Chapter the first
In which Rodney McKay is abducted by pirates without realising it
Rodney McKay had just been elected Fellow of the Royal Society and was receiving the adulation of all, when some unmannerly lout grabbed him by the shoulder.
He opened his eyes, blinking into the flickering of a dying candle. The chorus of approbation faded, and became the crackling of the fire. He saw writing, monstrous large, and raised his head from the pages of the book.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to disturb me when I'm thinking?" he snapped, raising his hand to his stiff cheek and jaw.
"You were sleeping."
"It might have appeared so to an ignorant peasant like you, but I was thinking." He sniffed. Halley had been there, and had declared himself quite outclassed by his pupil. Aristotle had said that his own name would fade from the history books, replaced by the shining star that was Rodney McKay.
"And now you're coming with me."
It did not sound quite like Turland. He frowned, and cast his mind back to the words he had barely heard. No, it was definitely not Turland's voice. "You're not…!"
He groped for his letter opener. Thus armed, he turned round, chair scraping on the floor. The man was a veritable giant. He looked like a wild man from the pages of Herodotus, or like one of the raggle-taggle gypsies who stole away the squire's lady in the song, except that she went willingly, because wit and brains counted for nothing when a certain type of lady was involved, and they giggled into their silk handkerchiefs when you tried to court them, then went off and simpered at the types who could hunt and play cards and show a fine leg, but thought that Newton was the acrobat down at the fair who could balance three oranges on his nose.
"Who are you?" he stammered. "How did you get in?"
"I persuaded your man to let me in," the unmannerly giant said, with a slight pause before the word 'persuaded'. Rodney did not like that pause. It seemed to leave space for all manner of unpleasant things to slip into the gap.
"Oh." He swallowed. The letter opener was slippery in his hands. "Are you after gold? I don't have any gold. Well, I do, but… To be accurate, my father has. He's the second wealthiest merchant in Bristol, or maybe the third by now, because he was wringing his hands quite anxiously before I embarked, and a lot can happen in four months, and, yes, he sent me out here to represent his interests and acquire some holdings – " And to get that ridiculous notion of scientific pursuit out of your addled brain. Science is a pastime for bored gentlemen to dabble in, not for solid merchant stock like you. "– but we do it with paper and promissory notes. As you can see, I haven't even got tapestries and fripperies to bedeck the bare walls of my humble abode."
"But you have a brain."
"Yes. Yes." He put the letter opener down, and turned himself to present a more favourable aspect to the light of the fire. "It's that obvious, eh?"
"You talk too much," the big man said. "Every ship out of Kingston brings news of you."
"Oh." The chorus of approbation from his dream swelled louder. "Oh." He had only been in Kingston for three weeks, after a hellish journey from Bristol to the Caribbees on one of his father's ships – and the captain had been quite rude in his eagerness to hurry him off the ship and onto the shore – but he had met many people in that time. To think that his fame was already spreading! Ha! he thought, imagining himself confronting his father as he stepped out onto Bristol docks with all the honours of a king, his coming trailed with breathless expectation in the Bristol Weekly Mercury – nay, in the Spectator itself.
"You're coming with me," the big man said.
"But it's the dead of night!" he protested. "I feel the cold, and there might be footpads and… and… other things, and…"
"They won't touch you when I'm here."
He looked the man up and down. His bare forearms were as broad as two of his own, and marked with a worrying number of old scars. His hair was quite ridiculous, and he appeared to be wearing a shark's tooth around his neck. Although he was very clearly not a gentleman, he had a sword at his side. "Yes. Well. I can well believe that." He worried at his papers. "Why do you want me?"
"For your brain." The man smiled, his teeth flashing in his shadowed face.
"Huh." He grunted, nodding with slow understanding and approval. It made sense. He had come to this benighted place like St Paul to Ephesus, dazzling them with the bounty of his intelligence. He supposed he could forgive the unmannerly fashion of the asking. This was not England, after all. Perhaps in the Caribbees the accepted manner of issuing an invitation was to send a savage servant to drag you from your studying in the dead of night. "What do you need me to do?" he asked.
