Being ship’s engineer did not spare me a trick scraping the hull. “Trick” was the word they taught me. My shipmates. It means a turn. But, for the record, scraping the bottom of a hull is a shit detail, so the meaning I already had for the word fit just fine.
The scrapers were like bent spatulas. The barnacles were like bad credit reports.
The man to my left made his disinclination to talk clear to me. Or maybe my opener was rude in the World Facing. When I asked, “What were you before?” he showed me his white teeth, growled, and scraped harder.
The man on the right was smiling at me, although it took a while for me to figure this out. It looked as if he hadn’t trimmed his beard or mustache in centuries, which could very well have been the truth. The hair descending below his nose completely hid his mouth. He would have to lift it to eat.
“What sort of engineer?” He had a Latin accent, but not one I could place.
“Generic sort. Bachelor’s degree, but no job yet.” I can’t imagine he was satisfied with that information, because I wasn’t. “I was good at machine work. Gears and such.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Maybe you could fix my pistol. It has a bad lock.”
A barnacle popped off and hit me in the chin. “I’ll take a look at it.”
“Grácias.” His lisp said Castellano.
“Where can I get a pair of shoes?”
He chuckled. “Why?”
I didn’t have a proper answer. That’s when I realized that his opener had basically been the same as mine. The guy on my left must just be an asshole.
“What were you?” I asked. “Before?”
“Oh, John.” He chuckled again. It was a heady mix of cheer and melancholy. I liked it. “I was the same! Three hundred years and I’m still scraping barnacles off the belly of a boat.”
I didn’t know what to say, or even think, about that. Wouldn’t you go through a mid-life crisis at some point? He seemed to be taking it in stride. I decided to be cavalier about it.
“Not a captain yet?”
He shrugged, missing a scrape. “A couple of times, here in the World Facing. The companies are more sanguine to hang the captains, though. Better to stay a shoeless sailor and slip the noose.”
Wise thinking. I needed to incorporate that into my purgatorial game plan.
“Yellowbeard is pulling your chain, by the way.”
That was said without a chuckle and under his breath. Not one sunset in the World Facing and I was already being invited into a conspiracy.
“Oh, yes. The companies are not what you call the capitalists from your time. He just likes to learn the new lingo to rein in the new arrivals.”
Also wise thinking. “Who are they, then?”
He chuckled in that way of his. A heady mixed drink. Only this time, there were sprinkles of menace on top. “They are the wardens of the worlds. They move goods up and down. And, they don’t like giving up those goods. Especially at the point of a blade.”
“You’re an engineer, John. You know the goods being shipped down to the World of Things. Things which that world doesn’t manifest on its own. Anomalies. Improbabilities. Opportunities.”
“Black swans,” I said, parroting one of the last books I’d read. My new friend laughed out loud at that.
“That’s a good one. I thought all swans were white, green, or red. Is that a new term from your time?”
“Yes.” Green and red? “They found black swans in Australia and it surprised people.”
“Black swans?” He scraped and scraped. His face seemed wistful. “Wish we had those here.”
I saw my eyebrows for the first time in the World Facing as I shook my head. I felt myself forming a question in an archaic mode. “May I bother you for your name?”
“No,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s no bother at all. Juan de la Hoz.”
Scrape, scrape. Then a mustachioed grin.
“Bienvenido to the World Facing, other Juan.”
“What can you do for me, ship’s engineer?”
I looked up from Juan’s pistol. The lock had a poorly set screw. An easy fix with a reset and a little grease. Yellowbeard was not such an easy fix. I no longer trusted him, if I ever had.
“I have no idea what you lack.”
The ship swayed a bit. A wave from which the reef hadn’t protected the lagoon. The next day would have us careening the other side of the ship.
Yellowbeard leaned back in his chair and crossed his boots on the captain’s table. It was bolted to the floor rather weakly. The L-shaped braces were all on the same side. The table had six legs. Braces facing port and starboard on the outer legs, with orthogonal braces facing either both inward or both outward on the inner legs, would be optimal for stability.
“I have a ship, which is a complex organism of machines. Do you see anything lacking?”
I set Juan’s gun on the table among the disassembled pieces of its lock.
“There are no winches for the ropes. I suppose I could work on that.”
Yellowbeard nodded. “That might speed things up a bit. But the men are quick enough without them.”
I tried to put my mind into the age of sail. The age of exploration, the Enlightenment, the early days of gunpowder. What might a pirate ship need?
“Are your guns rifled?”
Yellowbeard’s boots came off the table, like I had said the magic word. He sat up. “Rifled?”
I felt my head jerk backward. “There’s no way you don’t know about rifling.”
“What? No.” I didn’t trust his confusion. “Scoring the inside of a gun. In a spiral.”
The old pirate leaned forward and set an elbow on the table. His eyes were solicitous, like he was testing me.
“What good does that do?”
I was doubly suspicious. “How many souls have come through here over the past few centuries and you know nothing of rifling?”
He grinned his white grin. The cocked hat was removed and set on the table.
“Master Randolph, you may not be surprised to learn that most arrivals don’t stay here long. They fuck up and get killed or take their own sorry lives in despair.”
