantic work on the air-circulation system to pump it clear.
The officers scarcely spared him or Higgins a glance, all attention fixed on the wheel, the instrument readings. They were now making twenty knots with only a single sail before the wind, scudding on the still-increasing current, and the Junction was less than four hours away. Stephen moved silently through, handing Jack a combination of pills and a glass of water. Jack took them and swallowed, drank, without asking; almost instantly he felt the creeping fatigue slide away, and his aching muscles unstiffened: blissful relief.
"Sir, you must send one of your lieutenants to sleep," Stephen said quietly. "The dose cannot be repeated, and if this lasts another thirty hours you will have to leave the deck."
Jack nodded and looked at Pullings; she had been with the ship as long as he had, and if he was not at the wheel she was the only one to whom he could trust her. "To bed, Tom; and send the first watch officers below also." She nodded, drooping with the strain of immediate labor removed, and left the deck. Stephen gave Mowett a dose and the other men who remained at their stations, and the feel of the deck brightened at once. Killick had crept in behind Stephen, carrying Jack's coat; now he managed to get it on him, one arm at a time, secured his low-sliding pajamas with a belt, then handed him hot coffee and a sandwich of thickly-buttered bread and cold meat from plates being carried about to all those on-deck.
Jack ate ravenously, one-handed, exchanging sandwich for mug with Killick every few bites. He felt alert, full of energy, even arousal: his cock was swelling against the soft cotton, not urgently, merely an extension of the enormous sense of well-being. It was certainly an illegal drug cocktail, but Stephen had the right as a physician to prescribe anything he felt necessary, and undoubtedly had cobbled together the treatment from what supplies they had.
The medical men had scarcely left the deck when the first soundings from the junction came back. Jack took one look and ordered the mainmast struck down, anchors spread, and crews to the larboard guns. He had seen a junction-maelstrom from a distance once before, as a midshipman of fifteen in the triple-decker Agamemnon. She had survived by powering up all anchors to full and riding for three weeks until the gravity storm passed, but Surprise did not have the anchoring power to keep her position in these currents: they could only slow her down enough to give him a little control.
He could feel the eyes of the quarterdeck crew on him: those who had not recognized the readings had recognized the significance of the measures he had taken. "William, we will have to go around a couple of times for speed before we can catch the Bering tide," he said, very calm, very clear: he felt a moment's deep gratitude for Stephen's medicine. "Pass the word for Mr. Lamb; he will have to reinforce the prow."
"Aye, sir," Mowett said, entering the orders without the blink of an eye. "The larboard gun crews are in position and loading."
"Very good; tell them to stand by and mind their timing: staggered guns will not do, we must have a full broadside, all together, and they must be prepared to fire again within two minutes." The gravity disruptor charges would be the only way to break out of their current at speed, and the timing would have to be exact; it was a hideously dangerous course to take. But the crew were all with him now: he could feel it, here on the deck, and he knew there would be no useless panic.
The waiting was the worst of it: the current growing stronger and stronger so the Surprise vibrated with it, a deep throbbing hum rising from her sides; the sharp bitter smell of aether growing thicker despite all the pumping crews could do; the sounding-image of the maelstrom growing more and more detailed on the forward display, a tangle of overlapping currents like a mass of snarled thread.
It was almost a relief when the hum stopped: the cross-currents had begun and they were at the junction's edge. "Anchors at full; steady as she goes, Mr. Mowett," Jack said, and pointed her prow at the heart of the whirlpool, feeling the tremors as the different currents flowed past, each trying to tug her along with them. The generators were whining; she was losing way; Jack had to constantly work at the wheel to keep her pointing true.
"Cut anchors," he said abruptly, instinct rather than calculation. Released, Surprise bounded forward, and the impact of the current was like a soundless blow upon her larboard side. Jack clung to the wheel; out of the corner of his eye he could see half the men being flung to the floor. The reinforced prow groaned and held, taking the worst of the blow, sliced through the worst turbulence at the outer edge of the maelstrom, and led her curving into one of the more stable currents just inside the rim.
