By Jamie Barras, illustration by Carole Hall
9 October 2006
Part 2 of 2
A world away.
Water fell like rain from every line and spar. But the sky was clear, the sea was calm; the wind but a breeze. The sunlight hurt my eyes, but I welcomed the pain.
"Set main tops'l!" a voice called from down below.
My mind was still dull from the storm—my tired arms and numbed hands moved automatically. A call went out for hands to take to the pumps. Slowly, surely, my mind began to quicken. Had the Scaly-Jacks spun out first, or had we?
Were we free and clear?
"God rot them," said Methody Sykes. "God rot every one of them." Then he called below, "Sail!"
I started to cry then.
Late afternoon, with the sun kissing the horizon, we spun out for the twelfth time that day. The wind shifted again, coming in across the Connie's bow. With the wind in our faces, there was nothing for it except to beat to windward—to start to tack.
The one bit of good news was that it seemed that the Scaly-Jack ship had suffered worse through the storm than us—the gap between us had reopened to about seven miles, and she was missing the tops of both her fore and mainmasts. But there was no way for us to exploit that in a straight race, because the Connie had lost too many lines and spars herself. But the Connie was a "weather" ship—a rare good sailer. She could make headway sailing not more than a couple of degrees off the wind, no matter how much canvas she was carrying. That was why the captain had brought us to this earth—set the wind in our faces. Here, it would come down to a question of who could keep closest to the wind. Every extra point off the wind meant another half-mile or more added to every tack. And that would add up to either extra distance put between us and the Scaly-Jack ship, or else a shortening of the time that she would take to catch us.
Cap'n Macintyre issued the order for the first tack. The Connie swung round. And every man on her turned to look back at our pursuer. How wide a tack would she take?
She did not tack at all. In the dying light of the day, I watched her crew start to take in her remaining sails. Not more than half a minute after they had done with that, smoke started to rise from her amidships. She was one of the new hybrid ships—sail and steam. But I could not see how that could be so. I called to Methody Sykes. "She has no paddles," I said. "What use is a boiler to her?"
"Some Scaly-Jack ships have things called 'screws,' Joseph John," Methody replied, "took from the Telorim, just like the weather wheels. It's our worse luck that we should run into one of those ships out here."
"Don't be too sure of that, Methody Sykes," Billy Grimm put in. "Could be this is our first bit of good luck today."
"How so?" I asked. But Billy Grimm had no chance to answer, because at that moment, Tam Cutter's voice sounded out from down on deck: Cap'n Macintyre wanted the whole crew to assemble on the quarterdeck. He was calling a council of war.
"Thanks to that screw of theirs, they're making four knots easy, Cap'n," said the Dutchman, van Heep, "even with the wind in their faces. They'll catch us for sure if we stay here."
"Aye, Cap'n, let's spin out."
"No, we should use the darkness, try to slip away."
"Aye, I'm with Gupta, Cap'n."
The crew were anxious and of a mind to let the captain know it. For my part, I held my tongue. I had not a tenth of the experience of travelling on a world-crossing ship of any other man there. Had the Connie not lost three crewmen to fever 18 months earlier, I would not even have been there. Cap'n Macintyre had recruited me right off the dock at Rangoon. And then kept the Connie's secret from me for a quarter-year while he took my measure.
"I have my reasons for keeping us here," said Cap'n Macintyre. "And not trying to slip away."
"Aye—trust the cap'n," said Tam Cutter.
Tam was standing over by the ship's wheel, his back to the locker that held the ship's compass, chronometer, and weather wheel. I had only ever had one clear look inside that locker—the day that Cap'n Macintyre had revealed to me the secret of the weather wheel and the existence of other earths. His story was a fantastic one—and I had laughed at it. But then Pateelhogol had spun the wheel. As I looked to the locker now, I cast my mind back to that day, remembering my reaction to the sudden shift from clear skies to black clouds and driving rain, and then back again. I had wanted off the ship there and then. But Cap'n Macintyre had talked me round through the lure of more money than I had ever seen in all my years at sea and his word that what I had witnessed was not sorcery, but natural science—Telor natural science.
