“Sir, oh sir! Captain Aubrey, sir?”
Jack came awake with a grunt, and with the dawning awareness that the midshipman standing by his cot had been bawling his name in a polite topmast bellow for some time.
“What is it, Mr Callow?” he asked, with a glance at the telltale compass in the beam overhead.
“Oh sir, there’s ever such a curious creature appeared on deck,” said young Callow, picking Jack’s breeches and coat off the chair and handing them to him. “The Doctor carried it off in one of his nets, it being standing orders he was to be fetched for anything alive, sir, which we think it is, alive, that is”—and here he quailed a little under his captain’s glare and delivered the rest of his message at a gabble—“but Mr Pullings sends his compliments and begs to let you know you might like to be waked too, seeing as the Doctor took the creature into the Great Cabin.”
“Ah.” Jack scrambled out of his cot and pulled on his breeches, bundling the tails of his nightshirt into them. “What sort of creature? If you have been hooking albatrosses again, Mr Callow, I shall have the hide off you. You know how it grieves the Doctor.”
“Oh no, sir,” said Callow, who loved his sport but loved Stephen more, “it ain’t an albatross. We don’t hardly know what to make of it, truth to tell, and Mr Pullings says he’s right stumped.”
Jack finished buttoning his breeches and caught up a lantern, a knife and a pistol to cover all eventualities. Just outside his sleeping cabin, Pullings and the marine sentry were arguing in low, urgent tones; Jack pushed his way between them and into the Great Cabin.
“Stephen,” he began, and then, his eyes having adjusted to the cabin’s brightness, he leapt instantly onto the nearest chair. “Oh! Oh! A snake!”
Stephen looked up from where he was crouched on the deck. “Good morning to you now, my dear. Are you perched on that chair for the good of your health or shall I offer you a hand down? One would think the dear Surprise had been visited by a bear, a rhinoceros, a mighty panther with its jaws agape, instead of this one small innocent amiable inoffensive reptile.”
Jack, his considerable bulk bent double under the cabin’s beams, stared down at the dark, serpentine form coiled on the deck’s chequered sailcloth.
“Pray do not approach it so close, Stephen,” he said. “Sea snakes are deadly poison. One touch is enough to kill a man.”
“One man? Half a ship’s company, at least.” Stephen edged closer to the little creature, angling his butterfly net towards it. It gave a slight writhe, coiling itself more tightly, but made no attempt to escape. “There, there, acushla,” he murmured. “From what isolated rock have you swum, what oceanic paradise? Or were you swept away on a dislodged palm tree or other conveyance? Have we sighted any such debris of late, Jack?”
Jack lowered himself cautiously until he was crouching on the seat of his chair. “No,” he said, “nothing but our own beef barrels for weeks, and no land on the charts.”
Stephen squatted down dangerously close to the creature, a narrow, limbless, snakelike beast that nonetheless had an air to it that was somehow unreptilian. “Perhaps something more in the vermiform line,” he muttered to himself. “Some species of nudibranch or holothurian? There is a distinct viperous gloss to its integument, however.” He raised his head. “Jack, the men who found it claimed that it had not been observed to climb the rail, that it simply dropped down onto the foredeck. I assumed at first that they must be gone in drink, the creatures, but they seemed steady enough.”
“Which hands were they?”
“John Grigson and William McEvoy.”
Jack nodded; both were seasoned foc’s’lemen, very old Surprises, and no more likely than most seamen to fabricate a tale to no purpose. “At four bells in the morning watch, they should have been tolerably sober, I believe.”
Stephen did not appear to be listening; he was leaning very close to the small beast, examining it as it flicked out its tongue.
“Jack,” he said, “I believe you are mistaken in supposing this a sea snake. It is not a snake at all, marine or otherwise.”
The creature uncoiled itself a little and lifted its head in a jerky motion quite unlike its previous sinuous curves, as if to underline his words. Its tongue flickered out again, a smooth, wire-like projection, unforked.
“Surely it—” began Jack.
“Those scales are not flesh, do you see?” Stephen interrupted. “Metallic, perhaps, or some type of gutta-percha, but the salient point is that there is no trace of vital tissue at all, at least superficially, and when it opens that mouth-like aperture at its anterior apex, the buccal cavity appears as artificial as the exterior. I should say it was some sort of automaton, some ingenious engine, though more advanced than any I have seen before. Did you note the light upon its head?”
Jack edged down from his chair and took a cautious step closer, and indeed there was a small bright patch gleaming with the unearthly cold blue of phosphorescence between the creature’s eyes. He glanced across at the specimen jar and dissection kit laid out in readiness on the table.
“An automaton?” he asked dubiously.
“Automaton, or puppet, or what you will,” said Stephen, waving the words away. “I have counted the flashes at length and there is a pattern to them, Jack. It appears to be blinking in some sort of cipher.”
