By Jamie Barras, illustration by Carole Hall
2 October 2006
Part 1 of 2
The Bay of Bengal, May of 1820
As night fell, Cap'n Macintyre gathered the crew on the quarterdeck for a council of war. "Well, lads," he said, "what's it to be: keep running or turn and fight?"
We had spun through a dozen earths since sunrise, leading the Scaly-Jacks from fair weather to foul and back again. Now the sun had set, the wind was in our faces, but the Scaly-Jacks were chasing us still. There could be only one answer, and the captain knew it. "Then break out the boats," he said.
We were ten days out from Batavia when we ran foul of the Scaly-Jacks. It was a little after dawn. The Constance Marie was running northwest before a good wind one degree off the quarter; carrying very little canvas but still making five knots easy—really showing her pedigree. An hour earlier, Cap'n Macintyre had ordered the weather wheel spun to bring the ship out of the path of a tropical storm. That had brought us to an earth where the horizon was clear in every direction and the sea ours alone. Our holds were full of Indies spices and we were only a few days' good sailing from the markets of the Carnatic. Everything was right with the world.
Then a cry sounded out from the crow's nest. "Below! Silhouette on the aft horizon!"
A ship approaching from the east with the rising sun at her back—our first such sighting in several days. As like as not, she was another merchantman on route for the Carnatic, but, even so, quick as you like, the call came from the quarterdeck to shake out more canvas.
I had been expecting it: Cap'n Macintyre liked to stay out of sight of other ships so that he could spin out if he had cause to without betraying the secret of the wheel to men still anchored to a single earth. I hurried to join Billy Grimm and Methody Sykes over by the mainmast shrouds. One after another, we clambered up into the rigging and out onto the horses—the footropes—slung under the tops'l yardarm. We shook out the tops'l. Ahead of us, the foremast-top men did the same. Now carrying twice as much canvas as she was before and running before the wind, the "Connie" surged forward.
"Six and a half knots!" the boatswain, Tam Cutter, called out from the bow. "Seven!"
The ship behind us kept coming on, but we still thought nothing of her being there, as the Bay was busy with merchantmen, even at this time of the year—between monsoon seasons—when ships anchored to a single earth could never be sure of a fair wind. This was just a brief bit of sport for us, something to break the monotony of the day.
In time, the sun rose higher, casting the ship behind us in a new light. Every man aloft, myself included, stood tall on the horses to try to get a better look at her, even though she was still a good ten miles off.
"Three-master," called out Methody Sykes over off to my right. He had the best pair of eyes on the ship. "Fearsome steep rake—Yankee, maybe? Rigged for speed, whate'er she be."
The message was passed down and back to the quarterdeck. Cap'n Macintyre ordered the mains'ls shook out. Practically every member of the Connie's 35-strong crew was aloft by then. She surged forward with every line and spar straining. "Eight knots! Eight and a half!" Finally, the other ship started to fall back. After a half hour of this, Methody was able to call down, "Gone behind!"
We had the measure of her at last—she had slipped back over the horizon. The message had no sooner got back to the quarterdeck than Cap'n Macintyre sent for Pateelhogol. That too was only to be expected: best to spin out of this world while we were sure no one could see us, rather than wait until we maybe needed to but couldn't because we were in sight of the other ship.
The Telor appeared on deck and crossed over to join the captain by the wheel. They were an odd pairing: the captain thickset, buttoned-down, with muttonchop whiskers hiding fully half his face; the Telor more than a foot shorter, a slip of a figure in his loose Arabian-Nights-like robe, clean-shaven with his rich golden hair cropped close to his small golden head. After they had talked for a few moments, the captain turned and called forward, "Mister Cutter!"
"Stand by to spin out!" Tam Cutter ordered.
I tightened my grip on the tops'l head, took a breath and held it.
"Spinning out!" called Tam Cutter.
A world away.
I released the breath that I had been holding. At that same moment, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw Methody Sykes smiling back at me. "You were with us a quarter-year afore we told you about the weather wheel, Joseph John, and never once across that time did you notice us spinning out. So why do you keep expecting to notice something now?"
Across my first three months on board the Connie we had sighted storm clouds on the fore horizon half a dozen times, only for the wind to then shift, carrying the storm back over the horizon away from us. On two other occasions the wind had dropped away to nothing—opening up the prospect of a lengthy becalming—only to pick up again within minutes. But as Methody had said, I had noticed nothing. The Telor was so adept at managing the transition from one world to the next that I had thought only that the Connie was living up to her reputation of having the Devil's own luck with the wind. With that and the captain keeping a check on what orders were given within my earshot, never once had I suspected that there was anything more to the Connie's good fortune than that. "But now I know we're spinning out, Methody Sykes," I said. "And it's the knowing that makes all the difference."