The Telorim. I looked from the locker to Pateelhogol. Everything that Cap'n Macintyre knew about weather wheels and other earths, he had learned from Pateelhogol. In ages past, on other earths, Pateelhogol's people, the Telorim, had controlled a great empire built on fabulous devices like the weather wheels. But they had warred amongst themselves. Their empire had fallen, and almost all their fabulous devices had been destroyed—the knowledge of how to make them, lost. The weather wheels were amongst the few things that the surviving Telorim had been able to salvage from the wreckage. More fool they, they had used the weather wheels to try to find an earth where history had gone differently—an earth where men of their cast still ruled a great empire that they could be a part of. But they had run foul of the Scaly-Jacks instead, and been enslaved by them.
Was that what Fate now had in store for us? It seemed to me that Pateelhogol thought so—he kept throwing glances at the stern, clearly even more agitated than the rest of the crew. But then, he had more cause to be. He was the sole survivor of the crew of a Scaly-Jack ship that had run foul of a world-crossing privateer. Ten years before I joined the Connie, Cap'n Macintyre had found his stricken vessel adrift off the coast of Ceylon. The Telor was alive but badly injured; he had been attacked—not by the privateer's crew, but by his Scaly-Jack masters. They would have rather seen him dead than live to serve any other master. Although fearfully weak when Cap'n Macintyre found him, the Telor had clutched the weather wheel to his chest and refused to surrender it. Cap'n Macintyre, out of pity for the little man, had let him keep it. And never lived to regret that decision.
Until, perhaps, today.
"There's a reason we're staying here, on this course," Cap'n Macintyre repeated, taking charge at last. "Here—come see."
He led the whole crew over to the stern. The sun had set, night had fallen—darkness so thick that a man could see no more than a few feet covered everything under a leaden sky. Everything except a point somewhere off behind the Connie—a point lit by a flickering, fiery glow. With a start, I realised that the glow was coming from the Scaly-Jack ship—it was sparks billowing up out of her smokestack.
"There's neither of us showing running lights," Cap'n Macintyre said. "But we can see her all the same. She can't see us, but we can see her. That's what we've stayed for. That's why we've not gone somewhere she won't need her boilers. Now, we could change course while the darkness hides us, true enough. Could be we'd give them the slip that way. But could also be that they'd get wise or the weather could clear and they'd see us on our new course, and all we'd achieve is postponing the inevitable. Truth is, they have a wheel, and as long as they have it, there's really precious little chance of us escaping them. So, to my mind, there's only one thing to be done: send men back to blast their wheel to pieces."
He paused, letting that sink in. Then he said, "Well, lads, what's it to be: keep running or turn and fight?"
An hour past sunset, we launched the Connie's two boats. Me, Billy Grimm, Methody Sykes and two others took to the captain's jolly boat, while seven more of the Connie's hands took to her launch. That was all the hands that the ship could spare while she was close-hauled and beating into the wind. It would have to be enough.
The distance between the Scaly-Jack ship and the Connie had closed some since sunset, but the Connie was such a good sailer that she was keeping something of a lead still, even running into the wind. That same wind was with us as we headed back, but not wanting to lose touch in the dark, we set the jolly boat on a towline, choosing to rely on just the launch's sails. We made for the glow of the Scaly-Jacks' smokestack.
While we were still some way short of her, Billy Grimm cast off our tow. Ahead of us, the launch lowered her sail. Then her crew took to their oars and started to work her over to the starboard side of the Scaly-Jack ship. We struck out in another direction, for her larboard side. Within a few minutes, we had shipped our oars and started to run down along the side of the Scaly-Jack ship. Silent and crouched low, we waited. More of the Scaly-Jack ship slipped by; we were fast approaching her stern. Then a shout sounded out from the other side of her, followed by a volley of shots. It was the men in the launch, doing as much as Cap'n Macintyre's scheme required of them—making a show of boarding the Scaly-Jack ship, but just a show, while making enough noise to wake the dead.
