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On the Possibilities of Sail

Chapter Text

Terror's scream rings above the crash of the cannon, an unearthly, wailing chord that vibrates through the timbers of the ship and every nerve in Stephen's body. As the serpent lunges forward Surprise shudders and heels, her rails shot away, her wheelhouse a splintered ruin, ropes snapping, the great chains of Terror's harness straining against their giant bolts. Above Stephen's head the masts with their sharp-shooters groan and flex, cross-trees collapsing, the rattle of the Marine's rifles silenced by that great cry. A sailor tumbles from the shrouds, his cry soundless and lost in Terror's roar, reaching for the safety of stays that fray and snap even as he falls. The very deck itself seems to flex and bend.

To Stephen, on hands and knees, clinging to the hatch cover, the serpent's battle-stance makes a towering, monolith of their harnessed giant. Terror rears from the sea, the curve of its neck rising above the decks, higher than than the first spar on the foremast and still straightening. The fins on its back stream like medieval battle flags, flushed scarlet, and every scale ripples with the reflected flash of cannon fire. The serpent is raised so high its lateral fins spear the smoke, massive clawed fans streaming with sea-water, and still it strains and heaves. Stephen, his ears ringing, can no longer hear the cries of the gun captains nor the call of the controlling serpentia urging Terror to its battle frenzy, but Surprise shudders again and again as her cannons roar. It appears impossible that Jack should keep his footing on the rising deck, but above him their captain, his hair flying and his coat ripped to shreds, bears the semblance of a figure drawn from some heroic epic. Jack has long since discarded the reins that hold Terror to the ship's will and the Admiralty's orders, he has a pistol in one hand and a cutlass in the other, and if he has any means at all of controlling the great beast that is Surprise's sole means of propulsion, her strength and her slave, Stephen has no notion what that might be.

The smoke of battle, wreathed across the deck and billowing around the serpent, is a tattered cloak. Torn through by cannon shot and the vagaries of the wind, it reveals in glimpses the wooden hull of the Spanish frigate beyond, her crowded encastlements and the spear of her bowsprit. For an instant, the swirl of it clears and Stephen sees the black and crimson stathes of her hull and the gaping threat of her open gun ports. High above him, the Santa Maria's figurehead is as clear as a pieta in the cathedrals of Seville, all blue robes and golden hair. And then, in horrific, monstrous clarity, the Spanish sea serpent too rises from the sea and hides all that foreign glory in terrible rage. Terror is all rich greens and blues, shading to cream at his belly, but the Spanish serpent is mottled and scarred, its underside grey and its back black, save for the streaming crimson of the great gashes across its scales where Surprise's cannon fire has ripped into its flesh. Even as Stephen stares in horror at the massive rise of its crested head, the scarlet maw of its mouth where every fang is the size of a man, he mourns for the damage done to the creature. One of its fins has been completely shot away, the other bloodied and collapsing. A gash across its throat has clearly glanced from the great chain that holds it to the Spanish ship, and its collar is embedded in the wound, tearing at its flesh. Other wounds mar the black scales and bloody its belly.

Terror screams again, and although Stephen has been told the serpent is an unfeeling beast, created by God to serve the aims of the Admiralty alone, a creature only given purpose by its chains, he cannot but hear defiance and pain in that unearthly cry. "God forgive us," he finds himself praying, he who has long since discarded many of the Latin strictures of his faith for the rationality of the enlightenment. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners," he whispers, although the words are torn from his mouth by the thunder of the cannons.

Between the ships, the serpents clash with the power of titans. Belly to belly, roaring their defiance, they slam into each other, mindless of the ships dragged in their wake. The power of their bodies is such that the sea itself boils and heaves. Every striving twist of their bodies flings sheets of water higher than than Surprise's battle-masts, water that crashes down on the deck, sweeps away the remains of the wheelhouse, and upturns and ruins their two chained stern chasers. It rips ropes from bolt and cleat, and tumbles their compass master clear from quarter-deck to capstan. Surprise is battered and listing, her decks pitted and her masts groaning as they sway, barely anchored by fraying hawsers, but the marines are still defiantly firing across the battling serpents to the frigate beyond and the cannons, firing singly now, still give tongue. Even as Stephen watches, the Spanish serpent writhes and shudders as a lucky shot tears across its exposed belly.

It is Terror, though, who is screaming. It's a cry of such rage and pain Stephen himself flinches, although he cannot take his eyes away from the way Surprise's serpent rears back, curling around the pain of a shot that has stripped its back to the bone. Terror's mouth is wide open, its eyes rolling back in its head, all their gold shot to blood-streaked red. Transfixed by horror and pity both, Stephen sees the great serpent tighten every muscle. Then, Terror drives, fast as a cobra, down onto the Spanish serpent. It has the Spaniard's crested neck between its teeth. Although Terror's eyes are closed and it shudders with pain, the power of its muscles as it bites down, shaking the Spanish serpent, is awe-inspiring. Despite the way every struggle widens the gaping wound on its back, Terror hangs on, twining its neck against the Spaniard, , their bodies clinging and sliding in a battle that has brought them as close as lovers, yard after yard of gleaming scales cleaving the waves.

The sea is red with blood.

And then, a clarion-call, sounding through their tattered shrouds and through the sea-spray, arresting, irresistable, out rings the sound of their serpentia. Up on the quarterdeck, Jack has discarded his weapons. He has Terror's reins in both hands, and, seemingly unaware of the absurdity of setting his strength against the serpent's, he has braced himself against the central bolted yoke and with every muscle in his body he is heaving backwards. Beside him, their serpentia player is crouched on the deck, but playing, the notes round and clear and so familiar Stephen can almost put words to the soundless cry. "To sea! To sea!" the serpentia cries to the serpent, and enchanted by this artificial mockery of a companion's voice, of the many voices Terror must once has known when he was a shoaling elver in the Admiralty's birthing pens, Terror cannot but respond.