Methody's smile broadened and he shook his head, as if to say: there's no arguing with fools.
"Wind's a touch fresher," said Billy Grimm from back over my left shoulder. Methody and I both turned towards him. He held his large head high, the tip of his tongue showing through his teeth as he tasted the air. "And maybe another half a degree off the quarter. Cap'n will want to lose some canvas."
I hadn't noticed anything different. The sun was still there in the same place in the sky, and the sea had not changed; to me this world seemed very much like the one that we had just left. But I knew that two worlds could be as alike as two peas in a pod, and you still would not find the same wind blowing in them. That was what gave the world-crossing Connie her advantage over ships anchored to a single earth: she wasn't a hostage to the wind as they were. Billy Grimm, like many men of his cast, had a keen sense of even the smallest differences in the wind.
Sure enough, a few moments later, the order came from below to take back in all the canvas that we had just set. Our sport was over for the day. Billy Grimm, Methody, and I started to haul in the tops'l, while the rest of the crew saw to the other sails. But we had not any of us got more than halfway through the task when a fresh commotion went up from the quarterdeck.
I turned, looked down, and saw that Pateelhogol was the one making all the noise—calling for Cap'n Macintyre, and saying something in that itchy-scratchy language of his. I couldn't make head or tail of it. Then Methody Sykes started to swear. I turned towards him, more confused than ever. At that same moment, he called out, "Sail! Sail on the aft horizon, God rot it!"
My heart sank. Dimly I heard Billy Grimm start to curse in his turn. I had been aboard the Constance Marie a comparatively short length of time, and had known about the weather wheel for less time still, but even so, I knew as well as any man on board the significance of Methody's words. The ship that had been behind us, a world away, was back there again, in this world.
They had a weather wheel, and they had spun it to bring them from that earth to this. In pursuit of us.
"Shake it out—shake it all out!" Cap'n Macintyre bellowed. Working with a new urgency, Billy Grimm, Methody Sykes, and I reset the tops'l. Up and down the Connie's fore and mainmasts men worked to throw on as much canvas as the yards would hold. Abaft of us, even Cap'n Macintyre lent a hand, helping to raise a sail on the Connie's small mizzenmast. As I worked, I called out a question to Billy Grimm: "Privateer?"
Not every ship with a weather wheel used it to make an honest living. Being able to spin in and out of worlds at will was a powerful advantage to have if you were bent on stealing up on ships unawares. The Connie wasn't one to be surprised that way, however. I now realised what Pateelhogol had been making a fuss about just before Methody spotted our pursuer anew. If you knew how to read them, one weather wheel could tell you when another was being used nearby—and Pateelhogol knew how to read them. Of course, that cut both ways—our own use of the weather wheel was what had first alerted our pursuers to the fact that we had spun into the world where they had been waiting. And when we had spun our wheel a second time, our pursuers had read enough in the consequential disturbance in the movement of their wheel to be able to follow us to our new earth. It was as if we were leaving a wake for them to follow.
"We had better hope so, Joseph John," he answered. "We had better hope so."
It took me a moment to realise what he meant. "Scaly-Jacks? How? We can't have spun into one of their worlds?"
There were more Scaly-Jack worlds than worlds of any other kind, but Pateelhogol had spent the first thirty years of his life a slave of the Scaly-Jacks—he wasn't likely to make that mistake.
"They doesn't always stick to their own worlds," Billy Grimm said. "They're proper Jackdaws—scavengers. Ransacking the Telor worlds gave them a taste for it. Isn't that the way of it, Methody Sykes?"
"Aye," said Methody. "But we'll know either way soon enough."
"The captain will let them get in close enough for him to make out with his glass?" I didn't like the sound of that. As long as we stayed close to each other neither ship could use its weather wheel without that registering on the other ship. Better, it seemed to me, to put some distance between us and then spin out as soon as the distance between the two ships was too great for the wheels to react to each other.
Billy Grimm and Methody Sykes both laughed. "Not likely," said Methody in a mock-horrified tone. "No, the captain will give them a run—make them really work if they wants to catch us. If they're privateers, they'll sharp get bored and spin out in search of easier prey."
They did not get bored. For two hours and more, they kept after us, matching us sheet for sheet; working the wind as well as we did. But their ship was narrower in the beam, taller in the mast, and eventually that began to tell: by the end of those two hours, she had gained as much as two miles on us. Though close on eight miles of sea still separated us, slowly but surely, they were overhauling us. And every man on board knew it.
"Scaly-Jacks," said Methody with a terrible certainty.
Billy Grimm grunted in dark amusement. "Serves me right for signing up with a Marra ship."