My heart was in my throat. But still we waited. Methody Sykes was there alongside me. Billy Grimm was by the bow. The Scaly-Jack ship's best defence was its weather wheel. The Scaly-Jacks needed only to spin the wheel, shift to another world, to escape out from under our attack. But in doing so, they risked losing the Connie—she could immediately spin out in her turn, put two earths between them. In truth, Cap'n Macintyre would never leave we men in the boats behind, but the Scaly-Jacks couldn't know that. What would the master of the Scaly-Jack ship decide to do? Run or stay and fight?
More shots rang out from the Scaly-Jack ship's starboard side. The Scaly-Jack ship went nowhere. Methody shifted beside me. He grunted: so be it. Then Billy Grimm stood up and launched the grappling hook at the Scaly-Jack ship's rail.
I was the third man up the rope. Billy Grimm was at my shoulder. Methody was close on his heels—carrying the powder charges for wrecking the weather wheel slung across his back. We were all three of us trailing the other two lads from the boat. I reached the rail. The deck of the Scaly-Jack ship was hell and bedlam, fire and brimstone; thunder and flash. But it seemed to me that was over by the far rail, well away from where we were boarding. For a moment I felt a thrill of success. It seemed to be going just as Cap'n Macintyre had planned: the Scaly-Jacks had their hands full trying to fight off the men in the launch, not realising that those lads were just there to give us time to take care of the real business of the raid.
I drew my pistol and dropped down onto the deck. But as I started to move away from the rail to make room for Billy Grimm, I caught my foot on something, tripped, and fell. I landed on something soft and yielding. My stomach churned as I realised that it was the body of one of the two lads that had preceded me up the rope. As I recoiled I saw that the body of the other lad was lying right beside him. The next moment, two hands took hold of my arms and hauled me back to my feet.
"Steady lad," said Billy Grimm's voice at my ear. "Here they come."
He gestured past me towards what passed for a quarterdeck. The Scaly-Jacks had left three men there guarding the weather wheel, and two of those men were moving forward to challenge us.
The deck was lit by sparks from the smokestack and the gunfire over by the starboard rail. It was an inconstant light, but it was enough to give me my first good look at a Scaly-Jack as the pair by the wheel bore down on us. Although there was precious little in their build or in the cut of their clothes that set them apart from other men, their heads were like nothing I had seen on any man—civilised or savage. The Scaly-Jacks had small eyes set high and a long way back in faces so sharp it was as if someone had squeezed their heads near flat. Their cheeks were criss-crossed with deep lines; they had no noses to speak of beyond flared nostrils, no lips, no earlobes. "Lizards got up as men" was how Cap'n Macintyre had described them the day that he had told me the Connie's secret; "man-sized, but not men—not as we know them."
They came at Billy Grimm, Methody, and me, hissing in some strange spittle-spattle language. They both of them had pistols shoved pirate-fashion into sashes that crisscrossed their chests, but neither made a move to draw them—they had spent the pistols' charges killing our two shipmates. Instead, they came at us with short-handled, half-moon axes—fearsome-looking weapons—held off to one side, ready to sweep in and cut each of us in two.
We fell back, as if in a panic. They rushed to close on us. And we brought up our pistols, and discharged them into their faces. They fell—already dead. And we moved around them and advanced towards the quarterdeck—and the Scaly-Jacks' own weather wheel.
That's where it all started to go wrong.
The Scaly-Jack left at the wheel had sense enough to call to his crewmates—them over by the far rail that still thought they were stopping our lads in the launch from boarding. At that same moment, I spied movement behind him. And saw for the first time the little Telor crouched by a locker aback of the wheel—the locker that, according to Pateelhogol's information, would hold the Scaly-Jack ship's compass, chronometer. And weather wheel.
The Scaly-Jack by the wheel turned and spittle-spattled at the Telor. He moved. And I saw then that he was shackled to the deck. The Telor's hands moved about in the dark recesses of the locker.
The sounds of gunfire died away.
The Scaly-Jacks by the far rail turned around.
Seconds later, bullets started to tear into the ship's spars and rigging around Billy Grimm, Methody, and me. Methody went down. He had the powder charges, he had the fuses—there was nothing for it, I thought, but to turn around, pick him up and drag him over to the wheel.