His body stills. The slide of his scales against the Spanish serpent's slows, becomes a slow roll, a sensuous, lingering slide, a caress. His jaw loosens, his fangs sliding free, and as his eyes slide half-open he rolls his vast head against the Spaniard's, their trailing head-fins entangling against their blood-spattered scales. Stephen's heart is in his mouth, waiting for the Spanish serpent to strike, but instead it too is ducking its head, allowing its body to curve alongside their own Terror's, and the noise it makes is a heart-wrenching croon.

The serpentia calls again - "To sea!". Terror's eyes roll back in its head. Stephen could swear, he would set hand to heart and swear to it, Terror looks Jack in the eye, the reins loose, the serpent looming over the ship, the flush of battle crimson in its fins and Jack's face alike, their eyes meeting. Then, as practised as any workhorse, Terror slips under the waves and the chains snap taut. Surprise is ceding ground, leaving the battle, under way, bending to the strength of her serpent.

It is Stephen, uncurling his fingers from their grip on the hatch, who glances up and sees the end of Terror's tail loosening from the Spanish serpent's with one last, mutual caress.

Chapter Text

They are four hundred miles from land and their serpent is injured. Surprise's crew hammer and patch their battered hull, take their endless turns at the pumps, bandage up their cuts and bruises and cast their eyes to Terror's slow, kinking wake. Stephen works twenty four hours without a break, but saves Thomson's foot and staves off Carling's fever, sets four broken arms and innumerable fingers. Hawkins has a bullet wound which has gone straight and cleanly through his thigh and Jenkins has has a foot crushed by the recoil of one of the gun carriages, but Stephen spent most of those hours picking dirty threads of cloth and splinters from the gashes and contusions caused by broadside after broadside. It is only later that he realises the ship itself is as battered as her crew, weakened by the Spanish cannons, holed below her waterline, limping through the ocean.

He can tend to the crew, but he cannot tend their serpent. Terror is still bleeding, the gash on its back gaping with every ripple of effort as it tows the ship. Other Navy vessels have been lost like this, the sailors describe, ships never seen again, vanished into the vast spaces of the world's oceans. The Suffolk and her Valiant, presumed lost in the Southern Ocean: sailors speculating that the serpent could not cope with the freezing seas. The Rannoch and Renown, a ship still mentioned in whispers on the lower deck, a bad ship with a captain notorious for his harsh discipline. There's a rumour wreckage found on the Cameroon coast shows signs of a serpent's bite. The Admiralty has never released the findings of the enquiry board.

Surprise's crew peer over the rails and mutter about their uneven wake and blood in the water. Captain Howard's marines take up station on the cross-trees, sharp-shooters scanning the water for sharks. On the first day, they shoot two. On the second, fifteen.

Surprise's captain perches on her bowsprit. His voice, hoarse, encouraging, sounds over the strains of the serpentia and then alone. He sleeps in snatches on the foredeck, chart and compass at his side. "Good lad," he croons, "That's it. Good boy." Killick brings him soup and sherry, reports back that they have three hundred miles to go before they reach land. Two hundred. A hundred and fifty. But Terror is weakening, the flash of his pale belly showing with every slow roll, his fins drooping.

"Jack," Stephen says. Then, "Captain."

Jack's eyes are red-rimmed, his face unshaven. Killick has brought him a fresh shirt, but there is still soot under his fingernails. His voice is a croak, the sound of it distant, as if he is forgetting to pitch sound for human ears. "Doctor?"

"In my professional opinion," Stephen says, "You should sleep."

Jack snorts, soundless. "He cannot," he says.

Terror wallows, its sides heaving, the chains slack.

"This is killing him, Stephen," Jack says. "It's killing the ship. And yet I cannot let him rest."

It is not the first time Stephen has wondered at the bond between Captain and serpent. He has been made aware, of course, of the Admiralty's views regarding the nature of the serpents harnessed to the Navy's ships, the best and strongest of their breed, the Crown's mute servants. Yet when Jack flung open the windows in the great cabin to the velvet sky and the stars of the Southern Cross, when he and Stephen had played into the night with their serpent's golden eyes just below those windows, head cocked in listening silence as if it was as much an audience as any other invited guest, those views could not but be doubted by any rational man.

"Would it be so bad, my dear, if he was unchained?" Stephen asked.

"Should I leave him to the sharks and us to the sea?" Jack snapped. His face dropped of an instant. He ran his hand over his eyes, kneaded at the frown between his eyes.

Headache. Unsurprising. Stephen prescribed tea, and a powder, as soon as it could be arranaged. Sleep, he feared, was not an option.

Jack sighed. "The Pacific is hardly one of your lesser oceans," he said. "If we do not reach the Galapagos Isles, the chances of any other ship coming across us are slim indeed. We must beach to repair the ship or we shall sink. We must find fresh water or else die of thirst. Our choice is stark."

And yet the ship was still in the water, the goad of the serpentia silent. Terror has drawn in on himself, head down in the water, tail unmoving.

"He is not eating, Stephen," Jack says miserably. "Of all things, it is this that..." he swallows. "Well, perhaps it is for the best, I would not prolong his pain for all the world."

Stephen stares at the ocean. It has been an unknown world to him, a mare incognitum of wonder and discovery, crowded with strange and glorious beasts. Even now he can recognise the glinting passage of a school of Exocoetidae, flying fish, the disturbance of the water behind them that presages a predatory tuna, of the Thunnus family. The sea, he believes, gives and takes in equal measure. "Jack," Stephen says. "It has been my observance that any creature within reach of our serpent's jaws dices with death. In the absence of his own abilities, might we not assist?"