What followed was something very like a nightmare: no time to make any rational judgment or consult the instruments, every twitch of the wheel sending her leaping like a restive horse, lights flickering with the constant power adjustments, so that the faces of his men around him appeared otherworldly in white flashes. Twenty-five knots, thirty, and he lost a sense of their speed: they were rushing through an endless coruscating night that howled for their lives.
"Passing the turnoff, five minutes and thirty to come around again, sir," Mowett called to him from the navigation station, his voice piercing the low chaotic murmur of voices that had faded to the back of Jack's awareness, and the chronometer began counting off the seconds.
"Gun crews to stand by," he said. There was a rattling somewhere deep below; damage reports were coming in steady waves, the whole status board glowing amber, orange, red.
"Hull breach in level four," Mowett said, already moving to the engineering command station to dispatch the crews. Jack paid no attention. Dangerous riptides were trying to pull them out of the current they were riding around, and she wavered with every swell she rode. If she lost hold of the current they would founder and be lost, crushed instantly in a gravity well or suffocated when the hull was breached too badly and aether rushed in more quickly than the air-pumping systems could compensate.
The seconds were flashing past, so very quickly: they were almost there. "Larboard battery, fire," he said, and braced himself: all the guns roared, shaking her to her knees, and the current gave way. He flung her over hard and took her through two currents with the speed she had built up, but now they were in the worst raging tangle of the storm, at the rim, and the force of it clutched at her steering, trying to take her from him. He needed the second broadside a full minute before he could call for it, and two more hull breaches came as he flung her recklessly from side to side to keep her running loose. He ordered the guns the moment the status board showed them ready and managed to get her up on a higher current.
The third broadside would be the last chance: she could not stand the strain of another passage around the maelstrom. He put both hands on the wheel, closed his eyes, not caring what it looked like anymore: he could not spare an ounce of attention from the feel. She was fighting gallantly to break loose and come around, but the storm currents were dragging her back; he risked the very least turn of the wheel, half a point to starboard, and felt her catching the faintest edges of the deep, slow current of the Bering tide, running beneath the churning maelstrom. The guns spoke instantly at his word, and she jerked, struggled. He held his breath for a moment that lasted a lifetime, and then she leaped and was free: they were on the tide, and racing out of the junction.
He left the deck in Pullings' hands at last some two hours later: they were in the Bering channel proper now, running at a sedate eight knots just on the current that was spilling out of the junction, the hull breaches sealed, and the aether inside cleared to tolerable levels once again. The cabin was empty, but he had barely stepped inside before Killick was at the door, spreading a hot breakfast before him. Jack tore open a roll and piled on bacon with his hands to eat while Killick finished laying plates and serving dishes, then began to demolish half a dozen eggs scrambled.
Stephen came in before he was done, equally bright-eyed and starved, immediately took possession of half the food and began eating steadily through a portion twice his usual amount. Killick brought more hastily, and they kept him running a full hour more before they let him clear the table and settled in to more slowly devour toast, marmalade, and tea.
Jack stretched gladly; he still did not feel tired in the least, and he considered going back on deck. Stephen, still nibbling another piece, said, "Jack, I perceived from the behavior of the crew during the crisis that our situation was indeed very dire, but I must confess to not understanding precisely what the direct source of our danger was, nor how we escaped it. May I trouble you for an explanation?"
Jack drew him back to the table and laid out a diagram of the maelstrom with jam on a plate, a corner of toast representing the Surprise. Stephen observed closely while Jack demonstrated the risks of being drawn into the gravity well at the center of the storm, and the difficulty in escaping the currents to finally get upon the tide.
Stephen leaned in to point and ask questions; Jack found himself looking at his throat, left bare by his gaping shirt: he had no neckcloth on, nor coat. The sense of what Stephen was saying wholly escaped him, and when an expectant silence arose, he had to drag his gaze upward. Stephen met his eyes: a slight flush mounted in his pale cheeks; an expression of rigid control settled on his face.
