The harbor at Port Jackson, New Holland; also known as Botany Bay. Not paradise - far from it: a dusty and dry and lifeless place, made even more unfriendly by the mood that suffused the reception of the Leopard: a general ungraciousness; an impolitic confusion at their very presence, for the problems that they had been dispatched to assist with were long-resolved, and Breadfruit Bligh himself had departed for exile in Van Diemen’s Land months ago.
When the bedraggled Leopard had limped into the bay some days past, the thankless task of reporting to the colonial authorities and making long-delayed diplomatic overtures had fallen to Jack Aubrey, while the active oversight of the ship was the purview of Lieutenant Babbington. Babbington had already spent their misfortune-laden voyage rising to the occasion again and again, after poor sick Pullings had been landed at Recife, and he took to the task with alacrity.
The Leopard’s convicts were offloaded in a haphazard fashion, and everyone aboard was quite relieved to be rid of them at last - no one moreso than the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, who looked forward to nothing more than filling the vacated cabins fit to burst with the specimens that threatened to overflow from his allotted space in the hold, he having gone overboard as it were in collecting the natural wonders of Desolation given the length of time he had been permitted to spend there, by dint of the Leopard’s disability.
Today was a Saturday; the work, such as it was, continued. Babbington awoke early, to see the Captain and Dr. Maturin off at the start of the morning watch: they were going together on a naturalizing expedition, the very last of their limited time here; and Babbington had no doubt the barge would return burdened low in the water with even more exotic animals, vegetables, and minerals.
Though despite the Captain’s valiant efforts the ship had hardly improved in its general state from its makeshift repairs at Desolation Island, at the turn of the tide tomorrow they would set out at last for Java, where the Captain had assured his crew that they would be, after so many thankless months, relieved in their long hardship by a complement of able and healthy men fresh from the station at Pulo Butang.
Lieutenant Babbington was, at present, awaiting the return of the barge: the Marine sentry had signaled its approach some minutes past. He stood at attention to greet his captain, but Jack hardly paid him heed: it appeared that he was locked in argument with his surgeon, their voices low and heated. Young Forshaw darted behind Dr. Maturin, scooping up the rocks and plant specimens that fell haphazardly from the baskets slung over his shoulders, as the party went below.
Babbington was distracted by one of the midshipmen calling for advice on repairing the capstan; by the time he descended down the companion ladder and approached the great cabin, he was not entirely surprised to see Killick, Captain Aubrey’s steward, with his ear pressed against the bulkhead, the coffee-pot on his tray clearly going colder by the second.
“Bring it in, Killick, unless you’re waiting on one of them to roll out the carpet for you.”
Killick shook his head. “I dursen’t, sir,” he said with conviction. “I wouldn’t be welcome.”
“Nonsense,” said Babbington, drawing himself up. “I’m sure they’d welcome” - he glanced at the tray in Killick’s hand- “a spot of toasted cheese and coffee, after their morning sojourn.”
But Killick remained oddly reluctant to enter, hanging back from the door with the hand not holding the tray curled tight behind his back.
“Come on, my man, what could possibly be in your way?”
“Which I was listening to them argue, about -”
“I heard them up on deck as they came down.”
“—that’s right, and it weren’t none of my business what they were talking, but it seemed greatly vital. When I heard a great thump, like someone fallen down. Maybe both. I thought, I best get the doctor, but then I recall, the doctor’s inside. So’s not to interrupt them, I was waiting, see.”
Babbington took this all in. It would not to do interrupt the Captain were he and the doctor engaged in private matters, but all the same the Captain had instilled in him the value of efficiency, and he could not proceed with the rest of the day’s work without reporting in.
“Why not knock?
“Something ain’t right,” said Killick, in a theatrical whisper.
“Enough of your superstition,” said Babbington; he rapped once on the door, called “Captain?” and entered.
The day had held much promise, at the start: a hearty romp out to the rolling, tree-lined hills past the barracks; and then a return to the Leopard, to finish overseeing the last of the preparations for departure.
The kangaroos, thankfully, were already aboard; they were so populous in the dusty streets of the colony that it had hardly been any work at all for Stephen’s band of skeptical seconded seamen to bundle them into the hold. Wombats, too: plucked from the scrubby brush along the harbor, pliant and wheezing and quite soft to the touch.
But Stephen’s unquenchable thirst for all things botanical would not let an empty morning go unfilled, and so it was that, rather than face another useless trip ashore, Jack agreed to go with Stephen on his final quest, for at the very least he could have said then to have contributed in some manner to the only successful part of this stopping-off.
It was still dark when they pushed off from the Leopard, as Bonden expertly guided the barge through the harbor and up the river, the sun rose behind them, spreading sticky-stweet pink light across the water at the wide mouth of the bay.
Jack had very much looked forward to the expedition’s prospect of improving his mood. All week long, ever since the jolly-boat from the Government House formerly occupied by Captain Bligh had brought to the Leopard the news that the Royal Navy was no longer welcome in Botany Bay, he had been stewing in disappointment over the uselessness of their journey. The emotion was intensified by his environs, for Port Jackson was a dirty place. The street corners were littered with waste dropped by the scowling infantrymen who kept the local order - the sun beat down senselessly on the ragged forms of the convicts, dead-eyed and dusty-clothed - and amongst everything lay a mood of futility and squalor. Spending time off of the ship, as he’d had to do, arranging the transfer of convicts; dealing with the unfriendly, politicking Army men who ran the place; being reduced to practically begging for cordage and spirits, and being summarily denied - it did not make for much joy, at least compared to Stephen’s untrammeled ecstasy at the place’s opportunities for natural philosophy.