Jack watched the tiny light glow and fade, glow and fade, in a swift flickering like that of a firefly, bright in the cabin’s early morning gloom. A firefly, or perhaps more like the strings of coloured lanterns or the red and blue flares that all naval vessels carried for signalling after dark. Ciphers might not have been exactly in Jack’s line, but signal lights were familiar of old.
“To use a cipher, though,” he said, “it would need to be intelligent, would it not?”
“Either intelligent or capable of repeating a sequence by rote, as any mindless poll parrot can, or those little ships that Mr Pullings tells me are employed to mirror your flag-hoists in line of battle. The intelligence may come from elsewhere, but here”—Stephen gestured with his net towards the snake-beast—“here we have it to hand, if we can find the key!”
Jack was silent for a moment. He had seen scrimshaw carvings so lifelike that one would swear they might run away any second; he had seen clockwork contraptions whose porcelain hands traced prewritten words across parchment when secret levers were pulled; but creatures such as this had never entered his conception.
“I speak under correction, brother,” he said slowly, “as you know I have never set myself up for a philosopher—”
“Not at all, joy, not at all.”
“—but such a thing scarcely seems possible.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth…” began Stephen.
“Aye,” said Jack, returning the smile, “but it was Lord Nelson himself who said that if signals could not be perfectly understood, no captain could do very wrong if he placed his ship alongside that of the enemy. And if we are to assume that this – this automaton is not of his Majesty’s navy...”
Stephen frowned at the creature, which was still coiled motionless on the deck, gazing back at them through its strange crystalline eyes. “It is not French either, Jack, I assure you of that. The French may lead the world in natural philosophy, but nothing do they know of creatures such as this. And if by your shipborne analogy you mean to suggest some kind of physical assault upon it, I must tell you that, whilst I am no lily-livered craven pacifistical milksop, belligerence is seldom the best way to acquire the unembellished truth. I have seen too many men racked to trust in such methods.”
Jack laid a hand on Stephen’s shoulder, regretting extremely that his words had been misinterpreted in this way. He had himself cut Stephen bodily from one such rack many years previously, and had he been likely to forget, the white tracery of scar tissue on his friend’s hands was ever present to bear witness.
“I did not mean that sort of attack,” he said. “I meant only that if the creature bears intelligence, you would surely be the man to parley with it, even if its signals are not the clearest.”
Stephen sat back on his haunches. “I hope you are right. Pray pass me that pen from your desk, soul, and that sheaf of paper.”
Jack did so and watched him lean forwards again, pen in hand.
“My name is Maturin,” Stephen told the creature, enunciating clearly. “Please to state your name and origin, or that of your master.”
The snake stared unblinkingly back at him, the little light between its eyes flickering fast. In the silence, Callow poked his head around the cabin door.
“Mr Pullings’ compliments, sir,” he said, “and he should like to know if he may shorten sail.”
Jack got to his feet, rubbing at his spine. “I beg your pardon, Doctor, I must go. Mr Callow, jump for’ard and fetch the signal book and a couple of slates. You will assist Dr Maturin with whatever he requires, and you will do so without getting a single drop of ink on any of my papers, do you hear me there?”
Jack spent most of the next twelve hours on deck, the glass having begun to drop ominously and lead-bellied clouds to gather on the western horizon. At this latitude, storms could blow up without warning, unleashing a month’s worth of rain within an hour, and he was too much attuned to his ship to rest whilst she was in danger, however reliable his first lieutenant. Pullings, for his part, had known Jack since his first command and would have been surprised had he not been on deck, watching every darkening of the sky, every billow and strain of the sails.
Towards noon, Jack ran below to fetch a knit cap and grego, and to swallow a cold beef sandwich. He found Stephen and young Callow utterly absorbed in their examination of the snakelike beast, the midshipman scribbling dots and dashes hurriedly on one slate while Stephen transcribed alphabetically from the other.
“Have you made out any kind of meaning?” Jack asked them, and they raised their heads slowly as if from a daze.
“I am not without hope,” said Stephen, tapping his pen on the paper in front of him. “The creature clearly understands English, at least to some extent. Watch, Jack: if I bid it move fore or aft, larboard or starboard, it obeys me instantly. I do not yet have the key to its code, but it is improbable the sequences should not be meaningful. If I can find the pattern…”
He bent his head once more to his work, and did not look up as Jack collected his coat and hurried back on deck. The sky was even darker now, and Jack called all hands to strike the topmasts and shorten sail; shorten it and shorten it again, until the Surprise was scudding along under jib and a scrap of forestaysail alone.
Night had fallen by the time the storm had abated and Jack felt easy enough to return to his cabin. He found Callow stretched out under a blanket on the aft lockers, open-mouthed and snoring softly. Stephen glanced up from his papers with red-rimmed eyes and a radiant smile.