I had no response except to set my own elbow on the table.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t considered it.”
“I haven’t.” I was telling the truth. I was finding the World Facing far more intriguing than a new job in accounting, a new gentrified apartment, and a new and gorgeous yet ideologically frigid girlfriend. “That explains why this place doesn’t seem overpopulated.”
He laughed at that. Not as charming as Juan, but it was genuine. He enjoyed the game.
“I’m still surprised that no one has brought rifling here.”
Yellowbeard chewed on the end of a thumb. “What does it do?”
“What does it do?” I sniffed a breath in. “It makes the shot travel further. And more accurate. More accurately.”
That made him sit back in his chair. He nodded, dirty yellow curls scraping against the red calico on his shoulders.
“How would you accomplish this?”
I stared at Juan’s gun for a moment while I thought. It would take more than a bit of grease and a reset screw.
“I would need a good smith to make gears.” I tapped the table with a fingertip. “And high quality steel. And an inventory of the different calibers of gun you have. Cannons, muskets, pistols.”
“Cannon,” he said, “is also the plural.” He was smirking at me with a face that spoke of appreciation and scheming.
“In the reverse order,” I said. “Cannon first, of course.”
“Of course.” He smiled wide and stood with a clomp of his boots. My bare toes instinctively flexed against the wooden floor. I was tired of not having shoes.
“And maybe you can use that advantage against the companies.”
He wagged a dirty finger at me. “You’re a good catch, Master Randolph.”
He went slack. His eyes glowed in a heady mix of suspicion and menace. A glow that he’d practiced for centuries. “Maybe?”
“Maybe I’m a good catch. Maybe you can use my engineering to your advantage. Against the companies. Whoever they are.”
He grinned and spun toward the stern windows. There was an unfamiliar moon, small and blotchy, glowing over the tiny wooded mound of the island.
“My crew have big mouths.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe I have a big brain. You said most arrivals don’t last long here. Mortals from the World of Myriad Things would have a hard time setting up colonial enterprises if their lackeys were dying like flies around them. This implies something more durable.”
He set his hands on the shelf below the windows and leaned on it. “You’re afraid of pitting yourself against something more durable.”
“I’m afraid that I don’t know what the fuck is going on here.”
He turned to look over his shoulder. The eyes were suddenly contrite. Almost compassionate.
“You’re going to be here awhile,” he said. It wasn’t a revelation. It was an admission in the process of a decision. “You should know how this place works.”
“You lied to me about the capitalists.”
“Not entirely. They find a brisk business as regional managers.”
“Stop using the lingo on me.”
“Fair enough.” He grinned and turned full toward me. He was gathering himself, and I feared for a new gambit in my direction.
“What’s that one called?” I asked.
“What?” He was on his heels, figuratively.
“That moon,” I nodded behind him. “What’s it called?”
His head spun toward the windows. He turned back to me with a suspicious eye. “We call it the Comer. Or the Dirty Lantern.”
I had him on the ropes. “Who run the companies?”
Yellowbeard turned his entire body toward me then. His eyes were tight. “God’s men, Jack.”
He nodded sideways. “Alright. John.”
“Yes. God’s men.” He drew his cutlass. I grimaced and leaned back in my chair. I suddenly wished Juan’s pistol was assembled and loaded. Yellowbeard laid the sword on the table, with eyes lowered on me. Then, he drew his pistol.
He set the pistol on the table by his sword.
“Why are you doing that?”
“It’s em-blem-atic,” he enunciated. “Yellowbeard is laying it all on the table. If you’ll pardon the lingo.”
“What’s your real name?”
He pushed against his lower lip with his tongue. “Bob Hopkins. Is that ransom enough for an engineer?”
I shook my head. “That’s not a bad name. It’s actually quite pirate-like.”
“Is it?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“Yeah. It would be a fantastic pirate name in a movie.” The corner of his mouth twitched upward at that. I suddenly realized I was enjoying this game. So much better than crunching numbers in some wage-slave job in the World of Myriad Things. I glanced at his calico shirt. “Red Bob Hopkins. Or, Red Robert.”
He touched his chin with a finger. “Red Robert. That’s fucking good, mate. Redbeard wouldn’t like it, though.”
“Fuck him,” I said. “Let’s focus on our targets. Tell me about the companies.”
Yellowbeard grabbed his chair and put his ass in it. “God’s men, like I said. Ferrying new life to your old world.”
“Our old world.”
His eyes went hollow. “Yes. Our old world.”
“What does that mean? What does it look like?”
He smiled at me. “In engineer’s terms?”
“In this world?” He tilted his head almost dismissively. “Regular stuff. Sugar. Rice. Rum.”
He waved his hand in the air. The other hand gathered up his cocked hat and settled it on his head.
“Of course, it’s all metaphorical.”
“Of course,” I said. “But, is there a way of knowing its real import?”
“If you’re methodical,” he said. “Which you are. Which is while you’ll be here awhile.”
I stared at Juan’s pistol. I needed some grease before I could put it all back together.
“What color does your beard come in?”
I looked up. He was studying me.
He frowned a grin and shook his head. “Master Randolph. That won’t do. That’s not proper at all.”