"Fish for him?" Jack says, sharp.

"Indeed so," says Stephen.

"You are aware that..." Jack trails off.

His face has that pinched reticence Stephen associates with nothing so much as the kind of Admiralty regulation Jack holds in unspoken contempt. There are, he feels, an excessive number of regulations, and although Jack will often explain at length the reasoning behind many, on occasion, he has been silent.

He is silent now.

"I would not leave a patient to starve, Jack," Stephen says gently.

"Indeed not!" Jack exclaims. "Nothing would be so - so - well," he says, his face brightening, as it so often did with the promise of action. "Well, the Admiralty may have our heads on a platter, but we shall go down fighting yet. Mr Pullings! Mr Pullings! Have the men hoist out the boats! Any man with a twist of fishing line, to me!"

It is not such much, Stephen thinks, that he is, after a year at sea, unused to the sensation of being quite so close to the ocean and with quite such a thin armour of wood between himself and the waves. It is rather that on every previous occasion he has embarked in one of the ship's long boats, the Surprise has been considerably closer to land, and the boat nothing more than a conveyance between the stout wooden shell of the ship and the solidity of dry land. The sensation of traversing the rollers of the open ocean, the Surprise alternately hidden and revealed by the crest of the waves, whilst the serpent one has only previously seen from above towers over one's boat, is entirely other. It is, he finds in himself, after months of a well-disguised longing for solitude, an intriguing weakness in his outlook, a surprising adherence to the bounds of the ship and the companions of that ship.

"Doctor?" Killick asks, frowning, his entire aspect one of doubt and obligation, the rope of the specimen trawl net dangling from his thumb and forefinger. "Be this what you wanted?"

"Thank you, Mr Killick, yes," Stephen says, brought back to purpose. "If you would be so kind as to bring the net on board, I should be glad to divest you of its contents."

He would not have been so sanguine about a plan which, in all conscience, he has not thought through in every detail, had he realised it would entail Jack, standing in the jolly boat with only two other men at the oars, offering their serpent a juvenile tuna fish speared on a boathook. The jolly boat is a quarter the size of Terror's head alone. Jack could conceivably stand upright in the creature's mouth, should Terror be so obliging as to let him. In the circumstances, the offering of a single fish appears absurd. What depredations the serpents must make on the fish of the seas! It was entirely possible that the frequent trade routes to, say, the Indies, or Batavia, must have resulted in a previous unconsidered plundering of the ocean.

Terror, inclining his head, takes the tuna from the boathook as delicately as a well-trained foxhound taking a slice of liver, and then, the boathook itself. The serpent closes its eyes, swallows, blinks, and swallows again. A distinct crunch suggests the boathook has successfully been condensed to a size suitable for ingestion.

"Open wide!" Jack shouts. He has a bucket of flying fish in his hands.

Rolling his eyes down to the level of the jolly boat, Terror opens wide.

Chapter Text

Midshipman Blakeney is staring at Stephen's toes. They are, of a surety, white and pinched, accustomed to the stout leather of his sea-going boots, but to Stephen's extensive experience there is nothing at all exceptional about any digit attached to his own body. He flexes them, compressing the damp sand to the shape of his feet.

"I suppose...there is not very much difference between the uniform required of a non-commissioned officer and a commissioned officer?" Blakeney asks. He glances up at the side of the cove, where Surprise lolls like a beached whale on a shallow sandbank. The ship is out of commission, but the crew are not, engaged in the shoring of timbers, repairing ropes, and replenishing water casks. The industrial rattle of hammer and chisel echoes across the beach.

Stephen extracts his time piece from his waistcoat pocket and peers at it. "I believe a measure of lenience may be allowed an officer not on watch," he says.

Dusk falls quickly in the tropics. The sky is already darkening, the gentle waves washing the beach a deeper blue that the vivid cobalt of midday, although the air is still warm, faintly scented by the tropical fauna which has colonised the rise of the island behind them with luxuriant foliage.

Uncertain, Blakeney glances again at the ship. It is evident that he is weighing the disadvantage of a reprove from a senior officer against the pleasures of the beach. Stephen gives him an encouraging smile, and swings the boots in his hand by their laces. "I have always thought it of vital importance," he says, "that a budding naturalist should learn to experience not only the individual inhabitants of any particular sphere, but also the environment from which those inhabitants-" his eye is caught by a remarkably slender heron, wheeling above the trees - "inhabitants originate."

"Well then," says Blakeney, his mouth firming, and he bends to unbuckle his uniform shoes.

Stephen is wiser than to offer aid, allowing the boy to struggle and triumph alone, although Blakeney is becoming remarkably deft with his single hand. Instead he traverses a wandering path along the tide-line, stopping to investigate the curve of a shell, a spray of seaweed of a variety he has never before encountered, a washed-up feather and the tiny body of a pea crab. When Blakeney catches up, he is full of questions. "Is it true that these casts are the remains of mud-eating worms? What do crabs eat? If the island is volcanic, why are there so many trees?"

Answering to the best of his experience and admitting his lack of knowledge where he has none, Stephen is once again aware, as he is so often reminded, of the infinite variety of the natural world and the smallness of his place within. Every specimen he catalogues has the potential of being entirely new to science, a small entry on a vast register encompassing the entirety of creation. His part can only be small. Yet, he must believe it vital, in adding to the very best of his ability to a rational and ordered encyclopedia of knowledge.