“I have it!” he said, waving a close-written sheet at Jack. “I have boarded the prize and carried her! See here, we have compiled an alphabet, Mr Callow and I – a phonetic alphabet of our own invention, proceeding on the assumption that the creature acquired its English from listening to the crew – and then we taught it a simple code utilising repeated flashes of two different lengths, so as to condense the meaning, and here is the result: writing, my dear soul, writing!”
Jack took the sheet, attempting to make sense of the tiny, scrawled characters. “But Stephen, this is almost all figures.”
A little of the triumph fell from Stephen’s countenance. “Yes,” he said, glancing at the snake, which was curled up on the desk near his elbow. “Yes, it appears to be of a strong mathematical bent, and in the end we had to capitulate and add numbers to our code. I have written them all down faithfully, but my head for figures has never been all it should. I suspect there is some sort of code within the code, a double cipher. There is one sequence I have noted to repeat over and over which may be a key to the rest.”
Jack tapped at the paper. “I see it,” he said. “Here, and here, and here. Three sets of numbers each time.”
The little creature had raised its head, and now it bobbed it up and down, for all the world like a nod.
“It is most insistent upon that,” said Stephen. “I thought they might indicate a location - you will note the repeated word 'rendezvous' - but Mr Callow tells me they cannot, although his explanation as to why was not fully intelligible.”
Jack smiled at him in pure affection; Stephen was the deepest file, the wisest scholar he had ever known, but in all maritime matters he was an infant forever.
“Why, if there were only two of them, they might certainly have been coordinates,” he said. “Latitude and longitude, you know. But as there are three…”
“Could the third be a date, perhaps?” suggested Stephen. “Every rendezvous requires a date if one is not simply to wait there in perpetuity, growing ever older and thinner.”
Jack studied the figures again. Numbers and letters were jumbled up, with here and there some recognisable formulations: the familiar sines and cosines that he tried to instil in his midshipmen during their lessons in navigation. Much of the notation seemed nonsensical, however, mere random strings of figures.
“I cannot see anything resembling a date,” he said. “The creature learnt its English by eavesdropping, you said?”
“So we hypothesised.”
Jack nodded. The sequences he could parse resembled those of the spherical trigonometry and astronomical navigation drummed so painfully into his midshipmen, and the rest were either gibberish or a mathematics beyond anything he had learnt himself; it was impossible to distinguish which.
“Leave it with me,” he said, sitting down at his table. “Get some rest, Stephen, or you will be no good to man or beast in the morning. I shall be with you presently.”
Jack awoke next morning as the first rays of dawn were creeping in through the Great Cabin’s sloping windows. He raised his head, wincing at the stiffness in his neck, and glanced down at the paperwork on which he had been lying. On the uppermost sheet, a set of equations that began boldly with x = Rcos(u)sin(v) quickly degenerated into illegible smears, some across the page and some on his cuffs. He went over to the quarter-gallery to wash the rest of the ink from his face, cursing as the water in his basin turned grey.
Returning to his desk, he saw with relief that the last line of his calculations was unsmudged. He caught up the page and crossed to his sleeping cabin.
“Stephen?” he whispered, in the smallest voice a sixteen-stone post captain could reasonably manage.
Stephen opened one eye, his hand going automatically to his breast, where the snake-beast was curled up asleep on his bare chest in the place usually claimed by the ship’s cat.
“I have it!” said Jack. “Twenty-two degrees and fifty-five minutes north, fifty-two degrees and one minute west! The figures were simply Cartesian coordinates. It was the third one that led me astray, until it occurred to me that our own coordinates also have an unspoken third that we do not trouble with, it being a constant, of course, the radius of the earth itself. Once we established that, it was merely a question of agreeing on units and coordinate system, and since the snake is quicker-witted than any of my blockhead youngsters, it grasped the use of nautical miles straight off: one three-thousand six-hundredth part of the earth's circumference, which is simplicity itself. Of Greenwich it was unfortunately ignorant, and I could not think how to explain, but when I fixed the meridian here on the Surprise instead, why, there we have it! A little more calculation gives us twenty-two degrees and fifty-five minutes north, fifty-two degrees and one minute west. I should put that in the mid-Atlantic, near the Sargasso Sea, and not so very far off.”
Stephen reached to pet the snake under its chin. “The Sargasso Sea?” he asked. “Could we make the rendezvous, then?”
Jack watched the creature bare its neck to Stephen’s fingertips. “Given a fair wind or even a moderately foul one, we have time enough, assuming my calculations of the required date are correct. Whether it would be wise to do so is another matter.”
Stephen bowed his head, his pale eyes hidden as he stroked the snake’s sleek black scales. “I cannot ask you to risk your ship and all her crew, my dear.”