"Stephen," Jack said, urgently, "Will you come to bed with me?"
He blushed for the crude desperation of it even as he spoke, but it made no difference: "Yes," Stephen said, reaching to kiss him. "At once, my dear, if you please."
As it happened they did not reach the bed for some time, settling instead for the quicker if less comfortable rug while they stripped to the skin: they undressed themselves, more concerned with speed than seduction, and Jack lay Stephen down with hands almost shaking in eagerness. "Jack, I have very little idea of this; have you?" Stephen said, between kisses.
"I have been in the Navy all my life, dear," Jack said, laughing, and pressed him back, sliding down his body. Stephen groaned under his mouth, hands carefully buried in Jack's loose hair while his hips tried not to thrust; Jack shuddered in intense satisfaction and eased him still more deeply into his throat, swallowing around him. He sucked dreamily, his own hips working against the rug, Stephen's hips smooth under his thumbs and Stephen's thighs clamped on his sides. He made no great effort to go slowly, as matters could not comfortably be prolonged in their present condition; very soon Stephen said something incoherent, went perfectly still, and spent into his mouth.
For some little time he caught his breath, cheek resting on Stephen's thigh, licking away the traces from his mouth. Stephen lay panting heavily and eventually said something that made very little sense but was highly complimentary. Jack smiled, kissed his thigh and drew him up, to his sleeping cabin.
Stephen allowed himself to be arranged upon the cot and lay there bonelessly, head pillowed on his arms, while Jack pressed in; so wholly relaxed, his body offered very little resistance. Jack gave some time for him to become accustomed, nuzzling his neck and curving himself to his back, but he was very urgent now, and as soon as Stephen gave him the slightest murmured encouragement, Jack moved upon him. Stephen made a noise of some surprise, then cautious pleasure; they were soon straining together with equal fervor, and Stephen was hard again beneath his hand before Jack finally spent into him.
Having begun so charmingly, neither of them had any notion of stopping, although Jack was increasingly hard-pressed to keep from raising the subject of the mission and would sink into moments of silent anxiety when his thoughts were not diverted. Stephen seemed not to notice; in any case, he said nothing, did nothing to suggest he was anything but an absurdly overqualified surgeon traveling with them for his entertainment.
The damage from the storm was largely repairable, but the hull breaches had cost them a great deal of their oxygen supply. Though the maintenance crew spread hydroponics throughout the ship, by the time, two months out of the junction, when they could once again put up a respectable spread of sail and start cruising at a more usual fourteen knots, Jack left a meeting with his purser and ordered preparations for landing.
"Why so downcast, joy?" Stephen asked him that evening.
"I am sorry to be so hipped, Stephen, but there is no help for it," Jack said. "We will have to put in at San Simeon and take on more elementals -- lose a week at least, and more if they cannot give us a tide soonest."
"San Simeon!" Stephen cried in delight, but checked himself. "My dear, I am sorry for your trouble, but you could not have given me better news. May I beg to be put on-planet for the duration of our stay?"
Jack stared at him dubiously. "Are you thinking of San Sandoval?" he said. "There's nothing at San Simeon, you know; the world cannot even be terraformed."
"Nothing? What of the polgary, utterly unique in the galaxy for lacking in all symmetry at their size? Not to speak of the endless herds of ixchapi, immortalized in Rieki's Communal Behavior of Nonsentient Species?" Stephen grew flushed, animated in his excitement, gesturing wildly.
Jack smiled at his enthusiasm, so uncharacteristic aside from music. "Well, I suppose we can put you ashore. I had no idea you were such a hand in the scientific line."