“You are unusually solemn, brother,” Stephen remarked, as they ran along the shore.
“It is nothing,” said Jack, one hand on the gunwale, the other on his chin.
“Take heart—the laughing jackass will be awakening as we make the shore, and with luck, we shall soon be able to hear its cries.”
But even now, as they alighted on a grassy shore some miles inland, leagues distant from the colony center, everything seemed askew and false. Perhaps it was the quality of light: an inversion of everything, a reversal here at the bottom of the world. All things upside-down.
Jack wished he was back aboard the Leopard, ordering sails sheeted to catch the trade winds to Java; he was infuriated at the pointlessness of the suffering his crew had endured in order to land on this forsaken, corrupt shore; he was perturbed, minutely, about Stephen’s carelessness in allowing his own surgeon’s mate to escape with an American prisoner; in turn he was worried that he was, in fact, not perturbed enough, and that he ought to have worked harder in drawing up outrage over the incident; and above everything, the weight of the sinking of the Vaakzaamheit mantled him still. It was easier to feel it ashore, he thought. What made nothing but sense at sea was but a poor facsimile of truth, this far inland.
His poor mood had mounted in tandem with Stephen’s enthusiasm, as they tromped through the tall grass in search of crested lorikeet and the ringtail possum. Each new exclamation of Linnaean nomenclature from Stephen prompted, in turn, a spasm of reflexive fondness in Jack’s heart, followed by a sinking sensation. It was a shame Jack could not provide Stephen with the situation he deserved. The fellow was not one for complaints when they were not welcome: and Jack appreciated his forbearance in sparing him the worst of his dissatisfaction, when Jack had so much else to worry about, but was not the Doctor far better suited for a life of travel and excitement that contained far less danger and inconvenience than a ship’s surgeon?
He did not wish to be parted from Stephen, of course. But he recalled Stephen’s expression when he had informed him that they must press on immediately to Java, instead of landing at coves along the coast - it had made him feel nearly criminal, and in recalling it did so again.
Though his mood was dour, he persisted on through the bushes and tall grasses, putting his bulk use in lifting fallen trunks and large stones so that Stephen could scrabble underneath them for insects and fungi.
Then, from a crook in the branches of a tall, wide gum tree tree, its leaves shimmering as if a mirage, Stephen had pried the most beautiful beetle Jack had ever seen.
A massive creature, nearly the size of Stephen’s palm, its chitinous black body glimmering with all the colors of the sky and sea: Jack thought he saw there shades of brilliant sunset-pink; flecks of blue the precise shade of the waters of Port Mahon; glitters of green like the rustling leaves around Ashgrove Cottage. The most curious thing about it, to Jack’s untrained eyes, was that he was not sure which side was its head. It was in fact perfectly symmetrical, with one dangerous-looking yellow-tipped spike at each end. The creature reminded him of nothing so much as the Polychrest, that ungainly experimental vessel that he had sailed on escort duty in the Channel, and he remarked as much aloud to Stephen.
“It resembles her greatly,” agreed Stephen. “Should I have the honor of naming it, I may be relied upon to call her Chrysolopus polychrestia.”
For a moment, a satisfied silence had suffused the scene - a warm wind blew in from the bank, bringing the ineffable scent of eucalyptus and saltwater down with it, and many other things Jack did not recognize, being so distant here from the nature he knew - and Jack saw the look of wonder on Stephen’s face, the sheer delight that lit him up from the inside. It had been said that Stephen was not handsome - Jack had been guilty of saying it himself, though usually as a rejoinder to one of Stephen’s jabs about his own weight - but it was at times like this Jack pondered upon the poor and unwise Diana Villiers, who had turned Stephen down, and surely knew not what she lost. The only benefit of being a woman in this world, which treated them so harshly, Jack often thought fleetingly, would be to marry a man like Stephen.
The moment, as moments often are, was short-lived. Returning to the barge Jack, weighed down by their acquisitions, had made a complaint - some unthinking observation on how curious it was that the convicts were not distinguished by uniform, and mingled with the free men of the colony, and was that not simply asking for trouble?
Stephen had responded sharply with one of his polemics against rank, against the harshness of the transportation scheme as a whole, and Jack had taken offense to it; and then they had devolved into one of their habitual disagreements - not especially notable, but for the way that it was accompanied by the chirping of parrots and the croaking of frogs they carried with them.
“You are ignorant, Stephen, by God, an ignorant man!”
“And you, Jack, approach the blissful naivety of a child unbecoming of your age and rank.”
“Ah, but I thought you cared not a whit for rank, Maturin!”
Et cetera, et cetera.
Back aboard the ship - across the deck - down the companionway, handing off the larger specimens to Bonden and his men, Stephen carrying the smaller cases into the Great Cabin, where he would lay out the live specimens inside for dissection - and all the while, sniping back and forth.
Jack stood up, at one point, to emphasize his point; his bulk had knocked his chair over onto the deck, and against the leg of the table; causing the case holding the symmetrical beetle to tip on its side, its lid flying open, sending its prisoner scuttling quickly across the table - they both reached for the creature at the same time -
- and then everything went black.
An uncertain amount of time later, Jack staggered to his feet. He was unsteady, his stomach lurching as though he were again a young volunteer yet to find his sea legs, and his vision was still darkened around the edges. When he blinked, and the cabin around him swam into focus, he found that he was looking in a mirror, though none had been near just moments ago. He saw his own face, staring back at him - as surprised as he felt, so it must indeed have been a reflection - but then the reflection said, “Jack?” in an intonation utterly familiar.