Billy Grimm had other ideas. He could see what I could not—that there was no time. We had lost the element of surprise. He took hold of me and pulled me to safety down behind a hatch cover with the rail at our backs. "Over the side with you, Joseph John!" he shouted. "And with Methody too! I'll cut the jolly boat free, but you'll have to swim for her."
I spoke against the idea. We all stayed or all went—that was how it seemed to me. What three men could not do, one man could not either. But Billy Grimm was not having any of it. He had a fearsome amount of strength in his short limbs. He took hold of Methody and me, both. Then he dragged us over to the rail and started to lift us bodily over. He moved so fast that I had no time to react, but he paused at the last, just long enough to fix his eyes on mine and say, "Be well, Joseph John."
And then he threw Methody and me over the side.
We went into the water, and I went under. Instinct taking over, I started straight away to battle my way back to the surface. I struck Methody on the way up. I grabbed for him, taking hold of him and carrying him with me as I rose. But I no sooner had hold of Methody than I was tumbled over by some new stirring of the sea. Down I went again, still holding on to Methody.
The next thing that I knew, I was breaking the surface. I was breathing air. I shook my head to clear it. Slowly, I came fully back to my senses. The Scaly-Jack ship was gone—not sailed on: gone, vanished. The launch was gone too. The jolly boat was there—turning slow circles some few yards off, low in the water, partially swamped. But the Scaly-Jack ship and the launch had both vanished.
With mounting panic, I finally put all the pieces together. I could still picture the Scaly-Jack at the wheel spittle-spattling to the little Telor, the little Telor rooting about in the locker, and then the sound of fighting from the far side of the ship suddenly dying out. Seeing the danger, the Scaly-Jack at the wheel had done what we had half-expected the Scaly-Jacks to do as soon as the men in the launch opened up on them: ordered their wheel spun, for all that it might cost them their chance of taking the Connie.
The Scaly-Jack ship had spun away from the earth where the launch and the Connie were, carrying me and Methody and Billy Grimm with it—and the jolly boat, too, as it, unlike the launch, had been attached to the ship's rail by the grappling hook and line. Billy Grimm, perhaps not realising what the Scaly-Jack ship had done, had thrown Methody and me overboard, cut free the jolly boat, and then gone after the Scaly-Jacks' weather wheel on his own. And it was plain that somehow he had done it. He had won through to the Scaly-Jacks' weather wheel, and spun the Scaly-Jack ship off who knew where—but, with himself still onboard her; that was the rub.
"Be well, Billy Grimm," I thought to myself. "Where'er you be, be well." Then, dragging Methody behind me, I struck out for the jolly boat. The line that we had used to fasten the boat to the Scaly-Jack ship was trailing in the water. I used it to bind Methody to one side of the boat. Then I swam around the other side, and clambered aboard.
It took me half an hour to bail her out sufficient to allow me to bring Methody on board and lay him down safely in the bottom of the boat. It was not until I set about checking on his wounds that I realised that he was dead, and likely had been even before he had gone into the water.
The Connie was making good her escape. The Scaly-Jack ship had lost her chance to take her. There was no reason for either ship to spin into the world where I now found myself. I sat down in the bottom of the jolly boat and thought on that.
After a long while, I roused myself and took stock of my situation. I was adrift in a jolly boat with only a dead man for company. But I was only two hundred miles from the nearest landfall by my reckoning, based on the distance that the Connie had covered running from the Scaly-Jacks. The jolly boat's oars were gone, but she still had her mast and sails stored in her bottom. I could strike out for land.
Land: suddenly, I realised the full import of that. In my world, that land was India's Carnatic Coast. But this wasn't my world. This wasn't likely to be any world that I knew. As like as not there were towns or cities somewhere along the coast, but that said nothing about what cast of man that I would find in them. They could be Telorim, or men of Billy Grimm's cast, or Scaly-Jacks, or even men of some making that I had yet to encounter. They could be men with knowledge of the weather wheels, men without. Friends, enemies . . .
For better or worse, there was only one way that I was ever going to find out.
I said a prayer over poor Methody Sykes, then cast his body over the side and started to raise the mast.