"Thomson says he believes Terror's dorsal fins to be the stubs of wings," Blakeney says, his voice a little high and breathy. "And that perhaps our serpents were once capable of flight." There is a thread of wonder in his voice.

Stephen considers the idea, frowning at the far side of the bay, where Terror's massive body lies at ease, his green scales glinting gold in the setting sun. Only his dorsal fins break the surface, for their serpent prefers a depth of water sufficient to allow his body to be fully supported, except for the beach itself, where he rests his giant head upon the sand. He is a truly remarkable creature, even more remarkable for behaviour which Stephen must either characterise as unique to a single specimen or criminally under-reported. Terror's round ears are erect, the slope of his face and the brightness of his golden eyes all attention, and he has every appearance of a singular consciousness. While Terror will tolerate the actions of the crew - indeed, had evidentially enjoyed the hearty scrub down of the previous day - and has been remarkably co-operative with Stephen's ill-practised surgery on his wounded flesh, it is to Jack that his eyes turn.

Such devotion is not unfamiliar. Stephen himself, as he rounds the curve of the bay, finds his eyes drawn, predictable as the watch bell, to Jack's tall figure. It is not so much, he thinks, that he has allowed fellow feeling to overstep the bounds of what is permitted on board ship, as that Jack himself has rode rough-shod over all the divisions of naval society. That Surprise's captain treads a perilous path Stephen well knows. Having rejected himself the tightrope of propriety of his London practice, the strictures of naval discipline with their arcane requirements are a constant source of affrontment - Blakeney has now ventured, barefoot, into the waves - and yet he is aware how very thin that same tightrope is for Jack. Jack's relationship with his crew can on occasion seem so very much one of respect rather than unearned office, and yet that same relationship can turn in an instant on superstition and naval practice to a moment of medieval violence. In his own case, it is not, Stephen is aware, usual practice for a ship's captain to pursue such visible partiality for a single member of his ship's company, no matter how removed from the command structure that member may be and whatever their private relationship. Yet it is to Stephen that Jack has turned for consultation and consolation, and for Stephen himself, the rewards of this voyage have been so very much enriched by Jack's companionship that to sail with any other captain would seem by comparison a desert traverse. Dear Jack. On first acquaintance, so very straightforward, the image of an English country squire, and yet look behind the portrait and there stands a man of conflicting impulse and implacable honour, a free-thinker willingly bound by historical tradition, a man of both tenderness and violence.

One might, Stephen thinks, consider the science of anthropology a worthy addition to the science of nature.

"Ah, doctor!" the man himself cries. "Terror and I were just wondering if you had forgotten our evening inspection!"

Those giant golden eyes are fixed upon his person. Stephen bows in acknowledgement. "Indeed, no," he says, and passes Jack his medical bag as he prepares to climb the ship's ladder, already and handily in place at the...well, he could hardly call it Terror's shoulder. Upper body, perhaps. "Well, Terror," he says, a precautionary severeness to his tone. "Let us have had no other incident of displaced bandages."

He is serenaded as he works by the cheerful sailors returning from the beached Surprise to the line of tents under the trees. There is a professional competence to their repairs, but little urgency, for Jack has decreed that no further voyage will be attempted until their serpent is sufficiently healed. It would be a surprising turn-around after his single-minded pursuit of the Spanish vessel, but Stephen has learnt that Jack possesses a streak of sentimentality as broad as his thirst for revenge. He is hard not to have pity for a creature suffering such rending wounds. They are, however, he assures himself, passing along Terror's back, healing cleanly. His stitches hold. The damp blankets over the worst gash have been a successful solution to protecting the serpent's skin from sunburn: Stephen, with Blakeney's help, applies a few more bucketfuls of seawater. His notebook is filling up with notes on the serpent's physiology, the surprising flexibility of his supper-plate sized scales, each with their own blood vessels, enabling the serpent to regulate body temperature, the structure of converse and reticular muscles enabling his distinctive sinuous motion, the sensitivity of the nerves of the lower jaw and poll. He is a miracle of design, their serpent, the vastness of his bulk balanced by his digestive efficiency.

On the matter of flight, Stephen can only muse. There is no evidence either way.

The returned crew have lit the fires down on the beach, and the smelt of roasting turtle rises from the sand. In what is almost full dark, Stephen finds the ladder and descends, thumping Terror on the corner of his jaw. "All's well," he tells the serpent.

Terror blinks at him, eyes half lidded, the spiralling threads of his iris incandescent in firelight. If Stephen was a man prepared to attribute human emotions to an entirely different species, he would have said the serpent looked smug. Indeed, the sand under his feet throbs and tremors with a familiar, low-pitched growl. He is not at all surprised to round Terror's face and discover Jack scratching at the serpent's ears with two marlin spikes attached to a spar, while several empty barrels and the half-gnawed trunk of a palm tree attest that Terror has already received his evening meal.

"You cosset him," Stephen says.

Jack raises an eyebrow, and does not cease his ministrations. "And you do not?" he says.

Well, Jack has him there.

Chapter Text

"She must respond, you understand, to the angle of the wind," Jack says beside him. "And here in the bay, with so many interruptions to a regular breeze, steering is a matter of skill and vigilance. Out at sea, one might hope for a little more constancy."

Before them, a boat zig-zags across the bay, weighted by a curious cloth blanket suspended from one spar and affixed to another, mimicking the little wind-powered canoes sailed by small boys in English harbours and the voyagers of the Polynesian islands. Seen through the telescope, its crew of two appear to be extraordinarily busy, adjusting the angled blanket, peering at shore and sea, while the boat's course appears unpredictably erratic.

Stephen passes the telescope back. "It is an ingenious contraption," he says.

"You doubt me," Jack says.