“What-” Jack began, but the sound came out all wrong - a raspy tenor, instead of his own full bass.
He raised his hands before his eyes and saw the distinctly scarred knuckles, the missing fingernails of the right hand of Stephen Maturin.
A great uproar ensued - they circled each other, pinched their arms to see if they were dreaming - but within a minute they had established, beyond all measure of a doubt, that the impossible had occurred: Jack Aubrey wore the body of his own ship’s surgeon; and Stephen Maturin currently possessed the physical form of a post-captain.
All this while the culprit- the Polychrestian beetle - was sitting innocently on the tabletop.
Though it wholly lacked a face, or even any features said to constitute an expression, Jack had the distinct sense that it was somehow- smug.
Without warning, the beetle gave a twitch, and scuttled away, over the side of the table, and disappeared from sight.
“It’s gone below!” Stephen said - or rather, shouted, as it seems he was not clear on the mechanics of modulating Jack’s vocal cords just yet - “Help me find it, for all love!”
He dropped to his knees: misjudging the altitude, he ended up thumping to the ground; Jack, in his frenzy to assist, underestimated Stephen’s body’s speed of movement, and overshot his step.
It was then that a knock came at the door - a call of, “Captain?” - and it slid open to admit the Lieutenant.
From his vantage point, Babbington saw only a conglomeration of limbs, writhing about on the rug; eventually they separated into the doctor and Captain Aubrey, looking distinctly mussed; the doctor was holding something in hands clasped tightly, but what it was Babbington couldn’t tell.
“Doctor Maturin,” he said, nodding politely, and then brushed past Jack to stand at attention before Stephen. “Nearly eight bells now, sir. Are you still planning to go ashore to try one last time with the sergeant for a crate of spirits?”
“No - I don’t think so,” said Stephen, off Jack’s minute shake of the head. “Too - too much to be done before we depart, I should think.”
“Very well. In that case I shall see you up on deck at the turn of the watch, to check over the repairs from this morning, sir.”
Behind Babbington, Killick had slipped inside; he eyed Jack and Stephen with some suspicion as he placed the coffee-pot and tray on the table’s only bare space not taken up by specimens.
“Will that be all, Babbington?” Stephen said, shifting from foot to foot, as Jack motioned minutely behind him, raising the hands that clasped the beetle between them. “I have- much to discuss with the doctor here.”
They watched Babbington go; Jack, with hearing far more acute than normal, for Stephen’s ears had blessedly been spared the damage of two decades’ close-range cannon-fire, heard Killick say: “Something ain’t right, Mr. Babbington, I can tell. They was looking at each other like they’d done a robbery” - and then, even fainter, Babbington’s response: “You are imagining things, Killick! Don’t you stand there at the bulkhead; don’t you have laundry to hang before we weigh tomorrow? Come now...”
When they were once again entirely alone, Jack deposited the beetle safely back into its container; then the oddness of their state regained its primacy, and they stared at each other in silence for some seconds. The ship rocked gently in the soft breeze off the bay; the sound of feet on deck above was constant and rhythmic; Jack raised a hand to run it through his hair and was shocked when instead of meeting his own thick blonde waves, it was Stephen’s dark wiry curls he touched.
“The physical changes are apparent - but how do you feel, Jack?” Stephen asked.
“Strange ain’t in it, Stephen,” said Jack. “I feel like I might float away, you’re so light on your feet.”
He got up and did a little shuffle across the floor, a waltz to unheard music. Stephen couldn’t help but gape disbelievingly at the sight of his own body moving in such a way: Jack’s athletic grace came so naturally to him that even buried within the skin of a clumsy physician, his nimble soul shone through.
This set Stephen on a long and winding mental path, through certain philosophical theories regarding the location of a man’s species of movement - whether it rested in the mind, rather than the muscle fibres - and when he came back to himself Jack had stopped his dancing and come to rest before the great stern windows of the cabin, gazing out at the harbor and the distant hills.
“And I confess I always rather thought you saw the world through- well, whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses are. Your blue spectacles, you know; your stormy outlook. But it all looks about the same to me, color-wise - it’s the distance that’s the thing - I can’t see halfway to the barracks! It’s a damned blur, like greased glass.”
He rubbed at Stephen’s pale, watery eyes with the heels of his palm, shook his head and tried again - but the difficulties seemed to persist.
Stephen said, “The habitual reading of books throughout a man’s life have a regrettable effect on his eyesight as he ages. You have been exempt from such privations; I see clear to the pillars of the Governor’s house, and the flag waving on the quayside, with no assistance at all!”
“Are you saying I ain’t literate?”
At this Stephen leaned away from the window, struck a swaggering pose, his hands on his hips. “I am Lucky Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and I read no novels, and no histories, and nothing but the Gazette and my wife’s letters form my corpus of literature.”
“I do not sound anything like that,” said Jack sourly; the expression was an uncommon one for him but sat incredibly naturally on Stephen’s pinched face. After a moment he deepened the look, hunched his shoulders, and clasped his hands together in front of him in a thoughtful pose. “I’m Dr. Stephen Maturin,” he said, “and, O - all I want in all the world is to see the great pink booby, the Boobinus roseatus, and display a specimen at the Institute!”
Stephen had an uncommon accent, a peculiar phonetic mix of Ireland and Catalonia: quite hard to imitate, but Jack had had years of practice. His impression, first worked up for a talent contest round the wardroom dining-table of the Surprise, and improved upon in stages ever since, was very nearly flawless, except Stephen would never have punctuated his proclamation with such a loud and heartfelt guffaw.
