I crawled into my hammock among the other idlers. The carpenter, the physician, the quartermaster. They all seemed at rest as I slipped into the stretched canvas. I could hear the port watch on the weatherdeck, shouting orders and hauling sail.
“Sorry about that.”
I turned, taking up the position Juan de la Hoz had taken with me, my elbow poking into the cloth. Bob was similarly propped in his own hammock, grinning that wild hippie grin at me.
“Sorry about betraying me to the captain?”
He giggled. “Oh, no. Sorry about not betraying the captain to you. You’re the newcomer, John.”
“We made up, just so you know.”
His braided beard spread under a crazy smile. “You and Robert made up. He told me all about it. But, you and the World Facing are still at odds, aren’t you?”
There was a noise from the gun deck below. The starboard watch, trying to sleep until morning. We were in the idler’s quarters, on what they called the upper deck, even though it was also lined with cannon, just above the gun deck and just below the quarterdeck. Just outside our door was a rectangular open section of upper deck in the middle of the ship, with the weather deck before and aft connected by gangplanks on either side, like balconies. I was learning the lingo.
Only, I hadn’t learned the word for that open space, so I just thought of it as the well.
The sound came again from the gun deck below. Bob’s mouth was an amused circle. “What was that?”
I felt I was being played. I felt my eyelids drop. I felt my head shaking back and forth. “Just a noise?”
“Sounded like a cough to me.”
My head kept shaking. “Couldn’t be.”
Bob grinned. “Some goat is hard to swallow. Looking forward to New Nassau? We should be there tomorrow evening.”
I laid back in the hammock. I was exhausted. “There’ll be smiths there?”
“Most certainly. And possibly your Prince.”
I chuckled and slipped my hands behind my head.
“I’m sorry I missed him,” Bob said. “Died too soon.”
“Maybe you’ll have the chance. I think you’ll like Purple Rain.”
“Oh, I do like it. There’s a fellow from Indiana in New Nassau who gets the whole tavern going with it.”
There was another sound from the gun deck. A sneeze. Juan de la Hoz and his newfound allergy?
“You’ll like New Nassau. It’s a city.” He had that implacable Flower Child grin plastered under his wild eyes. “Nice girls. Even better food. No pavement. No crosswalks. No cars. You might get hit by a carriage if you buy a pair of shoes.”
I huffed out a laugh at that. I turned the banter on the hippie. “And drugs?”
“Ha! Yeah, man. Herb like you wouldn’t believe. Mushrooms. Peyote.”
That was as good a point as any to end the conversation. “See you there.”
“You had a new girlfriend?” I turned to see him staring at me compassionately. “Maybe you’re not ready for a new city. What was her name?”
I felt it in my head, then. The sickness he’d warned me about. But it wasn’t from the sea.
“Dolores,” I said. “Her name was Dolores. Lorie.”
He leaned toward me, bushy hair falling over his wild eyes. “That’s a sad name, you know. It means sorrow.”
You know what? Fuck him for that.
“What are the girls like in Jissamán?”
He wasn’t smiling. I’d hit him back where it hurts.
“Treacherous,” he said, his eyes tight.
Then, he grinned again and swung around in his bunk. His bare feet slapped against the floor.
“Can’t sleep. I’m going to have a walk about. Get some rest, engineer.”
I took his advice, in spite of the sick feeling in my head.
I was awakened by an angry bell. The single watch bell of morning. But angry.
“Rouse! Rouse! Starboard watch! To the boats!”
It was Yellowbeard’s British accent. Too posh for his criminal station. Saturated with deceptions.
I slipped from the hammock. The other idlers were turning, ignoring the call. Bob’s hammock was empty.
My feet slapped against the upper deck. I pushed open the door into the dim light of early morning to see my old starboard watch shipmates climbing up the stairs from the gun deck and pouring up the stairs to the weatherdeck.
The men of the port watch were standing side-by-side in a rectangle on the weatherdeck, looking down into the well. They looked tired, agitated, sleepily energized. Yellowbeard and Bob were standing near the top of the fore stairs.
I glanced up into the masts. The ship’s sails were brailed up against the fading stars of a clear purple sky, furled in the lingo. The port watch had doused them. The ship was as still as it could be, drifting, rocking in the waves.
I wandered into the midst of the the starboard watch. They were sweating. Coughing. Sneezing. Eyes watering.
The port watch had pistols on their hips. As I climbed the stairs I noticed a cluster of muskets leaning against the gunwale near the forecastle. Yellowbeard was licking his chapped lips, on hand on his belt and the other holding a pistol against a thigh. His quartermaster stood square at the top of the stairs, fingers playing in his braided beard under that hippie grin. He was wearing a vest of leather straps, six pistols resting against the front of his torso like an array of reptilian scales.
I stopped at the top of the stairs and looked at the men passing me. They looked feverish.
“Mr. Randolph!” the captain shouted. “You are no longer on the starboard watch. You’re a day man. Move out of the way.”
“Captain, these men are clearly—”
He lowered his pistol at me. Roughly in the direction of my chest. My shipmates slipped behind me, avoiding the gap between me and the pistol.
“There’s flotsam in the water,” the captain shouted. “A good bit of it, likely a shipwreck or thrown overboard running from another pirate.”
About fifty yard away across the gently rolling water floated a string of crates. There were ropes slung over the gunwale. The boats were missing from the deck. Only one place they could be.
“Port watch is over. Starboard watch to the boats.”
At the captain’s word, the men began weakly climbing over the gunwale.
“Captain,” I said.
“Mr. McCorran,” Yellowbeard growled.
Bob grinned manically. He turned to the men at his sides. “Get the engineer out of here.”
