Yellowbeard shuffled the men the next day, putting Juan and I at opposite ends of the hull.
I was scraping between a Chinese fellow who spoke no English (beyond “No English”) and an Irishman named Pink Lenny who wanted only to talk about sex. I kept up my end of the conversation by agreeing that sex is good, and that women are indeed and categorically beautiful, and that it would be uncompromisingly pleasant to see one again.
I was happy when a squall put a halt to Pink Lenny’s mouth. But, not so happy to learn that squalls were no reason to put a halt to one’s trick at scraping the hull. It did put a temporary halt to the day’s pig roast, however, which meant dinner would be late.
As the squall faded and the trick was over, I noticed Juan, soaked to the skin, clambering on board the ship. He’d be climbing into his hammock, leaning askew with the ship on its side as it was, to get a few hours of sleep before the bell woke him to help right the ship at high tide.
Yellowbeard was watching his men try to restart the fire under a light mist that continued to wet the beach. He seemed particularly distracted.
“Now would be a good time,” I said.
He didn’t turn to look at me. The men tending the roasting pit were not making much progress. “Time for what? You’ll need to sleep for your next watch.” He waved his hand dismissively.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. If I’m to help you improve your guns, I’ll need time away from the watch.”
He waved his hand dismissively again. “Fine. As ship’s engineer, you’ll be an idler.”
He groaned and turned an angry eye at me. He clearly did not like bad weather and its consequences.
“A day man. Not on watch. Learn the fucking lingo.”
I turned away from his face to nod at the men scraping flint over kindling in utter futility.
“Start the fire in the ship,” I said. “Then bring it out here once it’s good and going. Its heat will also help dry the wood under it.”
The men looked up at their captain. He frowned a hard mouth at me. Then he nodded, blonde curls flailing at his red shirt. “Do what he says.”
He turned to me. His face was wet and dirty and blank. “And you. Do what you said. Get your inventory started and I’ll get you your steel and your smith in good time.”
I found Juan de la Hoz in his bunk. He was stinking from his efforts, eyes closed and murmuring to himself quietly in Spanish under the weight of his mustache. I had a hard time keeping my footing on the tilted deck without shoes and with wet feet, but I managed to steady myself on a rope. It was time to start setting some things straight.
“Were you standing behind me?”
Juan spun in his hammock. He recognized me and smiled. Then frowned in sleepy confusion. “When? Just now?”
“No, of course not. On the beach. When I first arrived.”
“I— No. Bob the Hippie was the scout who found you.”
“I mean when Yellowbeard was reining me in, as you put it.”
“Oh.” He leaned up on his elbow. “Si, si. How did you know?”
I sighed. “You told me. When you said that Yellowbeard was lying about capitalists. He told me that during that first conversation. The only way you could have known was if you were there.”
“My apologies, mi amigo.” He looked genuinely contrite. I took that into my calculations. “I did not know that you did not know.”
His hairy face scrunched up. He’d recognized the implied contradiction. I took that into my calculations, as well. “I mean… I knew you didn’t know, but I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“That’s fine. No deceit intended, I understand.” I set a hand on the plank of his hammock. “Was he also lying about there being no disease here?”
He was surprised and confused. “No. No?”
I shook my head. “It can’t be true.”
He tried to come up on his hand, but the hammock swayed and he went back down to his elbow. “Why not?”
I frowned. “We ate a pig yesterday. There’s another one, dead outside.”
His face showed that he wasn’t making the connection. I put a hand on his shoulder.
“There are pigs here in the World Facing, and birds, plants, barnacles. So, human beings aren’t the only creatures here. Yet, our captain told me that only violence can kill you here. No aging, and no disease.”
“But, yes, this is true. The pigs died from violence. I killed one of them myself. With mi hanger.”
I withdrew my hand from his damp shoulder and ran it through my hair. “Then, it can’t be true that there is no disease.”
He chuckled that pleasing chuckle. I was happy to have elicited it.
“Juan, do you know what disease is?” His face told me he didn’t. Or at least he didn’t know what I was on about. He’d been in the World Facing for centuries, arrived long before the germ theory of disease would have come around. “A lot of diseases are caused by tiny creatures, invisibly tiny creatures, committing violence against us, like shipworms eating their way through a hull. So, how can there be no disease here if there is violence?”
His eyes turned down and he nodded. He was taking it in.
“Juan, you said you’d been here for three hundred years.”
“Give or take.”
“When you arrived, were the vessels and guns familiar?”
His spreading mustache told me he was smiling. “Oh, yes. Beautiful vessels just as I had known in New Spain.”
“So, the technology was up to date.”
His eyebrows pinched together. “Techno—”
“The mechanical arts. The vessels and guns.”
“Si, mi amigo.” He tilted his head to one side. “You are onto something, aren’t you, Mecánico Jack?”
Mecánico Jack. Now that was a nickname that leaned in the right direction, if not quite honed and polished to my liking. I nodded. “I am. Something about this world isn’t right. Your guns don’t have rifling.”
“Rifling? Is this what the captain wants you for?”
That was certainly no secret, I imagined. “It is. But rifling has been around for centuries. Not in common use, but anyone familiar with a Queen Anne pistol would know it … so, mid 1700s. And quite common in the 1800s. Virtually standard in the 1900s.”
He looked suddenly sad. “What year is it then?”
I put a hand on his shoulder, consolingly. “2018. Your descendants are probably all over the globe by now.”