“There exists no bird of that name,” responded Stephen, but he could not help smiling: a crooked half-smirk, nothing like Jack’s habitual broad and earnest grin.
“Well, there ought to be,” said Jack, and they both laughed - but he quickly grew serious again: the gravity of the situation had settled now, like silt after being stirred up from a river-bottom. It was clear to Jack - and surely to Stephen as well - that this matter was, beyond the absurdity on its surface, the strangeness of its fundamentals, nothing less than extremely dangerous. It was only their luck that they were currently at anchor, and that Stephen would not have to take command of the Leopard in a blow or an action - at least, if they were able to fix this before they were due to sail.
Stephen was fussing with Jack’s uniform, which showed the signs of a long sea voyage; the scratched buttons and the less-than-shining gold lace, the worn patches at the elbows and the frayed neckcloth. Seeing it from the outside Jack realized how very run-down he looked: how the strain of the long delay had dulled his silhouette; his hair overgrown, his brow lined; and he wondered how his men did not find him pitiable. Perhaps they did.
His solemnity recovered, Jack asked, “Have you known a phenomenon like this before?”
“Never,” said Stephen. “Never in life! It strains the very boundaries of belief. It is an unnatural occurrence that should by all rights be impossible. And yet - it has happened. I cannot deny what my senses tell me. So from here we must proceed scientifically at all costs.”
He crossed the scant space between them to take a closer look at Jack, who found himself tipping his head back to meet his own eyes, behind which Stephen’s keen curiosity gleamed brighter than ever.
“Lord, Stephen!” he exclaimed. “How do you stand craning up at me all day long? Don’t you get sore?”
“I am long used to it, my dear,” Stephen said. “You’ll find my trapezius and splenii well-exercised in the art.”
Stephen reached handily into the inner pocket of the black surgeon’s coat now worn by Jack to remove a small glass, through which he peered at Jack’s pupils, spreading each eyelid in turn; he beckoned Jack to open his mouth, and thrust wide fingers inside to sweep along his gums.
“Stephen, I’m not dying - less you are, in which case you might have told me - ”
“Tell me, do you feel within yourself any abnormalities? Chemical stirrings? Desires or compulsions?”
“I was rather peckish when we boarded,” said Jack, after a moment of thought, staring at the food Killick had brought, “but now that tray isn’t half as tempting as it ought to be.”
“Yes,” said Stephen, replacing the glass and stepping back, “whereas I feel the most immense hunger!” He laid his hands on his stomach; Jack’s form, thanks to the abundant seal and bird-meat of Desolation, was not diminished in the least by the privations of the journey, and was accustomed to being fed in great volumes.
“You’ll want to get something in me,” Jack said. “I’m liable to get irritable, as you know all too well.”
Stephen for a moment seemed like he might pose an objection to this- he did often have much to say on the subject of Jack’s weight- but it seemed that being the one in possession of the stomach in question did much to dissolve his judgement, and he went not a bit eagerly for the victuals.
Jack said, “The bug - ”
“The beetle, my dear,” interrupted Stephen through a mouthful of toasted cheese.
“Yes, alright - the unfortunate beetle - it is what did this, Stephen, we are sure of it? Funny to think something so small could pull off something so big.”
Stephen peered in at the creature. “Yes, certainly. I perceive that its stingers fell away,” he said, “once its crime had been committed. Not a crime to it, surely: only its instinct, made action.”
“It doesn’t hurt me,” said Jack, rubbing at the small red mark on Stephen’s hand, at the skin where thumb met forefinger.
“Nor I,” said Stephen, holding Jack’s hand up to the light. “As far as wounds go it is hardly injurious- merely superficial. A mild swelling. The effects of it may disappear as the wound does; in which case we only need wait hours, perhaps a day at most.”
“And if they don’t? Disappear, I mean.”
“We shall observe the beetle herself for signs of re-growth of the stingers; the budding process may have already begun, and then it is a matter of waiting.”
“How long might that take? No - no, don’t tell me,” said Jack, off Stephen’s expression, and leaned back in his chair, brooding.
Stephen retreated to Jack’s berth, and Jack watched him tug the mirror down from the wall, presumably to examine his borrowed body at close range and with Jack’s keen eyes, checking for any physical hints as to how this transfer had been effected, and how it might be reversed, should the perpetrator not prove a promising remedy.
Distracting himself, Jack sat down at the bench below the window and began to do the same: tugging up Stephen’s shirttails to inspect the scarred-over bullet wound, nestled between his ribs; the dark hair that curled in a sparse trail up from the waistband of his britches.
His ongoing reverie was interrupted by a whooping holler from beyond the door of his berth - a moment later Stephen burst through, the front of Jack’s breeches hanging open. “Jack!” he cried. “Your penis is enormous!”
“You’ve seen it before,” said Jack. An odd embarrassed flush drew up the face he wore; one that would never have appeared had his own natural ruddiness been able to mask it, but Stephen’s countenance offered no such inbuilt protection.
“But not up close - no, never at such an intimate distance. I suppose I considered it to be an optical illusion; the light refracting through the seawater as you swam providing a measure of magnification. Do you find it burdensome?”
Jack opened and closed his mouth a few times; ran his tongue across the back of Stephen’s charmingly crooked teeth (a bizarre sensation) and at last coming up with: “No - no. I mean to say, hardly at all.”
“And your partners in intercourse, they do not find it painful? I suppose you select the ones able to best accommodate…”
Jack was thankfully saved from having to respond to this by the Leopard’s bell, which struck eight times, and reminded them they were not alone aboard the ship.