"Not in the slightest!" Stephen exclaims. He allows the waves to wash against his feet, considering. "It is merely that - well, my dear, a small boat is one thing, a frigate quite another."

Out in the bay, Mr Pullings stands, tugging, Stephen thinks, at one of the ropes. He wobbles. A incoherent shout echos across the water: the long boat, fully crewed, strokes forward with precautionary haste, although the swell of a contrary wave shows that their guardian sea-serpent is paying close attention. Terror has already learned to surface far enough from the smaller boats to avoid swamping, but once one sailor had taken a ride on that broad back, the crew had lost all fear. He is currently carrying a crew of twenty and half the marines. Stephen wonders at the creature's patience, but there is no doubt he has been a valiant aid in Jack's experiments.

"Yet, consider how much safer a wind-powered voyage might be!" Jack says.

"And how sparing of our serpent," Stephen says.

"Well, yes," Jack says, quite unabashed. "Indeed, I am ashamed of myself, Stephen, I had no idea. Years, Stephen: for years I have been thinking of him as one would think of...a...well, I have been kinder to a dog! Once one has actually taken the time to explain to him quite what is required, he is the most obliging of creatures."

The obliging creature performs a convoluted dip-and-roll which leaves its passengers floating in the water for no more than seconds, and then raises then above the height of the trees. Laughing, marines slide down his coiled spine, to be safely corralled onto the flat portion of his head.

"He is certainly most social," Stephen says.

"Quite so!" Jack exclaims. "And yet...Stephen, he has taken to the the crew with such kindness. One might almost look upon that skirmish with the Santa Maria as a blessing, for without it I should never have been aware..." His voice fades. He frowns.


"Have I ever mentioned to you my appreciation for your companionship?" Jack says.

Startled, Stephen glances up, and Jack is indeed looking at him with a clear and steady gaze.

"It is said that captaining a ship is the loneliest of roles," Jack says. "And although I have never felt it so - how could I? - there is no doubt that your friendship has cushioned and sustained this voyage to such effect that I find it hard to conceive of setting foot to deck without you at my side."

"Jack," Stephen says. To his horror, he can feel the faint heat of a - of a blush rise to his cheeks.

Jack smiles at him, all open generosity. "Doctor."

"In truth, I...well, I...Jack, you must know the same is true," Stephen manages, suffused with fondness.

"I have no doubt of it," Jack says.

His voice is stout enough that Stephen finds strength to walk on along the beach. He had no idea the gentle tide could be so dangerous. He had been been close - so close - to reaching out a hand, in clear view of the entire crew.

"And you and I are creatures of the same cloth," Jack says. "How much lonelier must Terror be? They are pack animals, you know. When one views the Admiralty's pens, one sees not a single solitary serpent. Instead, they coil in groups, a positive swarm, it is quite impossible to disentangle one tail from the next. I am told they cry, when lifted from the pen, although of course each serpent cannot but respond to the serpentia."

"You suspect him of loneliness," Stephen says.

"You think I am attributing to him an emotion he cannot feel?" Jack says.

Stephen hesitates. Out in the bay, the little boat sails on, bent to a more obliging breeze. Terror has circled the bay, his riders clinging to his dorsal fin. He has achieved a pace both safe and exhilarating. Surprise, refloated, is sporting a positive forest of taller masts, still equipped for the marines, but capable now of supporting the canvas sheets the crew are currently engaged in stitching. Such construction would have taken far longer without their tree-trunk conveying serpent taking the part of a dockside crane, while the men have taken some pleasure in repaying his efforts with carefully tossed coconuts, for which Terror has expressed great fondness.

"I have not told you," Stephen says, coming to a halt, "Of the Spanish serpent."

"That beast!" Jack says, all bristling indignation.

"It fought bravely indeed. Terror too. Yet, Jack, as we left the scene, it seemed to me that although forced to aggression - perhaps even welcoming it - by the serpentia, both serpents showed a physical affection for each other no less than the loyal fealty of that attack. Here. I have a sketch for you." His notebook, as always, is to hand. Stephen flicks to one of his earliest sketches, that image of those two entwined tails. "I cannot convey, of course, the motion. But it struck me at the time as one of...a melancholy affection."

Jack has him by the shoulder. His hand is broad, the heat of it striking through the thin lawn of Stephen's shirt - he has long since discarded his waistcoat, although, unlike some of the crew, he has at least retained his breeches - in a fashion that should by rights strike a far different discomfort than the spark it generates. Jack's dear face is so very open, all enthusiasm and doubt in equal measure.

"Of course, I cannot swear to-"

"But still, Stephen, if one was to meet at long last a fellow creature-"

"And yet to spend one's entire life chained cannot but be-"

"Of course Terror will do his duty! Still, even the least member of the crew attains some shore leave-"

Stephen takes breath.

"Oh, spare me your views on recruiting gangs, Stephen, you know I would not have a pressed man aboard the Surprise!"

Jack has him by both shoulders, now. There is a trickle of sweat making its way down the tanned line of his throat, pooling in his fossa jugularis sternalis, the hollow of his throat. Stephen's mouth is suddenly drier than can be explained by the climate.


"And there we have it," Jack says, and busses him on both cheeks, open and delighted as a schoolboy. "It is all quite decided! As soon as we have mastered the art of sail, we are away! As Nelson states, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy! How should one say less for one's serpent!"