"It will be explained later," the man said. "Best bring your cloak and hat. It's cold outside." Rodney eyed the man's thin shirt and his bare arms. Cold for a puny man like you, the man's face clearly said. I'm a brainless giant and do not feel the cold.
Huffing, Rodney grabbed his cloak, thrown over the back of a chair hours earlier, when he came in from the afternoon round, overflowing with the urge to rewrite Euclid. Jamming his hat onto his head, he grabbed the candlestick, and prepared to follow. "Who is your master?" he asked the big man's retreating back. "I presume he has a pressing problem, one which necessitates this… uh… unconventional mode of requesting expert assistance. Is it architectural in nature? Has he glimpsed some mystery in the heavens? Has he come to a halt on the fourth page of the Principia and requires a more subtle mind to provide explanation?"
The large man said nothing. They walked through the silent house, with its bare walls and echoing floorboards. The single candle flame looked mournful, like the small beacon that was Enlightenment in an ignorant and uncomprehending world. Rodney felt a sudden pang for the brightness and warmth of home, even though he had spent his whole childhood wanting to get away.
"Snuff the candle," the man said, and Rodney did, leaving it on the shelf beside the door.
Despite what the man had said, it was not really cold outside, but temperatures that at home would have caused him to push up his sleeves, here made him shiver. It was nearly four months since he had left England, but the smell of this place still felt alien, and the night-time sounds were the strange sounds of dreams and stories.
The streets were not empty. The merchants' premises were dark, and the dwellings above them were silent, but people moved in the shadows, and from the side of one house he heard moans and giggles. Several dwellings still showed lights, and laughter issued from taverns and gaming houses. He had forgotten to check his timepiece before leaving the house, but he suspected that it was well past midnight, but that night was not yet at odds with dawn.
The wind moved above him in unfamiliar trees. "Where are we going?" he asked again, but received no answer. He moistened his lips. "You should call me Sir, really," he said, "because I am your better."
"I have called only two men master in my life." The man's unyielding back showed that Rodney was not one of them. "Respect has to be earned."
"Oh. Yes." His father would have bristled with righteous fury, but his father also bowed and scraped and tugged his forelock to the nobles and gentlemen who bought his wares. At Oxford, Rodney had excelled in his studies, but to all the noble scions, he had been nothing.
They walked in silence for several minutes. Rodney had no fondness for silence. "That's Berowne's residence," he said, pointing to the half-built building to their right. "It will fall down within three years, you mark my words. There are basic flaws in the engineering. I keep telling them, but they refuse to listen. They were quite unreasonable. How was I to know that fellow he's employed is the most respected architect in the Caribbees? It doesn't stop him from being an ignorant charlatan. His ideas are quite stuck in the seventeenth century."
"Be quiet," the big man said.
Two streets later, they passed Mrs Beauchamp's salon. After his four afternoons there, he had been requested somewhat rudely not to return for at least a week. It was only fair to give others a chance to shine, they had told him. Well, he could respect that, he supposed. It was never pleasant to be outshone. "It's a small pond here," he told his guide. "We had reigning wits and men notorious for their intelligence, and then I stepped off that boat, and..." He spread his hands. The rest, he knew, was self-evident.
"Oh. Yes. Danger. I know." The shadows were back – footpads and ruffians and perhaps even pirates. There were far fewer than there had been only a decade before, or so he had been told, but there were far more than he would have liked. Not that he had any intention of meeting one, except dead, if that could count as a meeting. Gaps between houses showed the flare of light that was the watch tower in Port Royal across the bay. He had visited the ruins only a week before, and had shivered at the thought of the old city lost beneath the harbour, and shuddered at the sight of the famed Calico Jack, dead and rotting on Gallows Point.
The moon was gibbous, and patchy clouds moved across its face, so the world alternated between total darkness and faint gloom. His guide seemed untroubled by the darkness, and Rodney drew closer. The ground grew uneven, but he bit back his protests, and concentrated on not falling over.