“I must tell Babbington that you are ill,” said Stephen, glancing up towards the deck. “The poor fellow has had enough to be getting on with, but I suppose you cannot take command in my name.”
“You must tell him?” said Jack. “I believe you’ll find that duty falls to me.” He gestured at himself. “And you’ll have to tell me what to say, Stephen; I’m liable to prove myself within a minute to be no more a physician than I am a penguin.”
Stephen scratched his cheek - Jack’s cheek, shaven just that morning by Killick, pink and warm and soft to the touch. “Tell him that you - tell him Captain Aubrey is struck with a sudden headache - a migraine, very disabling.”
“No, that won’t do at all.” Jack shook his head, reconsidering. “He saw you just now, looking healthy as a dog! I cannot go about lying to my first lieutenant, it don’t answer. And I don’t get headaches, besides.”
“Shall we be truthful, then?” said Stephen. He made one of his habitual hums of deep contemplation: from Jack’s throat it came out melodic and almost honeylike.
Jack sputtered, “Certainly not! Put your mind to work for one moment and you will imagine the uproar - the chaos - the disarray - no, no, it cannot be borne. We ought to be able to muddle through, especially if this only lasts a day or so, like you say… We know each other well enough, don’t you think?”
“I do,” said Stephen. He reached out with Jack’s broad hand and clasped it around his own knobbly wrist: Jack nodded; a familiar look of warlike determination breaking through on a face normally more given to contemplation. “Hold fast, joy. Go check on my specimens while I walk the deck; it will give you peace, and time to think over our course of action.”
Stephen noted with some amusement that Jack ducked his head as he left the great cabin, used as he was to his great height necessitating a constant and instinctual bobbing motion as he moved throughout the ships of his command.
Less than a minute later Stephen had forgotten entirely about this observation, and as he exited he walked straight into the lintel, a loud thump ringing out.
“I am sorry, Jack,” he said, rubbing his temple, making sure it was not bleeding. It would hardly be polite to return the body in a poorer condition than he first found it.
Jack didn’t waste much time with the specimens; Bonden and Forshaw had stowed them quite neatly and with great care. The collected minerals and plants were all much of a muchness to him, and the live specimens chirruping in their enclosures made him nervous. The wombats were in a state of heightened activity: they seemed to be able to sense that the man in their keeper’s shape was an imposter, and their accusatory looks gleaming in the dimness caused an uncomfortable guilt to settle in his chest.
“It’s only your brother the beetle you have to blame for this,” he could not help but remark to a mantis, before he left, to stop off in Stephen’s cabin to deal with the untenable situation of his wig and waistcoat. The man’s own servant had gone away with Grant in the boats long ago; his manner of dress had not been respectable since then, though if it could said to have been so beforehand either that would have been a great and favorable exaggeration.
When he emerged up the companionway to the quarterdeck it was not to the bustle of work he would have expected, on a ship due to weigh the very next day. The whole scene was one of laziness and idle misuse of deck-space - and Stephen, of course, did not seem to have taken any notice!
“Sir!” he said, striding across to where two seamen where flicking pipe-ash over the bulwark into the harbor. “You there - Bradley and Tarver - where are you meant to be? Up in the tops, I am sure!”
Bradley eyed him. “Did the Captain put you up to this?” he asked.
Tarver offered, “Just yesterday you was going on about how we shouldn’t overexert, sir.”
“How I have to see you each morning for a bolus and you to check my tongue,” Bradley said.
Jack frowned. His own surgeon, ordering his men to be purposefully idle! Stephen surely had his reasons- he did not have to like them, though. He meant to issue an order to counteract Stephen’s - an exception to the rule, surely, for today, of all days, their last chance to make the ship fast before running north - but then the sun moved out from behind a sparse cloud, and he found himself squinting and tearing up. Stephen’s sensitive light eyes, used to candlelit darkness of the forepeak and his cramped cabin, were not built for upper-deck examinations of the masts and sheets, especially not under the harsh New Holland midday glare.
“Where’s your blue spectacles, Doctor,” laughed Tarver. “Else you’ll go blind up here.”
“I will not go blind,” said Jack. “That’s - anatomically unlikely,” though now that he said it, with all of Stephen’s authority, he was not entirely sure that was the case.
But they merely nodded indulgently at him; and he turned away in order to not make a fool of himself any further.
At this moment, Stephen was strolling up and down the deck of the Leopard, doing his best impression of Jack Aubrey at ease in his command.
He had wholly failed to account for the discomfort he would feel seeing the men and officers making way for him, knuckling their foreheads as he passed. They knew very well that the doctor was one of them - they proceeded with him as an equal, in their day-to-day dealings, if not a highly educated and respectable equal - but the Captain, the great Captain who they had stood fast by even as the Leopard was near sinking, the Captain who had saved them from a cold and starving overwinter on Desolation, was worthy of all the customs of the service which they were honor-bound to show him.
To Stephen it felt absurd and even offensive, that he should be given such deference; it was the sort of jockeying that he had made himself immune to long ago but that Jack depended on to maintain order and command. He would simply have to suffer it for Jack’s sake.
Babbington was running down a list, kept neat and orderly in his mind; one of the benefits of the remoteness of Port Jackson, its uncivilized air, was the lack of distractions - hardly any bumboat women, nor shore establishments to speak of - though Babbington himself would not have professed this to be a benefit, naturally, but to all that depended on his work it was one.
“ - and the fresh meat brought aboard, sir, the kangaroo, some of the men are saying they won’t eat it, there’s a rumor going around that it causes impotency, that it carries a pox within it.”