"Marra" was the name that Billy Grimm's people had given to men of my cast. I threw a glance in Billy Grimm's direction. His skin was as dark as any lascar's, but his features were much heavier, his jaw more protruding, and his eyes deeper set. When I had first joined the Connie, I, in my ignorance, had allowed myself to be convinced that Billy and the two other men of his cast on board were Andaman Islanders—tamed savages. They were no such thing, I knew that now. They were as civilised as any white man. They were just men of a different cast—a different making, born on an earth that had a history very different to that of my earth.
"Will they really keep up the chase?" I asked. "Are we really worth all this effort?"
Billy Grimm turned towards me. "We have something they think belongs to them, Joseph John." The weather wheel. "Aye, they'll keep up the chase."
"So what now?" I asked.
"Now, we spins the wheel," said Methody Sykes. "And takes our chances."
And so it went: across all of the morning and well into the afternoon, we spun in and out of worlds, chasing this wind and that, trying to find weather than favoured us and not the Scaly-Jacks, trying to get the measure of their ship. But nothing worked; the Scaly-Jack ship was a superb sailer—and well-served by her crew. God rot her and them both. By the time the sun had started for the horizon once more, less than four miles of sea separated us.
It was time for drastic action. Cap'n Macintyre issued his orders. We made ourselves fast to the yardarms with our belts. We made ready. We said our prayers. And then we spun out once more.
Rain, driven by a sixty-knot wind, hit us, and it was like running into a wall. My mouth filled with water—I had to fight to keep breathing. Half-blinded by spray, deafened by the force of the impact and the howling of the wind, I struggled to keep hauling in the tops'l as fast as my arms would let me. The Connie began to keel over. I risked a glance over Billy Grimm's shoulder, and all that I could see below us was water—black and boiling. Pateelhogol had spun us into a world where two storms were colliding, feeding each other's strength—into as fierce a sea as the Connie's hull could stand. We were riding side-on atop a wave maybe a hundred feet from crest to trough. We had to come around, turn into the wind, or else capsize.
Suddenly the Connie shook, as if she had struck something. I finished tying off the sail, leant forward, and looked down. Tam Cutter and two other hands had just finished setting a storm sail between the fore and mainmasts. The shaking had been the wind taking hold of it. The storm sail gave us steerage way; slowly the Connie started to right herself and come round. I held on to the yardarm for dear life, praying that the line through my belt would hold.
The Connie came fully into the wind and started to race down the steeply-sloping windward side of the wave. Her bow struck the trough of the next wave in an explosion of white water, and bit deep. I slammed into the yardarm with such force that all the air was forced out of my lungs. Gasping, I tightened my grip still further. I heard a line part with a snap-crack somewhere close by, but my eyes remained fixed on the point where the bow had gone under, willing the Connie to rise. After a few moments, her natural buoyancy told and the bow rose up out of the water.
The mainmast shook in her step as the Connie changed her pitch and started to rise up the leeward side of the next wave. Then, with a lurch, the Connie's stern settled in the wave's trough. Our weight began to drag us back, and now the stern threatened to go under. The wave continued to move under us, but we were still falling back. The rain lashed down, and the wind beat at the Connie's every line and spar. My face was numb, my eyes smarted—I felt as though I was on the losing side of a bare-knuckle brawl.
The Connie crested the wave. She righted.
Then it started all over again.
We weren't the only ones suffering—I tried to focus on that. The Scaly-Jack ship was somewhere behind us, riding the same hundred-foot waves. Our race had become an endurance test—Cap'n Macintyre had refashioned it that way by spinning us into the path of the colliding storms. If we spun out before the Scaly-Jack ship, the Scaly-Jacks would follow in our wake, as they had been doing all day. However, if the Scaly-Jack ship spun out first, then we could spin out in another direction—put two whole earths between us—and that would be that. Even if the Scaly-Jacks chose to return to this earth as soon as they had left it, it would be too late: the disturbance by which one wheel could detect the use of another was not just short-range but also short-lived—a wake to be sure, but a wake in a stormy sea. With two whole earths between us, we would be free and clear.
Free and clear.
The bow hit the trough of the wave. I heard the bowsprit shatter. I looked down and saw water rushing back over the deck carry the remains of the bowsprit to the forward hatch, where they struck with such force that they tore a five-foot-wide hole in the hatch. We started to take on water.
When we struck the trough of the next wave, the foremast-top gave way, carrying all its lines with it. One of the lines swept a man off the foremast-top yardarm—Silas Eddowes or the lascar Muktal; in the gloom I could not tell which. He fell sixty feet to the deck below. Moments later, the water breaking over the bow washed him overboard.
Three more waves. More lines and spars went. And we took on so much water through the breached forward hatch that the Connie's bow no longer rose so smartly out of the wave troughs. The storms were shaking us apart, and the sea was pulling us under.
I heard a voice on the wind cry, "Spin out, you devils! Spin out!"
With a start, I realised that the voice was mine.
And then the Universe blinked.