He took the bait and laughed. The men in the nearby hammocks grumbled complaints. I smiled back at him. He nodded. “Probably. I had fifteen little… what you say? Kids.” He tilted his head back and forth. “Fifteen that I knew of.”
We both chuckled at that. “Jesus, Juan!”
He leaned back. “Oh. Si. Jesus.” He pronounced it with his Castellano lisp. “He didn’t come back at the millennium then?”
I shook my head. “He’s taking that ‘thief in the night’ thing very seriously.”
“Mierde. He would.” He even chuckled a little at that.
“We did have a technology scare. They called it Y2K. Computers were supposed to stop.”
“I heard of them from Bob the Hippie. Like books that talk to each other?”
“Yeah. It all turned out to be nothing. We had some fireworks, some champagne, and the world just kept on ticking.”
His mustache smiled. “Did the Prince sing?”
It took me a moment to figure out what he meant. “You mean 1999? You know about Prince?”
“Si, mi amigo. His songs are very popular in New Nassau.” His shoulders started rocking back and forth. He started singing: “Little Red Corvette!”
One of the other men raised a black hand and waved it in rhythm. He sang with a Caribbean lilt: “Lovah, you much too fast.” Men laughed in their hammocks all around. Even Mr. “No English” Chinaman laughed.
I suddenly remembered that corvette was originally a type of sailing ship. Very convenient. “Is he still here?”
Juan sat up a bit. “Did he die?” My face told him. “Oh, my boys. The Prince has come! We have to find him!”
“Wait,” I said. My head started shaking violently. I was suddenly angry. “Wait! First, I need to figure out why there’s no disease here even though there’s clearly violence.”
My Spanish friend seemed genuinely annoyed. “But, Jack. Why does it matter? We are all here, still living the life. No aging. And no disease. No little shipworm violence.”
I felt my hand gripping a rope so tight that it hurt. “I don’t like when things don’t make sense. And our world doesn’t make sense.”
Juan scanned the crew’s eyes looking at both of us from their tilted hammocks. “Engineer Jack. It will all make much more sense when we get to New Nassau and get some rum in your belly.” He winked at me. “And get you in some Nassau lady’s belly.”
The laughter that circulated around the deck was infectious. More infectious than the diseases that, for whatever reason, did not exist in the World Facing. I felt myself taken in. My toes curled against the damp wood of the deck, my fingers slowly releasing their grip on the rope.
“New Nassau,” I said. Clearly named for the buccaneer haven in the World of Things. “That’s the pirate port?”
Juan’s mustache was still smiling. “One of them, si. The other is—”
The gundeck was suddenly silent. Juan glanced around.
“Traitors,” said the Caribbean guy. There were grunts of concurrence among the hammocks.
Juan nodded. “Pirates who prey on other pirates, and trade the goods back to the company men.”
I nodded. The men were turning in their racks. Back to sleep. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I nodded again and smiled at Juan and walked off to do my inventory.
“Your cannon are surprisingly uniform. All from a single prize?”
Yellowbeard chewed on pork, sitting on a small crate on the beach behind his ship, his eyes dancing between the imperceptibly rising waves of the lagoon and the imperceptibly rising half-disc of the moon in the eastern sky. An invisible cable linked these two, and I knew Yellowbeard was as aware of this tugging link as he would be of any sail-tugging line on his ship.
He nodded in his cocked hat. “Yeah.”
Men were rushing about in the long shadows as the sun went down behind us. Loosing cables, letting the ship come aright. The high tide would be on us within a few hours.
“The muskets are mostly also all of the same caliber. Four outliers. The pistols are a bit more complicated.”
He turned an eye on me. It glimmered in the reflected light of a bonfire further down the beach. “How many machines?”
I shrugged. “Five, at most, to be practical. Leave the outliers.”
He turned back to the sea and nodded. He shoved another hunk of pork into his mouth from the pile on the pewter plate between his boots.
“You’ve been making friends. On the crew.”
He sucked on the pork, taking in the taste of it. I suddenly felt hungry for the first time that day. I had been so caught up in my thoughts that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.
He looked at me. “Do you ever wonder about purpose?”
I cleared my throat. “I wonder about a lot of things. I’m new here.”
“Do you wonder about the purpose of this place?” He tilted his head. He was consulting me, I thought, as an engineer. “Why dump us here, to watch the comings and goings of Creation? Why not just send us straightaway on to our rewards?”
“Perhaps,” I said, trying to think like an engineer, “it was just built into the machinery that way.”
His dirty yellow eyebrows lifted. He flipped through the meat on his plate with a finger and found a large piece. He held it out. I took a seat on the sand beside the crate he was sitting on and took the pork. At that moment, it was better than anything in Pink Lenny’s lurid imagination.
“Your engineering, John, plays within the limitations of nature. Our engineering. The tides, the sails, the compass.” He grunted. “And the guns. The weight of shot, the measure of powder, the length of the barrel. Your rifling.”
I swallowed the pork and was suddenly thirsty. A bottle of brown liquid appeared in front of my face, with the old pirate’s fingers wrapped around its neck. I took it and tasted a swig. Not rum. Some sort of corn whiskey like bourbon.
“All of it designed to work within rules that already existed.”
I was starting to see his tack. I took a longer drink and handed the bottle back.
“The rules of nature,” I said. We looked at each other. “You’re saying the Engineer who made this place engineered nature. He had no such limitations. He could have made it any way he wanted.”
He rotated the bottle, letting the whiskey spin and whirl.
“Aye,” he took a long swig, swallowed. “And yet here we are.”