Stephen looked startled at this and murmured something about his studies, but Jack, already intent on putting a stop to further conversation, did not learn why until they were at dinner with the station governor later that week. San Simeon was a property of the Estilian Crown, and declared as a neutral port in any case: there were two Arbonnais merchantmen in dock that Jack eyed wistfully, but they were untouchable. The governor was an amiable and sophisticated young woman, clearly starved for company, and she and her husband kept an elegant table for any suitable visitors. On this occasion the group included the captains of the two merchantmen and their passengers, as well as Jack and his officers, Stephen having vanished down to the planet the moment he was allowed off the ship.
"Dr. Maturin? Not Dr. Stephen Maturin?" This from one of the passengers, a M. Coueler, his glass having halted in mid-air when Jack had mentioned Stephen's name in passing while describing the operation that had saved Calamy's arm. "The Caldemar Scholar?"
Jack paused, blankly: he had heard of the Caldemar Prize, of course, but he had never conceived of Stephen's having won it: Caldemar Scholars were, in his mind, old men in universities or in high Government office, or perhaps rarely consultants to some enormous corporation. "From Trinity?" he offered hesitantly.
Coueler stared, his hand still suspended. "Here? Here?" He looked so full of heartfelt astonishment that Jack felt a degree less foolish not to have known. "Will you -- may I send a note? Would it be an imposition?"
Jack carried the note back and gave it to Stephen somewhat stiffly two days later, when Stephen had returned from the planet. Still filthy and dust-stained, smelling of something vaguely between anise and treacle, Stephen muttered over it while he discarded his ruined clothing. "I know him by name; from the Institut Delacroix on Versailles. A brilliant xenobiologist, and wholly unconscious of anything in politics. It is a pity, but only a coincidence, I believe: I will invite him to dinner on the station, and give him a reason for my presence here."
"Certainly. One would scarcely expect to find a Caldemar Scholar traveling back lanes on a frigate," Jack said, still ruffled, and picked up his violin to run off a low and stormy series of improvisations.
Stephen was not the most sensible of souls, but even he could not avoid noticing this. "My dear, I beg your pardon for not having told you, but I could not mention it without showing away to a truly unbearable extent," he said. "In any case, I hardly think of it: sometimes I feel as though some other man took the Prize; it has been ten years, and I am not who I was then."
Jack put down the violin and went to him at once: Stephen had sounded so very tired, his voice gone low and sad on the last words, as if they had slipped out without his thinking. Stephen turned very willingly into Jack's arms, then, with abrupt hunger, pulled him to the floor and had him directly, without even a moment's pause when Killick briefly opened the door on them, though Jack went violently red with embarrassment and would have interrupted. Stephen ignored his not very clear protests and pressed on in his determined, methodical way, carrying the point with little effort.
Before this, Jack had been too preoccupied by his own concerns to perceive that Stephen was himself unhappy in some essential and deep-seated way, though content in their relations. He had no very good idea of how to invite confidences, but he made a few attempts in the evenings to draw Stephen out with a few of his own, speaking a little awkwardly of his own studies at the Naval Academy on Shelmerston, and upon a series of ships of the line.
Stephen listened with interest. "Were you not unhappy to leave home for such a career, and you such a young child at the time?" he asked.
"No; my uncle -- Captain Chilton -- had taken me with my cousins on a dispatch-cruise through the Core Worlds, so I was mad for space at the time, and already knew I had a spacer's stomach." He hesitated; it did not come quite naturally to continue -- it was almost like complaining -- but this seemed too obvious an opportunity, and he added, "My stepmother having had her first son then, my father thought it just as well to send me to the Navy; and I was happy enough to go. I dare say I bawled a little the first few nights at school, but I grew used to it soon enough."
"It is extraordinary, what we can become accustomed to when we have no other choice," Stephen said, half to himself. "When I first came to Trinity, I was enraged to be sent; I was sure I should be miserable: in ten months I was very sorry to leave even for the holidays."
"Was you not born on Trinity?" Jack asked; it was the first he had heard of it.
"No," Stephen said, still in that abstracted tone, "I went to Trinity on scholarship when I was sixteen; I am from Eire."