They walked like that for quite some while, as he focused on his feet, and let his mind fill with speculations about what wonderful service he could perform for this man's master. It had to be something urgent and important. Perhaps he was some reclusive gentleman whose son and heir had fallen down a well, and…
He stopped in his tracks, as the world took shape around him. "We've left town," he gasped. "Where are we going? This is… Nobody lives out here."
"No." The big man shook his head, his face featureless mask in the moonlight.
"Then why…?" He swallowed. Behind the big man, the water of the bay was streaked black and silver. It was enough to show him the small boat that was pulled up to the shore, sheltered by trees from the watchtowers at the port. Somebody was waiting in the boat, their face turned towards him.
"As I said," the big man said, "you're coming with us."
"Us." He looked at the boat, looked at the man, looked at the sword at the man's side. Those strong arms that had protected him from footpads suddenly seemed quite the opposite of comforting.
"Yes." The big man nodded. His hand moved; landed on Rodney's shoulder.
"You…" He swallowed again, dreams of adulation fading. "You're abducting me?"
"You're our guest." The fingers dug in. The sword looked very long and very sharp.
"Oh." There was nothing left in his mouth, but still he swallowed. His treacherous feet moved him down to the shore. "I'll scream."
"From what we hear, the good folk of Kingston will be pleased to have you gone. They'll probably have a parade."
"Hey!" he protested, but fear conquered outrage. "Are you going to eat me? I've read about savage rituals."
"Captain wants your brain."
"My brain? Oh. Oh." He wished his feet would stop walking. He wished his mouth was stop babbling. Think. He needed to think. They were going to eat his brain. Ha! he imagined himself telling his father, confronting him on the dock. Say what you like, but when they wanted the mightiest brain in all the West Indies for their heathen rituals, they chose me. Of course, he would be dead by then, which would rather limit his capacity for gloating.
His treacherous feet had taken him to the small boat by now. The other figure stood up, and shot a sharp look at the big man, then turned towards Rodney. "No-one is going to eat your brain."
He felt his mouth gape open. "You're a woman." He shut it again, then opened it. The moonlight was sufficient to show him that she was most definitely wearing man's array. "Do you… do you know that you're a woman?"
"It has come to my attention, yes."
Stupid. Stupid, Rodney. He felt himself getting as tongue-tied as only women could make him. "Well!" He gestured sharply with his chin at his captor. "Does your savage friend know that you're a woman?"
"Of course," the big man said. "Now, get in."
"Why… why ever should I want to do that?"
"Because the captain needs your brain," the big man said, drawing a knife. "He said nothing about you being in a position to father sons."
"Ronon!" the woman said sharply. To Rodney she said, "You will not be harmed. We have a… problem with which we require your help. We heard news that a very clever man had arrived in Kingston, and…"
"Well, I am clever." He found it impossible to take his eyes off the blade. And had he not dreamt of scenes like this: holding court like Solomon, while hundreds of petitioners came to reap the benefits of his intelligence? News had spread. He had only been here three weeks, but already news had spread. "I am free to… to refuse?"
The woman smiled. "Of course not. If you refuse, we will take you by force. There are many ways to render a man incapable of fighting. I know them all."
"Ah. Yes. Of course you do." An image flashed into his mind of Charlotte Dauncey, she of the insipid smile and fluttering laugh. His father wanted Rodney to marry her. His mother said she had good childbearing hips. Her brother had once smashed the telescope Rodney had started to build in the back garden. Her spaniel had once bounced him weeping into the hedgerow, where there were prickles.
He stepped into the boat. The big man stepped in behind him, and they pushed off. "I'll protest," he said. "When I see this captain of yours, I'll… I'll refuse to do what he asks. I… I can pay. My father will ransom me. I'll bring down the weight of the authorities upon you."
They were both rowing. They said nothing.
He saw the light of Port Royal, closer now. He thought of a city subsiding beneath the waves because of a movement of the crust. He thought of bodies beneath the water, and dead men swinging in chains.