Chapter Text

It is not pure chance that discovers the Santa Maria. The Spanish frigate's course cannot but be unknown, yet once the Surprise has cleared the islands, her pursuit has been relentless, aided by a following wind ("You see, Stephen, the angle of the sails," Jack says, demonstrating with salt shaker and napkin at table) and a serpent so willingly attuned to his course and his traces that the ship itself seems alive with motion. So familiar has become the bond between captain and beast that Jack has taken to traversing the length of Terror's back, taking station on the vast crown of his head. It is not long before he is followed by the braver of the ship's crew, even Blakeney venturing forward, clinging to the fringed tendrils of Terror's dorsal fins, until he stands triumphant at the very point where their serpent cleaves the waves. For his part, Terror appears to be well aware of the burden he carries, taking care not to duck or roll when burdened with passenger. He is patient, too, with the fits and starts of a ship under sail, for both crew and captain must learn willy-nilly the science of the wind and such study entails set-back as well as speed, yet there comes a day when the Surprise heels into the wind and sails herself alone, while her serpent swims at her side, raising his head above the rails to survey their bellied sails as if he understands as well as any sailor the principles of their motion.

It is Terror's course they follow, plotting it straight across the map of the ocean, as if the sepent scents their enemy. Of this Jack says not one word, although Stephen ponders the wisdom of it, studying not their path but Jack's smile and the fix of his eyes on the horizon. It is as if some mutual agreement binds ship and serpent and crew, bending them on a singular voyage, for Stephen hears not one word of dissent and there is seldom a moment when at least one telescope is not bent on the horizon ahead. "We shall catch her yet, Doctor!" Pullings declaims, an unwarranted enthusiasm in that usually sober lieutenant. "I am sure we shall," Stephen answers him, and wonders if he is alone in speculating what may occur should they, in fact, discover the Spanish frigate.

On the fifth day, just after dawn, Stephen is woken by a great rumbling call, a note that thrums through the ship's timbers and sets the basin on his washstand a-quiver. It seems endless, encompassing: Stephen snatches up his breeches, flings his shirt over his head and dashes bare-foot up the companion way just in time to see Jack's flying leap from serpent to deck. "Go!" he cries, and ahead of them Terror hunches into his traces with a heave that snaps his chains taut and flings the ship against the waves. The sea itself seems to vibrate with his call, the waves breaking around the massive thrust of his body, and their speed is such that the sailors are racing aloft to reel in sails pressed to the mast by their speed. "We have them!" Pullings crows, beside Stephen.

"Doctor, here," Blakeney says, pressing a telescope into his hand. The boy's grin is wide and toothy.

"All hands! All hands!" Pullings cries.

It seems to Stephen that the ship's crew have already anticipated the call to arms by some minutes, for he is perforce pressed to the rail as men race to the guns. Overhead, their sails are already furled: the very masts themselves bend with the speed of their progress, and on the horizon, he can see not only the cross-trees of the Spanish frigate but her hull. the Spanish serpent is calling, a faint, high wail with which Terror's deep rumble both chimes and challenges in equal measure.

"Well, Lord Blakeney," Stephen says, shutting up the telescope and passing it back, and conscious of the solemnity of the moment. "I believe you shall have your battle."

It happens swifter than any of them could anticipate. Even Stephen, who is becoming sadly practised at setting up his surgery and is consequently back on deck, can see that the Spanish vessel is wallowing in the water. The sound of her serpentia echoes across the waves, a faint note that seems only to speed Terror to further efforts, so that the gap between them closes with remarkable speed. The instrument does not sound on Surprise. It is instead Jack's voice that guides their serpent, shouting encouragement, calling at last for a great sweep that positions Surprise side-on to the Spanish frigate's stern. It is a move Stephen has seen described on the table in the great cabin, allowing the full weight of Surprise broadside to rake the disabled ship, while the Spaniards can only respond with their two stern-chasers.

A puff of smoke shows that the Spanish are well aware of their danger. The shot falls short. On the gun deck, as Stephen retreats below, the gun captains are braced ready while the officers count down the yards.

He is accustomed to the violent motion of a ship in battle, is braced for it, but even as the tone of Terror's growl rises and he hears the sharp cracks of the marine riflemen opening fire, the ship seems to steady and slow. One by one, their own cannons sounds, not a broadside but individual shots, sometimes two or three together. The crash of sound is deafening, yet it seems to Stephen that he can still hear Terror's voice, blended with the low moan of the Spanish serpent. The ship heels, an unnatural motion, and seems to push against the sea. The lantern flame bends and splutters. He is, he finds, folding and refolding the linen bandages, bracing himself against the table edge.

"Boarders!" Pullings calls out, "To arms!"

At once, the corridor is crowded and thunderous with men racing towards the companion way, a mission in which every sailor has his place. Stephen's is, he knows, in his surgery, but he lacks both patients and the ability to remain unstirred. He must discover how the thing progresses, as he had in their previous engagement, as he had off Barbados and at La Blanca, his first, bloody, action.

They are so very much closer to the Spanish frigate than he had anticipated. Even as he clambers through the hatch, still distressingly slower than any crewman, the first grappling hook arches across the gap between the ships. Overhead, the marines are keeping up a punishing fire, clearing their path: at the rail, the Surprise's boarding party is poised to jump, pistols thrust into their belts and bayonets clenched between their teeth. Impetus appears to be all Surprise's: their ship is where is should be, placed as Jack described, while the Spanish vessel merely rolls with each wave, rather than urging her serpent to the attack. Her serpentia is sounding, every note increasingly shrill, yet still she wallows, still the Spanish serpent does not attack, and the gap between the ships closes. Terror's voice has lowered: he is wrapped around the Spanish serpent, the great coils of his body supporting and buttressing their enemy with the same intimacy envinced in their first battle.

The grappling hooks catch. The first man leaps, and Jack after him. Stephen snatches a glance over the side, glimpses Terror's tail curling out of the water, and follows, even as the frigate's deckhouse seems to burst apart with the Spanish crew's counter-attack.