Jack looked away and reached for the coffee pot to conceal his shock. Eire had tried to secede from the Commonwealth five years before, a once-fringe movement brought to prominence by Arbonnais instigators and fueled by Arbonnais money. If they had been allowed to go and the Navy had been withdrawn, Arbonne would certainly have taken the system in a week: the planet and its two billion inhabitants, the asteroid belt, the fully-terraformed agricultural moons, and the priceless, invaluable spaceport.
The High Court had refused to hear the case, despite murky legal precedent that overall tended in favor of the right of secession, and a violent uprising had followed, requiring military action to put down. The resulting carnage had cost the lives of some ten thousand civilians, most of them university students; several hundred more had been executed or sentenced to life in a prison colony without parole, and troops were still stationed on the planet.
Stephen had said nothing more; sorrow was marked on his face. Jack poured him a fresh cup of coffee and very gently suggested they should play one of his favorite pieces, a lovely Bach cello suite which he had by heart.
Stephen slept uneasily that night: he did not talk in his sleep, nor anything like it, but he was awake the three times that Jack raised his head from the pillow in dim awareness that all was not well, and though Jack eventually resorted to a hasty but thorough lovemaking to induce him to sleep, Stephen was still grey and tired the next day.
Jack was now certain the revolt was at the heart of Stephen's unhappiness, and it worried him extremely: if Stephen had been deeply involved on the Eirean side, he might be vulnerable to charges of treason, and Jack could not for an instant imagine that he would ever have collaborated with Commonwealth authorities in bringing down the movement. Some time before the junction, he had mentioned a disciplinary case to Stephen: a crewman had reported one of his messmates who had brought aboard a case of Dremelin; now Stephen's savage reaction to the informer made uncomfortable sense.
He ceased to press Stephen further, and from eagerly desiring his confidences went to doing his best to avoid them, very much afraid of finding himself in an impossible position between duty and what had already become the deepest and most passionate attachment he had ever formed.
Having resupplied at San Simeon, they were able to reschedule their full resupply for Marline after all, to the crew's enthusiastic approval. The months running up to their stop were uneventful and smooth-running for the most part; the regular gunnery practice kept them from boredom and to the delight of the crew they took a pair of Arbonnais merchantman two weeks apart, albeit small ones, but as the light-years rolled by Stephen grew oddly taciturn and impatient. Even once at Marline he was as uninterested in the delights of the highly-developed world as he had been enchanted by San Simeon, and would gladly have stayed aboard with the unfortunate defaulters condemned to shipboard watch if Jack had not all but dragged him down to the surface.
Marline being a Commonwealth world, their captured ships had been taken up, and Jack was flush with prize-money. He took Stephen to a virtual theater for a performance of Aida from Montevido, so splendid that they finished it on their feet, applauding spontaneously along with the original audience from their private box. Jack had quietly slipped the operator the extension fee, so that when the curtain went down, the music and murmur of conversation continued along with the shining lights of La Scala Nuova, and they passed another two hours there, enjoying each other upon the broad couch in the back of the small enclosure.
To Jack's dismay, Stephen's drowsy satisfaction faded almost as soon as they were back aboard the ship, and he was wholly silent and withdrawn throughout the last day before their departure. The impersonal base commanders had given them a reasonable tide, and the launch was not a difficult one; Jack came back to the cabin early and unexpectedly found Stephen pacing before the stern windows, waiting for him.
Stephen drew him into the room, sealed the door behind him and activated the privacy seal before he spoke. "My dear," he said, very low. "You have deserved a great deal more candor than I have been able to show, and I can only assure you my failure to speak before this came not from any lack of confidence, but from my having given my word of honor to carry out the instructions which were given to me, which I am afraid included a proviso that I should not share the details of my mission, even with the captain, until after the point of resupply had been passed. But I do still beg your pardon for my long silence."