"You're pirates!" he gasped.
The moon emerged completely from the clouds, and he was adrift upon a sea of silver. I should have fought, he thought. Not that he was noble enough to have received the instruction of an Italian sword master, but even the commonest of men knew how to brawl. Or, no, he should have stood there proud and defiant. 'Kill me where I stand,' he should have said, baring his chest. 'I will die ere I prostitute my intelligence in the service of foul pirates.'
His hand closed on the edge of the boat. Big ships were all very well, but little ones… You felt so tiny and lost when there was only a small shell of wood between you and the endless deep. He'd gone out with his father into the Bristol Channel as a boy, and while his father had felt the thrill of the salt and the possibilities of riches over the oceans, Rodney had wanted to know how the boat floated, and how to navigate by sun and stars.
"They'll catch you," he said. "There are patrols here now – sturdy crews with hearts of oak, taken from the green fields of England."
"No-one can catch us," the big man said.
He remembered the knife. He sat in silence – and how far were they taking him? Miles? – and thought miserable thoughts wrapped up in gratifying ones. His stomach rumbled, and that distracted him for a while, but soon he had nothing. The lights of Kingston were fading, and the lights of Port Royal grew nearer, then dwindled in their turn. Once clear of the lights, the oars were stowed and the sail raised, and the boat stopped hugging the shore. After that, the silence was almost total, and there was just him left alive in a whole world of water, with two ruthless abductors at his side. Then the moon went behind a cloud, and he was alone in a sea of darkness, and it didn't matter that they wanted him for his brain, because he was going to die. He was going to die here, far from home, and all alone.
"We are almost there," the woman said, her voice unreadable in the dark.
The cloud across the moon turned thinner, and he saw a ship ahead of them in the pale light, and heard the soft creaking of its halyards. It showed no lights, and if it had any distinguishing marks, they were hidden by the night. Behind him, the big man made a call, like the eerie hooting of an owl. The same sound answered him from far above. A single light appeared, like a lantern shielded by a hand.
Their boat drew closer, into the shadow of the ship, and a rope was thrown down. "Climb," the big man said.
He could always jump, he thought. He could throw himself into the sea, and go to his death rather than serve a pirate. All he needed to do was think of suitably defiant final words.
"I'm not good at climbing," he said. The moonlight was enough to show the silver blade. "Uh… I'm trying. I'm trying."
He took hold of the rope, which turned out to be a rope ladder of sorts. Climbing it was horrible. He was dangling between a nest of blood-thirsty villains and a watery grave, and the rope twisted in his hands, and his palms hurt, and his head told him that he should shout those defiant words and let go, but his body screamed No! and clung on for dear life, and climbed and climbed and climbed.
Then strange hands were helping him over. He slumped to the deck, then collected himself enough to stand up, brushing his clothes down. "I demand to see the captain," he said, standing as tall as he could.
No-one said anything, but then the woman was at his side, her hand firm on his arm just above the elbow. "I will take you to your cabin."
"What?" He looked round from side to side. "No! I demand to see the captain." Perhaps he would give a speech about king and country, about honour and justice, and prick the scoundrel's conscience so he let him go and repented his wicked ways. I never doubted what I did, McKay, until I met you. Or perhaps he would just fall to his knees and…
But the woman was leading him away, and his treacherous feet were following. "There is a bed," she said, "and food and wine."
"We should put him in the bilges," the big man said, "with the rats."
"Ronon!" the woman said, but less sharply this time, and if she half shared his opinion, really. Her grip was strong as she directed him to something that could only be called a staircase with extreme charity, and forced him down the rungs. Then she led him to a cabin and shoved him firmly in. Before he could recover himself, the door was shut, and the key had been turned.
A small covered lantern lit the small room, showing that there was no-one else inside. He hammered at the door for a while, promising awful vengeance, then turned to the bed. There was indeed food and wine, so he helped himself to it, then drafted the defiant speech he would make when he met the captain in the morning.