Now, Stephen was prepared with many an argument to the contrary; backed up by medicine and rationality. But what would Jack say, to a problem like this? He would not reference the writings of Trotter on digestion at sea; he would not reference the writings of Banks on the marsupials of the region, certainly not. In trying to call up an appropriate answer his concentration slipped, and he misjudged his lengthened stride by a good six inches and tripped quite cleanly over a neat coil of rope.
“I’m quite alright, Babbington, quite alright,” said Stephen, in as best an impression of Jack’s unflappable cheer as he could muster as he regained his standing. “A bit on my - on my beam-ends from this morning’s excursion, is all.” The grin at recalling the nautical expression shored up his false cheer into truth; Babbington still looked unconvinced, but led Stephen for’ard to continue their walk-around.
Meanwhile Jack observed him from across the way; squinting across the deck, he noticed something amiss - and, leaving the sailors to their prescribed idleness, hurried to where Stephen and Babbington stood.
“Ste - Jack,” he corrected himself, “the mizzen topgallant yard is overloaded - you will need to send up additional blocks to bear the clewline.”
Babbington scoffed. “With all due respect, Doctor, I am sure that’s not your area.”
“Captain Aubrey,” Jack said meaningfully, “don’t you think?”
To Stephen’s credit, he graciously accepted his role in the pantomime. “Though he is ignorant of a great deal of sea-faring knowledge,” he said, “so much so that it is the very joke of the wardroom, the Doctor is quite correct on this count… yes, now that I look at it, he’s quite right.”
Babbington digested this, looking from Jack to Stephen and back again. Jack trusted his lieutenant; he would be proud to see him made Commander when that day came; but now the lad’s perceptiveness was not exactly an asset.
“You see,” Stephen went on, beginning to puff up - and here Jack had a deep and strange sense of observing himself from the outside, much more so than even moments before - “he may be often clueless, but he is not wholly clew-less! How about that? Ha!”
Babbington smiled: the impression had done its job. “Very good, sir, I’ll have the master rig it up.”
Jack, for his part, was not sure if he ought to be proud or outright offended. Was that really what Stephen thought of his wit?
From behind him, Forshaw ran up and tugged at Jack’s sleeve. “If you please, Doctor,” he said, “the loblolly-boy says Henson’s in distress.”
Jack and Stephen exchanged an uneasy look - but there was nothing that could be done; if the Doctor was needed below then the Doctor must go, else they must try here and now to explain to a confused Babbington that in fact it was the Captain who ought to attend to the patient, and not the Doctor.
So Jack took his leave, and went below to the forepeak, where Henson was indeed in distress: that much was clear. He whined and twitched in his hammock as Jack did his best impression of Stephen, bustling about purposefully among the doctor’s medicine-case and supply cabinets, not knowing in the least what he was looking for or how to even start to discern what it might be. He engaged in a bit of procrastination - taking a wet cloth and applying it to the man’s forehead, as he recalled Stephen doing for him during his various convalescences.
He felt the eyes of the the loblolly-boy on the back of his neck; a disinterested and weak-chinned young man whom he’d never taken much notice of before, except as in relating to Stephen’s frequent complaints of incompetency and annoyance; but now who seemed by all accounts to Jack to be his only hope.
“I cannot find it,” said Jack, with the impatience of Stephen’s tone coming quite naturally to him.
“The Dover’s powder, sir?”
“Ah - yes, yes. That.”
The loblolly-boy reached a hand impertinently over Jack’s shoulder. retrieved a glass bottle that had been sitting centrally in Jack’s line of sight, and handed it to him.
He could tack in a gale; he could face down an enemy ship with double the firepower and emerge victorious; he could bargain with the Lords of the Admiralty for the rights to prize-money of his men; but the plain bottle, with its brown-paper label, absolutely flummoxed him. He could not fathom what was to be done with it. A powder? Did it go on the skin? Applied to the gums? Used as a suppository? How many grains? Could it kill, if used improperly?
In a panic, he thrust the bottle into the loblolly-boy’s hands. “Apologies - I think I hear my, er, parrot having a fit. I must attend to it at once. Will you be so kind as to dose this man?”
The boy heaved a disgruntled sigh and offered a nod; Jack gave the patient an apologetic look before departing.
As much as he had marveled at Stephen’s abilities; as many years as he had spent in the man’s company, fighting battles and playing concertos, sleeping in the same berth, snatching him from the jaws of danger; as much as he’d admired his ingenuity, his wit, his stalwart beliefs (howevermuch he disagreed with them at times) - it was dawning on him that he had never really stopped to wonder what it was like to be him. To be Stephen Maturin - to have a mind stuffed full of the wonders of the world - a half-dozen languages in full, and twenty more in bits and pieces; the names of every bird that flew and every plant that grew; history and myth and all the bones in the body - why, it defied Jack’s comprehension.
Stephen was not a small man at all, not really. His great size was all on the inside. Jack felt like his own spirit did not reach the tips of Stephen’s fingers, nor down to his toes; even his mind felt lost and diminutive, inside Stephen’s head. He simply didn’t know enough to fill it up.
“Dr. Maturin, is there something wrong?”
Forshaw’s treble squeak pierced the rumbling din of the busy ship. Jack looked up and saw the boy’s round, pink face peering down at him where he sat at one of the unoccupied mess-tables in the fo’c’sle.
“It’s nothing, Forshaw,” said Jack, remembering at the last minute to call up Stephen’s accent and timbre. “I was merely - thinking.”
Forshaw blinked. “Thinking about what, sir?”
“Thinking about … birds. The properties of the wing-bone of the Greater… Common… Australian Hawk…?” Yes, that seemed like something Stephen would be caught doing.