For a moment Jack could not command his countenance: he had waited so long to hear this or something very much like it, and then more recently had been so hoping for the reverse, that to finally hear the words came as something of a shock. He sat down heavily, but mastered himself enough to speak with tolerable calm. "I give it freely, Stephen; will you now tell me what's to do?"
Stephen breathed more easily; Jack could see the relief in him and felt a private glow of pleasure that Stephen had been so anxious for his feelings. But the next words drove personal considerations from his mind, for Stephen said, "We have reason to believe that Verona is on the verge of declaring for Arbonne and renouncing their neutral status."
It was a disaster so great that Jack could hardly encompass it to begin with. "Half our trade with the Orient Confederation comes through Verona," he said, very blank.
"Yes: all our returning merchantmen will be vulnerable to attack, unsuspecting; and even after the news is widely known the Arbonnais will certainly be in an excellent position to prey upon our shipping," Stephen said.
Jack sprang up for his charts of the Orient trade routes, spreading them out upon the table. "We would be hard put to navigate around them at all," he said, after hasty study. "It won't do, Stephen; we will have to take the place, no matter the cost; anyone could tell it simply by looking at the routes. They cannot possibly hold it against the Navy. Can they be mad?"
"They are not the first to be so foolish as to allow themselves to be lured by Arbonnais lucre into a plot that will serve no one in the end but the Arbonnais themselves," Stephen said, very bitterly. "You see it is the very brilliant stroke of the world: the Arbonnais will savage our shipping for a time, undoubtedly taking back the majority of what it costs them to bribe the Council of Verona and seduce the population into this rash act; the Navy will have to spend men and ships to take the system, then the Army occupy it against an angry and hostile population; and what matter to them if a peaceful, happy, prosperous world be cast into chaos and misery?"
He spoke with intense passion, color running high in his pale cheeks, and Jack felt both sorrow for his pain and an intense, physical relief: no questions now about Stephen's loyalty and the source of his grief, and no need to trouble him with inquiry. "What are we to do?" Jack asked, simply.
"The Arbonnais have convinced the Veronese first that we will not attack them, and secondly that they will defend the system successfully if we do," Stephen said. "But the Veronese are at least a little wary, and they have demanded an immediate presence before they declare. The Arbonnais have sent three vessels: my details are here, and I leave the assessment to you."
Jack took the encrypted chit Stephen handed him, and studied the information: the Lucille, an eighteen-gun brig, and two frigates Amitie and Charmante, both with greater firepower than Surprise. "Stephen, I do not know that we can ever take them," he said, uneasily. "Two heavy frigates with a fast-sailing brig behind them: unless they are handled uncommon lubberly they must roll us down."
"They are not coming together," Stephen said. "The Arbonnais are anxious to avoid rousing our suspicions: the three are arriving from different channels, at different speeds, in an apparent coincidence. We need not take them, only maul them visibly; let them put into Verona battered and bruised, the Surprise to deliver a stern warning, and the tide of public opinion will waver; then the thing can be averted from there."
"Coming separately?" Jack looked at the chit again, a gleam in his eye. Conscience spoke, however. "Stephen, I should not say this to anyone but you, but we cannot be entirely sure of beating them all, even apart: though to be sure we are the better spacers in the general run of things, and I would match the Surprises against any other frigate crew in the quadrant. But a second frigate, or even a third, would not be amiss on a mission of such importance."
"My dear, you must consider that if we were to send anything resembling an organized force, the Arbonnais would certainly know we had learned of their plot. They would then counsel the Veronese to wait: a long, drawn-out delay that would keep our ships occupied here, unable to leave, and undoubtedly only exacerbating the feelings the Arbonnais are trying to stir up against us. If we must come in force, it must be after the Veronese have declared, and we can end things quickly," Stephen said. "No; if there is any chance to turn this aside, it lies in our hands."