“You cannot, no.” Jack folded the paper and tucked it away into his breeches pocket. “But it is not so very far out of our way, and we are in fighting trim. If we arrive early and gain the weather gage, we can appraise the other ship as soon as she is topsails-up and slip away again if need be.”
Jack gazed to windward, shading his eyes as he watched the Surprise pitching gently on the waves a mile distant. Stephen had offered to make the rendezvous alone, but Jack had insisted on rowing him out in the cutter to the exact spot, or as exact as a painstaking series of lunar observations could make it. They had been waiting there since first light, and Stephen, long since grown tired of watching an empty sea, was now dipping his net over the side in search of curious beasts, while the snake slept by his side on the sun-warmed thwart.
Jack scanned the horizon again, and again he saw nothing but blue waters and bluer sky. Over the past few days he had questioned the snake repeatedly as to its own ship’s tonnage and guns, but the answers had made little sense, and the ship’s name – the Moth, assuming he had understood the phonetic symbols correctly – was not one he had heard of in any nation’s fleet. As to the choice of rendezvous location, the snake had tried to explain it mathematically, interspersed with the repeated phrase “formation effect”, but the equations seemed nonsensical to Jack.
“Stephen,” he began, “have you—”
He cut off, appalled, as a colossal crash rang out, more deafening than the loudest broadside. Glancing up, he ducked instinctively in horror as the sky was torn apart by a vast grey ship, filling the heavens from horizon to horizon, so low overhead that he could almost reach up and touch it. He opened his mouth to yell a warning to Stephen, but before his lips could form the words, the vessel had thundered over their heads and was gone again as if it had never been there.
Jack whirled round, expecting – what? wreckage, perhaps? – but there was nothing to see. A short distance to windward, the Surprise was still rocking gently on the tranquil waters. The sea was once more unshadowed, the frigate intact, with all her masts standing and everything just as it had been a few seconds before, pristine and bright in the tropical sunshine. Whatever the great grey ship had been, it had passed by impossibly quickly, leaving no trace whatsoever in its wake.
Jack rubbed his eyes and looked again, but nothing had changed, except that the snake was nowhere to be seen. Stephen had leapt onto his thwart and was still standing there with his mouth open, both arms raised to point at something already long gone, while seagulls wheeled amazed in the empty sky.
Evening found Jack and Stephen sitting silently in the Great Cabin, neither of them of a mind to articulate what both had seen. A ship that could sail across the sky was no more within the realms of possibility than a code-bearing snake, and to discuss such things seemed ludicrous now that their physical presence no longer obtruded upon shipboard reality. Jack was still turning the mathematics over in his head, however, even if he could only make sense of parts of it. The tripartite coordinates haunted him; habitual use of three numbers would be sensible enough if the third was a variable, of course, rather than the constant of all terrestrial locations, but that would imply—Jack found he did not want to grapple with what it implied.
Stephen cleared his throat. “My dear, I am curious as to how you plan to enter today’s events in the ship’s logbook. I hear the Admiralty insists upon a full and honest account.”
“Oh, I shall put ‘Wind SSW, men variously employed’ or something along those lines,” said Jack. “Viewed in a certain light, the logbook is as much a work of fiction as any three-volume novel from a circulating library.”
Stephen gave a quiet snort of amusement. “With a sprinkling of the truth judiciously employed so as to shape the narrative to your convenience?”
“Well, the wind was from the south-southwest.”
Stephen smiled and lapsed into silence, his fingers reaching automatically to the corner of the table where the snake had sat.
“The rarest creature I could ever hope to find,” he said at length, “and not a trace of it left.”
Jack glanced at the clutter of specimen jars and dissection tools littering Stephen’s side of the table. “I am sorry, brother. You would have liked to add it to your collection, I suppose.”
“I should. For the sake of natural philosophy, I should indeed. But sometimes one cannot, one should not…”
He trailed off, but Jack, watching him poking at the tools with his scarred fingers, could follow the thought without difficulty. Some creatures were not born to be caged.
“Well, Stephen,” he said, putting all the lightness he could into his voice, “we shall be in Recife in a week or two, God willing. I daresay you can find a dozen snakes there, each more lethal than the last.”
That earned him Stephen’s rare, creaking laugh. “God willing, indeed,” said Stephen.
“I did not say you could bring them aboard alive, mark you,” added Jack. “I did not say that.”
“No, no,” said Stephen, patting his collection boxes affectionately. “You did not say that. Will you come to bed now, soul? The hour grows late and it has been a long day.”
Jack took one last glance at the neglected paperwork scattered across the table and then followed Stephen towards the sleeping cabin. After all, the Surprise’s logbook, that ever-lengthening work of fiction, would still be there in the morning.