Teyla knocked on the door. There was no answer. Exchanging a look with Ronon, she called out softly, "It is Teyla. I am coming in."
The cabin was dark, lit only by moonlight, but she was used to that, and she knew her way surely around every inch of this ship in the dark. The ship was barely rocking at all, anchored in the smooth harbour, but habit made her steady herself on the table full of charts, feeling her way past its rounded corners.
She heard the sound of him moving in the bed, and her sharp stab of relief told her quite how afraid she had been that he had passed from life, so close to the fruition of his plans.
"We have your man of science." She sat down on the stool. Experience told her not to get too close to him, no matter how badly he was hurting. He accepted her as the equal of any man on his ship, but he could not entirely shake off his upbringing. Ronon was allowed to tend to him when he was hurt, but she was only allowed to touch when his life was on the line, when the red heat of battle engulfed them.
"Good." She heard him sitting up, the breath catching in his throat, but the face revealed by the moonlight showed little sign of pain.
"He is as vexing as your informants said," she said with a smile.
"I don't need him to be good company. Can he do it, do you think?"
"He believes me can do anything."
"That's good. And if he fails…" He moved, clearly struggling for a position that did not hurt. She dug her nails into her palms, fighting the urge to help him. It was an indication of quite how much pain he was in, that he allowed her to be alone in his cabin at all. "If he fails," he said, "then we can teach him a lesson about empty boasting. It'll be quite heart-warming. Watch us spread moral lessons wherever we go."
She gave a faint smile, but, "I hope he will not fail," she said.
"Yeah. Me, too."
It was said lightly, but she knew how much this meant to him. It meant enough for him to come here to Kingston, despite the patrols and the price on his head, the moment he heard rumours of a newcomer who boasted of his skills in science. It meant enough for him to stay at the wheel through a day and a night of storms. It meant enough for him to run from an encounter with one of Kolya's ships, even as a well-aimed pistol shot from the enemy's poop deck had struck home. It meant enough that he had sailed on, resisting all pleas that he should rest, until he had brought them to their mooring. Only then had his strength given out. Only then had they discovered quite what damage that pistol shot had wrought.
It remained to be seen if it meant so much to him that he would die for it.
"I took him to the cabin we prepared," she said. "Ronon is not pleased."
"Ronon can live with it. We're not savages. We treat our guests well."
She nodded, remembering the first day she had met him. Her parents had wanted her to marry a lecherous old man, and so she had done the only thing that came to mind, and had dressed herself as a boy and run away to sea. She had spent half a year desperately careful to avoid being discovered, only to find out that the captain had known from the start. "It evidently suited you to pass as a boy," he had told her, "so I didn't say anything. I was wondering how long you'd let it go on for." But there had been steel in his eyes when he had made it clear to the crew that there would be no ribald comments, and that no-one laid a hand on her without her consent. There had been no need for him to tell them what the penalties would be.
"Are you…?" She clenched her fist tighter. "Do you need anything?"
"No." She heard him settle painfully onto the pillows. "You and Ronon have already brought me the only thing I need." She saw him smile, weary with pain, but saw the brightness in his eyes. "It all starts here, Teyla. At long last, maybe this is finally it."
"I hope so," she said, as she left the cabin, wondering if he would sleep. "For your sake, I hope so," she said quietly on the cold deck, to the stars.
end of chapter one
Preliminary sketch for a portrait of Rodney McKay, by William Hetherington, 1720
According to Hetherington's day book, McKay engaged him for a portrait in October 1720, saying that he needed to have his likeness recorded for posterity before he faced the "certain doom" that was his forthcoming passage to Jamaica. Hetherington duly produced this sketch, but McKay was unhappy, declaring it a poor likeness that failed to do justice to his "noble mien and lofty brow." Hetherington admits to responding, somewhat testily, that a true likeness was impossible when presented with a subject who refused to sit still, and who talked incessantly throughout the sitting. The association was thus dissolved, and the portrait never completed.
The formula depicted on the paper is doubtless a play on McKay's name. Any resemblance to certain other famous formulae is clearly coincidental.