“You seem preoccupied,” said Forshaw. “May I fetch you a drink? Or something from the cook? There is plenty of kangaroo meat to go around, none of the men will touch it, but I have seen you take it fine.”
Jack was offended for a moment at being coddled so; until he recalled how Forshaw had taken an almost paternal liking to the doctor, who he perceived - not entirely incorrectly so - as being in need of supervision when aboard, and how if he were to spot Stephen in such a brown study he too would send all the guns of comfort to bear.
“That’s quite alright, Forshaw,” said Jack. “Run along and help on deck - I’ll do fine here.”
As soon as Jack had gone below, the Marine on watch had called “Boat ahoy!”; a response, inaudible to Stephen was heard, and Babbington took out his glass and peered to larboard, towards the approaching gig.
“It’s a red-coat, from the barracks,” he said, handing the glass to Stephen. He peered through it as the gig, rowed by surly-looking convicts, hooked onto the gunwale.
The Army man who came aboard with all due ceremony had a reluctant, almost disgusted look on his face. Stephen had never met him, but luckily Jack had, and had complained so resoundingly to Stephen these past days about him that Stephen had no problem identifying one Sergeant Marks, of the 73rd Regiment.
He was the go-between that had stymied nearly all of the ship’s efforts to restock; he had been an obstructive, very nearly offensive presence, by all accounts; and now he was here, scratching at his unshaven chin and looking vaguely discomfited to be voluntarily aboard a naval vessel.
“Captain Aubrey,” he said, “I’m grateful to find you still here,” he said. “I had thought you would have left already, seeing as we had no yards nor sails to offer you.”
“We plan to sail for Java tomorrow,” said Stephen, although in speaking aloud these words he felt a reliable pang thrum through him. He had made his case to Jack that they ought not to depart straight for Java - that they ought to hug the coast of New Holland and touch at a half-dozen unexplored bays and inlets, at the very least - for the sake of science, for the sake of discovery -but Jack’s readiness to reach Java and deliver his report to the Admiral could not be overhauled, and surely his eagerness to receive letters from Sophie was a factor as well. There was plenty to be said for his practicality, but the grief that Stephen felt at missing out on the opportunity for discovery was persistent.
It occurred to him - the thought clanging like a ship’s bell through his borrowed cranium - that he could order the ship’s course changed; he could speak to the master as soon as this soldier was gone, and the master would make it so. It was a terrifying, thrilling prospect; but he dare not pursue it.
“You keep a fine boat,” the sergeant was saying, looking about him at the Leopard’s ragged cordage and pitted deck. It was some small comfort to know that Marks knew even less about the way a ship ought to look than Stephen did.
“I do my best to keep her in shape. Now - what brings you here, sir?”
“The situation is this,” said Marks, his voice taking on an official tone. “A messenger has ridden in, ahead of a convoy coming down from Newcastle, which is a ways to the north - there is a lady of some regard, the daughter of a landowner, in need of medical attention. As you know we have an Army doctor on shore; but he has caught the spotted fever from a convict; and the Lieutenant Governor does not wish to offend by sending his assistant in his place when there is a physician available so close by. So the Major-General has ordered me to request the services of your shipmate.”
“That is to say, the doctor fellow you’ve mentioned - he is aboard, is he? Not lost in the bush, or battered by a kangaroo? My men tell me they’ve seen him in the streets, wrestling with the creatures and climbing trees.”
“He is here,” said Stephen. A strange opportunity, to learn what gossip circulated about you when you were not present.
“Good, good - yes, well, then. If you’ll send him to the guest-house at the Governor’s mansion tomorrow before you sail, then we should be much obliged.”
Stephen was hesitant to confirm this appointment. Not only was he loath to promise his own services when it was unclear if he’d even have his own hands to perform them with by morning, he was also unsure if Jack, in his place, wouldn’t have just made some brash excuse, sparing Stephen from having to dally onshore with the disagreeable redcoats, doing a favor for a governor who had done his best to see the Leopard set sail in the same poor condition she’d arrived in.
But Sergeant Marks rocked impatiently on his heels, and Lieutenant Babbington coughed gently into his hand, and Stephen could feel the weight of responsibility, heavy on Jack’s shoulders, and could not think of a way to relieve it that wouldn’t embarrass the absent captain.
He nodded, schooling his face into graciousness. “I will send Dr. Maturin in the barge in the morning,” he said.
Marks nodded his thanks but did not turn to go; Stephen intuited he was waiting to be asked to dinner in the wardroom but that would have been a step too far, a step too far indeed.
That night, Jack could not sleep; Stephen’s nerves were singing a song he could not quite understand, one that kept him from dropping off in his normal instantaneous manner. It was the most uncomfortable thing he’d ever endured: all his joints seemed to be slightly out of socket, and instead of becoming more relaxed as he lay still, he became increasingly restless. Stephen’s prick was part of the problem; and Jack had cause to wonder, for the first time, what his routine was, in this regard. If the man gave himself a frig every midnight on the clock - thinking it to be medicinal, perhaps - why then, it would follow that his body, even under Jack’s command, would expect attention. But even thinking sensibly along these lines, he resisted - it didn’t seem proper, no matter how much he thought it might've helped.
Finally, when the middle watch was drawing to a close and Jack could take this absurd restlessness no longer, he swung Stephen’s skinny legs out from his hammock and made his way to where the doctor slept, in the Captain’s berth.