It is odd how combat focuses the thoughts. Stephen could have sworn to it that he had all the time in the world to raise his pistol, fire, and fire again, to draw his sword and parry the first stroke of a Spanish cutlass, to lunge and stab and lunge again. The Spaniards are brave men, and they fight with a desperation apparent in every action, yet once they have won a foothold on the frigate Surprise's crew will not fall back. In front, Jack's broad back forges their path along the deck. Ahead, the Spaniards drop to the marine's rifles: blade to blade, they falter and fall, even as their ship settles lower in the sea. The slow thunder of the cannons is a dull echo, although the screams of men trapped on the gun deck below echo from the hatches. It seems horrible that Surprise must continue to fire, yet even as half the deck is theirs - the deck-house, the forward deck, and Jack is racing to the ladder - the Spaniard's flag still flies.

"Strike it!" Jack shouts, from the ladder, cutlass in one hand.

He has, Stephen realises, swiping the sweat from his eyes, an axe strapped to his back. All of a sudden the whole plan unrolls in front of his eyes, so audacious it is no wonder Jack has not divulged a word, and in sudden hope Stephen pushes forward, disarming a midshipman surely too young to have left his mother's side, engaging a burly crewman for brief moments before one of Surprise's crew slams him aside with the butt of a musket. He is at the ladders: he is climbing, his rapier thrust into his belt and banging against his knees, he has made the quarterdeck and ahead of him Jack duels with a thin Spaniard in a very fine jacket, although Stephen should have something to say about the cut of his lapels.

It is the action of a second to draw his second pistol and wing the Spaniard's shoulder, easy as potting a partridge. He falls, and of an instant Jack is atop the first of the great bolts that hold the Spanish serpent to its ship. The axe falls.

Chapter Text

"You doom us all!" says the Spanish captain.

"I do not believe so," Jack says.

They are in the Surprise's great cabin, hastily cleared of its cannon. The table has been so quickly replaced its leaves are not quite even, although it bears the weight of the Spaniard's sword and his ship's serpentia well enough, the glittering prizes of victory and capitulation. Mr Pullings, in deference to the occasion, has doffed his hat. Mr Blakeney is wide-eyed and silent.

"But this is madness!" the Spaniard exclaims. His hands gesture with the words, he frowns, he shrugs, he has an excitement about him no Englishman would own, and many more consonants in the full length of his name.

"Your ship is doomed, sir," Jack says, not without compassion. "Mine is not."

"Yet your serpent!" Don Miguel shouts. "Sir, you are unmade! Should we die with you?"

"This is not your concern," Jack says. "Now. Do I have your parole, captain, or your sword?"

At the window, Stephen glances out at the Spanish ship. They have stood off hours before, leaving the frigate ransacked and askew, her decks awash. She is beyond saving. Even if they could have learned the notes that hold her serpent in thrall, no carpenter could have repaired the damage to her hull. Instead, her crew have been taken on board the Surprise, her gold and stores transferred, her captain surrendered.

"We shall all die," Don Miguel mutters.

Surprise herself has escaped as unscathed as any ship could be. Her damage is minimal. Even her crew seemed to have sustained little more than scrapes and bruises, and Stephen is prepared to admit, if only to himself, that the cut Jack sports on his cheekbone is dashing rather than concerning. There is a contained neatness about it, the angle, which reminds him of the duelling scars of his youth.

"You think I should leave your serpent to drown with your sinking ship?" Jack asks. "We are not so cruel."

He is all indignity, if not entirely honest. In losing her serpent, the Santa Maria is indeed by any conventional measure crippled, yet that is not yet half of the plan concocted. Surprise herself rolls with the ocean, her sails furled and her serpent absent, the great coils of Terror's harness heaped upon the foredeck. The sea is quiet. The ship is not, but her voice is the voice of men about their business, quietly competent, familiar. The bell sounds, the ropes rattle, the watch changes, even now. There is no panic, no wailing serpentia, not a single suggestion Surprise, even without her serpent, remains a living community.

"Our lady is loyal to the crown, sir!" Don Miguel says. "She will fight to the last!"

"And yet not one among you thought to tend her wounds," Stephen mutters.

Jack's hand lands heavy and warm on Stephen's shoulder. The Spanish serpent's lineage had hung, heavy with gold leaf, in her captain's cabin, the year she was first chained, the long list of ships she had served and patrons who had owned her. None of her ship's crew, not one single Spaniard, had thought to tend the great gash Surprise's cannon had torn through her side or the suppurating wound at her collar. Every Spanish sailor Stephen had cleansed, stitched and bandaged was well aware of his feelings on the matter.

"Tend her wounds? How, pray?" Don Miguel says, staring. He flings his hands up. "Oh, what is the use? We are all fools. Yes, you have my parole, of all the use it may be to you."

"Thank you," says Jack, and passes back the sword. "My steward - Killick! - will see you to your quarters. Be assured we shall treat your seamen as our own."

"And my serpentia?"

"That," Jack says, "We shall keep." He watches the Spaniard leave with one possessive hand on its brass-bound tubing. The mouthpiece has been knocked askew, but it would be easily repairable, if they had a mind. The Agamemnon's Revenge was captured from the French in '16, and the nameless, stuffed head of one of Drake's conquests hangs in Westminster Abbey, sadly ragged.

"So, gentlemen," Jack says, with that particular smile which has accompanied his plans to assault the island fortress of La Blanca with three men and a donkey, the capture of the Spanish ship-of-the-line with firecrackers, and the raid on the Napolitean library, an incident which Stephen cannot recall to this day without raising a blush. "We are indeed without serpent. We are all agreed, are we not, that the experiment with the sails is most promising? Good! I knew I should rely on you. It is my proposal, therefore, that in order to further the interests of the English Navy we should proceed under sail alone. Does any man amongst you object?"