They sighted the Amitie two months of tense sailing later, entering the Arcturus Junction. Jack had been driving the crew very hard ever since Stephen had finally confided in him: gunnery practice increased, mock-battle maneuvers twice weekly, unscheduled drills at all hours of the night. The crew was sullen for a week or two, but when the pace did not abate, gradually a sort of spontaneous intelligence crept through the ship: all hands began to take it as certain that their suffering was to some purpose, and naturally that purpose must be the taking of some truly extraordinary prize or destroying an enemy man-of-war. Grumbling vanished entirely, and a fresh degree of enthusiasm appeared in practice, and even more on-duty, particularly in those who manned the lookout stations.
The first glimpse of sail roused the whole crew to a fever's-pitch; Jack had to order the off-duty watches to sleep. Amitie was a forty-gun ship with heavy pounders and could batter them from afar; he meant to keep Surprise back out of sight and close her quickly on the blow his instruments told him he could expect during the night. Their best hope was to hit her low with an early broadside and knock her off her current, then grapple on and board. The Arbonnais were notoriously bad at hand-to-hand, particularly without energy weapons, while the Surprises had carried many a heavier and better-manned vessel on the strength of their sword-work.
The wind picked up at eight bells, and he began the glorious process of cracking on, one sail after another spreading to the wind, positions adjusted by minute degrees to best advantage. He kept Surprise under anchors while they brought her into form, then shut them down all at once, so she arrowed suddenly towards the Arbonnais frigate, bearing down on her with the colors flying.
Amitie came about at once, but they were moving against the current and the wind, and by the time the Arbonnais ran their guns out, Surprise was also in range and her broadside fired first: disruptor charges at the stern and the bow, to generate a surge of turbulence beneath the Amitie, and the heavy thirty-pound titanium-sheathed shrapnel clusters at their docks, to clear the way for boarding.
The Amitie shuddered as the gravity wave she was riding buckled beneath her, her sails slackening. She fired back regardless, damage reports lighting up across the displays, but in the usual Arbonnais technique they had aimed for Surprise's sails and masts, and there was no immediately deadly blow. "Boarders to the docks," Jack said, taking his own sword and taser pistol from the waiting Killick's hand. "Mr. Pullings, you have the deck."
The Arbonnais had activated the electro-magnetic field inside their dock, to try and hold off the grapples, but just too late: the arms had extended far enough to prevent the Amitie from sailing straight on, and with her wave disrupted, she would not be able to come about for several minutes. The crackle and spark of blown circuitry filled the gap between the two vessels, the aether flickering with bluish light; like the other boarders, Jack settled his air filter mask over his lower face, making sure it was secure and the edges sealed tight against his skin.
The harpoons fired, plunging deeply into the sides of the Amitie with their thick trailing cables. The Amitie's crew began hacking at the lines frantically with axes, but there were too many, and the Surprises were old hands at crossing the gap quickly. "Boarders away," Jack roared, and the savage cheer rose up as the fans began blasting hot air across the lines to banish the chill of the aether. The Surprises poured over the lines behind him, one hand for the line, one for drawn sword. He plunged into the Arbonnais defenders; the shrapnel had taken heavy toll on their resistance, and he had room to swing his sword freely and to deadly effect.
They forced the Amities back through their docks with hand-to-hand, until the handful left were forced to surrender with the sealed and shielded doors at their backs. The battering ram had been assembled already. Amitie was shuddering as she fired off another broadside, and the chaotic roar of the explosions against the Surprise's hull gave them fresh fury; they brought down the doors in scarce minutes, despite all the defenders on the other side could do.
Once inside the main body of the ship, electronics were safe again; tazers crackled loudly throughout the corridor outside the docks. The bulk of the Surprises pressed the inner defenders back away from the outer wall while the energy charges were brought up in their shielded container, and the mining crew had them placed along the corridor's length before Jack had even finished patching into the intercom. "Amitie, we have taken you; yield or we breach her," he said. His translated voice echoed through the hallways, over the continuing struggle; a moment later he heard the Amitie's captain speaking over the intercom, giving his surrender, and the last of the defenders dropped their weapons.