The sight was a shock. Even knowing Stephen’s dreaming mind dwelt within, for all the world Jack was looking at himself, fast asleep: his mouth, hanging slightly open; strands of straw hair fallen out of his queue onto his cheeks; the dramatic rise and fall of his capacious lungs. He watched for a while, before it became too strange to bear. “Stephen,” he whispered, and prodded at his own fleshy arm. Stephen jerked awake, instantly alert in the long sea-trained fashion of a Navy officer. The speed in which he was thrust into consciousness seemed to throw him into a state of panic: in the past, Jack had seen Stephen stumble sleepily around for nigh-on a quarter of an hour before coming fully awake, even with the help of Killick’s strong coffee.
“Has something happened?” Stephen said, pressing a hand to his chest. “Good God, Jack, your heart is hyperactive - it thinks there is an action to be fought, surely we are still in the bay?”
Jack laid a soothing hand on his friend’s shoulder until he calmed: “All is well, Stephen. I was just thinking.”
They sat at the table in his cabin, watching the sky begin to lighten - their second sunrise in as many days, but seen through different eyes.
“It wouldn’t do to have me stay in harbor when I have no plans to play your part at the bedside of some stuck-up settler, not when that sick physician has perfectly good assistants he thinks himself too refined to send. No, we shall have to leave Port Jackson a few hours earlier than planned, and touch at locations up the coast - delaying our arrival in Java for as long as we can, and in the meantime the beetle’s stingers shall grow back, or we shall find another one where we land.”
“But the sailing of the ship, Jack! It was only our good fortune that has seen us at anchor during this reversal. What if we are caught in a blow? How to explain to the men that their captain has forgotten all the difference between a hawser and a halyard? Between a - a - ” Stephen visibly struggled for the proper metaphor - “a spritsail and a spanker!”
Jack frowned. “Why, surely you know the difference between a spritsail and a spanker by now, Stephen - ”
“Oh, perhaps, perhaps - but you catch my meaning, I hope?”
“Naturally I do,” said Jack, “but I really don’t see what else can be done.”
Stephen considered this. It was daunting, sure; but he had suffered greater challenges for lesser victories, and so too had Jack Aubrey. It would not be all bad, he supposed. Even if the condition persisted as far as Java - even if it persisted further - the opportunity for espionage could not be disregarded: in the guise of a captain, and a guileless, heroic, respected captain at that, he would be able to accomplish much for the cause.
Of course, there was the matter of - well, everything else, but even as he looked at the bug in his hands; he felt a tremendous affection for it, for in the trouble it had caused, it had given him an opportunity few men had: a transposition of consciousness; a supernatural shift in perspective - he could appreciate better, now, the way Jack saw the world, the choices he faced every day.
And besides: the beetle was a beautiful creature; Jack’s sharp vision said as much as Stephen took it from its cage, to inspect the state of its lost stingers and admire the way the light played on its carapace.
At this point, as he turned it round in his hands, the beetle did something it had as yet not done - with a shiver and a buzz, it lifted its wings and rose into the air.
This happened to be the moment that the great cabin door slid open, for Killick to enter, uncharacteristically tentative, bearing coffee; immediately on his heels was Babbington’s Newfoundland dog, having got loose from the lieutenant’s berth again. Upon seeing the beetle, buzzing through the air, it instantly leapt up onto its hind legs, swatting at it and snapping its drooling jaws -
“No!” cried Jack; he heard Stephen’s wordless shout of despair, his own face contorted; and then saw no more.
Jack came to with Killick shaking him. “Sir! God Almighty, sir, I thought you was taken by a fit - the both of you, and we’d have to sail the boat up to Java ourselves, no Captain and no Doctor, laid low, all of ‘em! That fucking kangaroo meat’s what did it, I told you, you’re not to eat it - ”
“Yes, it’s me, sir,” said the steward, helping Jack sit up: blinking, the scene in the cabin resolved itself before his eyes: The Newfoundland in the corner was crunching away happily on the beetle between its teeth, unaware of the days of stress it had just saved its owner’s captain from; and beside it, Stephen - ! Wonderful Stephen, beautiful Stephen, back to himself at last, face scrunched up in discomfort and then relaxing, as he looked at his hands; then up at Jack, and between them they shared a smile, of great relief and happiness and understanding.
Up on deck, later in the morning: the tide coming in, reliable and smooth, for even at this far corner of the world, where such strange things happened, the water was still yet bound by natural law - and Captain Aubrey, standing tall, in his element, ordered his men to the capstan to draw in the anchor, and then up to let fall courses and topsails; the light eastern breeze which saw them out of Botany Bay filling the sheets with purpose.
Even though the necessity for it had gone down the gullet of Babbington’s convenient dog, Jack was, out of loyalty, standing by his plan: they would leave early; run up the coast; linger in the waters off the coast of New Holland, and Stephen would have plenty of time to go ashore and immerse himself in the wildlife.
“What shall you do, if you find another one?” asked Jack. They stood at the taffrail, watching the water slip smoothly at the Leopard’s sides.
“Our beetle, you mean?” said Stephen, looking over with a wry look. “I will wear gloves when handling it, naturally. If I am fortunate enough to find two, I shall dissect one and keep the other alive, if I can. It may prove a useful phenomenon to have wholly in our control.”
“That is an interesting proposition,” said Jack. “I treasure you, Stephen - you know this - but perhaps not in the sense of treasuring your body. Well - that is to say - I mean, it is a fine body, but - ” His naturally red face hid his fierce blush; he cleared his throat a few times before going on: “In any case, before anything of the sort happens - if it happens - I will have to teach you some better jokes.”
“And I will have to teach you how to dilute a powder, my dear,” said Stephen, “the loblolly boy tells me I seemed to have been terrified by a mere bottle just yesterday…”