"I do not believe...well, sir, we are hardly covered by the Articles," Mr Pullings states, reaches to doff his hat and finds it in his hand, and scratches at his hair.

"We have hardly been sailing by the Articles since Galapagos," Jack says. "Sailing! Now there's a word. I hardly know what I shall say to the Admiralty when our drifting ship sails into Plymouth."

"You are, expecting, then, to return to London?" Stephen asks.

"Well," says Jack, and taps his fingers on the brass of the serpentia. He takes his hand from Stephen's shoulder to gesticulate. "Eventually. It would ill-behove us, would it not, to return to Sea Lords without a thorough accounting of our new rigging."

"It would ill-behove us to return without our serpent," mutters Mr Pullings.

"Terror knows his duty," says Jack, "And we know ours."

Chapter Text

"It is not, you perceive, that the moon as seen here in the tropics is measurably larger than the moon one sees in more northerly lands," Stephen says. "They are one and the same. It is merely that our perception of it is altered."

The night is clear, the sea calm. The moon lies just over the horizon, a great silver disc.

"A question of perception, perhaps, as if one saw through a great microscope. One cannot but wonder that the illusion is something to do with the interaction of water and air in such a climate." He is musing, but his fingers twitch for a pencil and notebook.

"So, would you say...a sea change?" Jack says. His voice has a note of suppressed mirth.

"Jack," Stephen warns.

"The concept appears entirely reasonable," Jack says. "Another glass?"

They have taken the port out onto the quarterdeck, and a blanket. Surprise, gently heeling to the breeze, slides through the waves. To Stephen, accustomed to the splutter and heave of the harnessed frigate, the ease of their passage is remarkable.

"Thank you, I believe I shall," he says.

There is a faint, warning splash, and Terror's vast head rises above the deck. Moonlight gleams green from his wet scales and the elegant flumes of his fins, gold from his clear, bright eyes. It positively glints from his teeth.

Jack whistles. The serpent swivels his head, his neck arching, and Jack reaches into the bucket by his knee and throws over a single sprat. Terror snaps it out of the air.

"Well, in truth, you are more familiar with the idea than I," Stephen says. "Radically so, in point of fact."


"A positively revolutionary change," Stephen adds, and feels the blanket shift under his breeches as Jack sits up.

"Stephen, you wound me with the implication! Nothing could be further from the truth! Another minute, and you will be suggesting that the ship be ruled by committee and every man should have the vote!"

On the other side of the wheelhouse, Lieutenant Pullings, a Tory, scuffles his feet.

Stephen frowns over his port and defies the lieutenant's displeasure. "And every woman, Jack."

"A recipe for - my lady! Sprat?"

Hesitant, rather further from the rail than their own Terror, the Spanish serpent too has raised her head. Stephen, peering, notes with some relief that her carefully roped dressing is still in place.

"It is important, I gather, in the treatment of serpents, that both should be treated with equality," Stephen notes.

Jack looks at the sprat in his hand, shrugs, and casts it over the rail. The Spanish serpent rears back: the sprat bounces from her snout. She dives.

"We shall have her eating from the hand soon enough," Jack declares, just as the serpent raises her head again. "Hah!" he cries, and throws. The serpent opens her mouth, the fish falls inside, and if ever a serpent could look astonished, her visage expresses the emotion. Jack crows with triumph. "See! Shortly we shall have her as loyal a servant of the King as our own dear Terror."

"I feel our own serpent's affection directed more at our ship and her captain than our monarch," Stephen says.

"Well," Jack says, coughs, and is silent.

Stephen raises an eyebrow. He should not be so cruel, he knows it, to tease Jack about his loyalties, for there is a straightforward and appealing honesty to such honest enthusiasm he cannot himself encompass. The Surprise, the Navy, the King - to ask Jack himself to consider in what order to rank them is a step he will not take. Instead, in silent apology, he reaches for the bottle and pours another glass for both of them.

Jack stays his hand. He extracts the bottle, and sets it safely on the other side of the blanket. Without haste, dear, sentimental man that he is, he raises Stephen's fingers and presses them to his lips. It is the mention of affection, Stephen thinks, warmed beyond sensible thought, that - he is smiling, the most foolish of smiles, he ducks his head. Lieutenant Pullings takes a turn on the far side of the deck, and Jack squeezes his fingers and lets go.

"In truth," Stephen says, his voice caught half a tone below his usual register and husky, besides. "In truth, I believe you have already performed miracles."

Jack's answering smile is so very fond, Stephen must stare out to sea for the span of at least a quarter turn of the glass, and only belated realises that the great streaks of light he sees are the serpents' wakes, outlined in moonlight. Their tails, cresting the waves, show entwined.

"I believe the Navy may have have further interest in the application of sail," Jack says.

"And the advantages of an unchained serpent," Stephen cannot but add.

Jack sighs, shifting. His shoulder, moving away from Stephen's own, leaves an unexpected chill in its absence. "Stephen. Please tell me you shall not make this one of your political metaphors."

"Oh, do not bridle at me so, Jack," Stephen says, rephrasing as he does so the second paper is currently composing. "You know very well that one ship alone will not change the world!"

" 'Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains'," Jack said, making himself comfortable. He leans in, a little harder. His eyes would appear shut, but for the glitter under his eyelashes. "This is the way of the world."

In disbelief, Stephen is driven to expostulation. "You quote Rousseau at me."

"Well, you must admit, my dear doctor," Jack says, "In your company, I have attained a little enlightenment."