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The Reverse of the Hammock

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"Which there's a corpse on the mainmast and it's bad luck and it's eaten half your coffee beans, sir!"

Jack Aubrey snapped immediately into consciousness; a man with his years of sea-experience must be able to awaken in a moment. It must be admitted that such a man might occasionally fall asleep in a moment, as well, and such indeed proved the case on this particular occasion.

"Which there won't be any coffee until we set in at the Nile and it's making for the cheese!"

The thought of a coffeeless and cheeseless voyage was sufficient to rouse the Captain. He shrugged on his second-worst greatcoat ("which I'd just got properly smutty again") and made for the quarterdeck. However, on reaching the deck, he was brought up standing. The greater part of the sailors not that instant engaged in trimming the ship was standing in a circle about the mast. He followed the men's gazes up and was stunned, although not in the least surprised, to see Stephen's zombie capering about in the rigging.

"Mr. Pullings, my compliments to Dr. Maturin, and would he kindly retrieve his undead specimen before it does damage to the ship?"

"Sir, he's trying to tempt it down."

And indeed there Stephen stood on the far side of the circle of sailors, making some sort of noise that Aubrey assumed was meant to be soothing. It sounded distinctly like French. Of course, most foreign languages did. Most languages but French, judging by the reactions of the Frenchmen he'd addressed in their supposed native tongue.

"Doctor, I allowed that thing on board only on the grounds that it be kept confined. The men don't like it."

"Nor do I. It could so easily damage the delicate softer parts; mortifying flesh is no fit companion for rope and tar. Necrosis must come to us all, but--"

"Stephen, you stray from the point. There is a zombie climbing the halyards. Remove it. Feed it, sing to it, do what you must, but get it down before it entwines itself in the cat-harpings."

"Indeed I have fed it," snapped Maturin. "I laid in an ample supply of Portable Brains or ever we left the dock."

Jack cocked an ear upward. Indeed, the creature's far-off mutterings bore no resemblance at all to the traditional "braiiiiiins". "Then I am sorry for it, but the thing must be destroyed. You know how superstitious the men are."

"You will never -- it is the wonder of the world, the rarity, Linnaeus never saw the like --"

"Stephen, it rots apace. By the time we reach the tropics there will be nothing left of it."

"Sir--" It was the smallest of the midshipmen, a spotty midget who labored under the unfortunate surname of Minimus.

"What is it?"

"Sir, perhaps if we gave it some rum?"

"What nonsense! In their native land, zombies receive rum only when they are initially swayed to their creators' will."

Jack glanced up. "That would appear to suit the circumstance precisely. Killick, a noggin of rum to the mainmast, if you please!"

There was an underdeck muttering of which only a few words could be made out. If Jack had wished to, he could have gained a richer understanding of Killick's opinions on the subject of wasting Christian rum on a heathen corpse, on the abuse of hardworking servingmen, and (surprisingly) on the probability of salvation among the righteous pagans. Jack, as it happened, had no such wish, and so allowed the steady stream of "which it's a shame and a sin and a disgrace to the Service" to flow along unheeded.

When Killick at last appeared with a pannikin, Jack snapped "Minimus! Take this to the creature. Stay well outside its grasp; save yourself. (No, Stephen, a midshipman may not be a nondescript rarity, but Minimus is inscribed on the ship's roll and the corpse is not.)"

After some acrobatics and rather a lot of cajoling, the zombie was induced to leave the superstructure of the ship and return to its enclosure. Captain Aubrey made threats, Stephen assured him that there would be no further disruption, the men muttered, and all aboard the ship returned to their familiar routine of everyday inconvenience and discomfort.

That evening, just as the Captain and Stephen were poised to launch into Haydn's Creation (as transcribed for violin and violoncello), a wailing voice could be heard. Both men paused to listen. The words -- word, to be precise -- became clear.

"Ruuuuuuuummmmmmm!"

"Jack! You have debauched my zombie!"