Stephen vanished shortly after they had put into Verona with Lucille and Amitie at their tails, leaving the wreckage of Charmante behind, barely coming back to the ship to snatch an hour or two of sleep over the following three weeks. But late one evening he finally crept back into the suite: exhausted, wan, and disheveled, in the same clothes he had been wearing when he had last left the ship four days before. Jack came out of his sleeping cabin at once at the sound of the door; Stephen had collapsed into a chair and was staring at his shoes without the energy to remove them. He lifted his head wearily. "It is accomplished: the Arbonnais envoy has been asked to leave, and a new trade agreement with the Commonwealth will be announced tomorrow," he said, and yawned enormously. His head drooped before Jack had even finished undressing him, and he was too fast asleep to offer even a token protest against being carried to bed, his lean frame offering little difficulty to Jack's powerful body.
Jack woke early the next morning, but he had the second watch, so he could lie abed in luxury, deeply content: patriotic satisfaction, naval and worldly success, the consciousness of having done well by his men, and Stephen breathing warmly upon his throat, an arm flung across his chest. Soon Stephen would wake; they might have breakfast first, or perhaps not; then later they could go ashore together and finally see something of Verona.
Stephen stirred, groped after consciousness, and finally roused himself with an effort, grumbling against Jack's shoulder. "Would there be coffee?" he muttered, and Jack resigned himself to patience and shouted for Killick.
There was mail with breakfast: a dispatch-shell, one of the new design that could travel at twenty times the speed of a ship, had arrived during the night. There were a handful of letters for Stephen, along with an official packet from the Admiralty for Jack: he read it with bittersweet pleasure; they were directed to the Navy dockyards on Meara for the refit of Surprise, and he was to be given the Elysium, one of the new trimlined forty-eight-gun frigates, said to make twenty knots on a bowline. He could take his crew over, and they were sure to be given a cruise; a new, sweet-sailing ship like Elysium would not be put on blockade duty. He looked wistfully around the cabin; such a plum, and he could not but be grateful, but he loved Surprise.
He turned to share the news, but Stephen was frowning slightly over one of his letters and spoke first. "My superior is afraid my name may have been connected to the mission," he said. "Coueler has evidently spoken widely of having met me aboard Surprise; my excuse for him may not serve for more suspicious minds. I will have to lie low for some time and re-establish my scholarly credentials. He suggests I return to Trinity."
"I am ordered to Meara," Jack said, his throat nearly closing on the words. It would mean the end of all connection: Trinity was nearly a year's sailing away in the heart of the Commonwealth; Jack would surely be kept on the borders for the next ten years of his career. He felt as though he had been struck an unexpected blow; Stephen already seemed a fixed part of his life, and separation had not entered his mind as a potential consequence of the mission's completion.
Stephen looked as stricken as he felt; in a moment, he said, "I cannot agree with the recommendation. A return to Trinity now would look precisely as though I was attempting to discredit suspicion; nothing more suspicious in the world."
"Admiral Keith at Meara would confirm you as ship's surgeon for the asking," Jack said at once, eagerly. "And we are to have another cruise. Did you not tell Coueler you were aboard for the chance of visiting so many worlds?"
"A series of articles on the fauna of various port worlds would certainly add credence to my excuses to him," Stephen said, thoughtful. "But surely it must be unusual for a civilian to be granted a naval position so abruptly? Would it not excite comment?"
"Oh, well, there are not many civilians who want one," Jack said. "Usually only spouses who want to stay aboard; but that much is often done, for senior officers." He spoke without thinking, then had to blush for the implied suggestion; but though Stephen looked startled, he did not seem displeased. Jack felt a mounting sense of wonder, of happiness, and tentatively reached across the table; Stephen met him halfway. They sat together looking at their clasped hands, both of them a little flushed and smiling, and the future was settled without a word.
- End -