Two men of the port watch, a black man with an afro like a funk bassist and an Asian man with a clumsily shaven head speckled with red scrapes, stepped toward me as the last of the starboard watch clambered over the gunwale. The two men looked rough. I went ahead and started walking toward them. They were unconvinced by my cooperation and shoved hands into my armpits.
Juan looked back at me with teary and terrified eyes, then lowered himself out of sight.
I slipped free and ran toward the captain. He thumbed the pistol’s hammer with a menacing click. His bottom lip was shoved upward in rage.
“Those men are sick—”
“Yes!” His voice was like a bullhorn. “Sick with fear. With cowardice. Sweating. Puking. Shitting themselves.”
Hands fell on my shoulders and I was thrown onto the weatherdeck. I looked up into Bob’s happy hippie smile. He snapped his dirty fingers. Dozens of flintlocks clicked.
Yellowbeard waved the pistol back and forth. “They are terrified of facing a fight against the other pirate lords. They know what our engineer plans to do.”
He was talking to the port watch now, but he lowered his eyes on me. There was a threat in them that tightened my throat.
“He has promised—promised!—to give us the means to begin the final battle for control of this world. And those men are scared shitless of that war.”
I got to my knees. I could see the boats over the gunwale then. I tried to pick out the men I knew. Juan de la Hoz and his facial hair. The Caribbean who had sung Little Red Corvette and told me Jissamán was full of traitors. The Chinese guy who didn’t know any English. The man who had grunted at me on my first trick at scraping the hull. They were rowing weakly, coughing, wheezing. Some disease had spread. “I did this. I told them about—”
Bob’s bare foot slammed into my belly. I fell onto my side, my right elbow slamming into the deck. “Do be quiet, John.”
Yellowbeard clomped his boots along the weatherdeck. Heel and toe, heel and toe. Boots over a shoeless crew.
“Of course, I can’t have that. My brave and loyal port watch can’t have that. We can’t have cowards in the fight to come.” He glanced at Bob the Hippie, who was standing by the gunwale, grinning that insanely happy grin. With a sickening stoner gleam in his eyes, he scooped the top pair of dragons from his chest.
There was a shuffle around the weather deck as pistols and muskets were lowered. Pops rang out like a string of fireworks. Bob emptied his first handful of pistols, smiling as always, and flung the empty guns onto the deck. The port watch leaned their spent muskets against the gunwale and gathered fresh muskets.
Bob shook his braided beard and dragged the second set of pistols from his belly. There was a chorus of weeping and screaming as the second round of shot rained over the boats. The pattern repeated a third time, port watch sailors moving in practiced discipline, Bob the Hippie smiling like a mad stoner as he thrust his crotch forward and pulled the final pair of pistols resting there. The third round of pops was followed by a wave of nose-burning smoke and utter, mortal silence.
I gagged in the cloud of gunpowder as the ship rocked gently in the waves. The smoke slowly cleared. I scrambled to the gunwale and knelt over it. In the boats below was a spattering of torn bodies and sprayed blood and gore. Corpses and oars floated in the water. Juan de la Hoz lay against the bow of a boat, body twisted in the shape of an S, his hairy face spread in an impossible, eternal, silent scream.
Yellowbeard set his boots on the deck near my hip. “Now you see the price of philosophy.”
I was panting. Gasping for air against the pollution of gunfire and violence.
The captain prodded my calf with the tip of his boot. “All that, without rifling.”
I made that fricative noise in my throat.
He chuckled sarcastically. “You’re an engineer. My engineer. Keep your engineering thoughts between you and me from now on.”
He stomped away from me, toward the wheel, waving his hands toward the sails. “Sorry, boys, but it looks like we’re a bit short-handed. Those in the fore hammocks are now the starboard watch. Get us underway. You’ll get an extra coin when we reach New Nassau. Port watch, clean the guns and get some rest.”
The men stepped to. The shadow of the ship fell over the boats as the sun rose behind us. I heard the slap of bare feet beside me. Bob the Hippie leaned down over my face and showed his teeth, but I could no longer see it as a smile.
“I never meant to cause you any sorrow,” he sang.
His mouth spread wider, showing more white teeth. “I never meant to cause you any pain.”
I recognized the lyrics. “Fuck you.”
He stood and started gathering his pistols from the weatherdeck. “I only wanted to one time see you laughing.”
Bob shoved pistols into his strapped vest. “I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.”
I was in shackles, sitting in that chair at Yellowbeard’s badly braced table. It was the first time I had sat there with a blue sky out those stern windows.
I’d had a few opportunities to discuss tactics with the men of the starboard watch. Pirate stories, naval maneuvers. Tack and position. Wind and advantage. Those big stern windows, the luxury of captain’s quarters, were a weakness. Firing a broadside into the stern of an enemy’s ship would send lethal metal down the length of the gun positions.
It was a stupid convention of naval architecture. As easily remedied as the symmetrical braces that weakly held Yellowbeard table to the deck. Some iron-plated shutters, tilted with a steeper angle to drive incoming shot into the water, would utterly eliminate the advantage of a stern-targeting broadside. It would put the rudder at a marginally increased risk from the ricochet, but the rudder was already at risk during a stern assault. A second steering mechanism placed at the bow would mitigate that risk, although it would be a trick to master.
Yellowbeard sat in his chair, drumming dirty fingers on the arm.
I let my toe reach forward to massage the iron brace at the base of the nearest table leg.
“I can fix your table.”
His mouth took on a surprised angle. “My table? It’s broken?”
I shook my head. “It’s stable enough in normal weather. But if you maneuver in heavy seas, it will bend to the left. Most likely pop free.”
He nodded. “Pop.”
“Yes. To the left from my perspective. The braces all give that way.”
One side of his mouth grinned, but the other was tight with menace. “You were studying the windows, not the table.”
“I like the sky. It’s clear and blue.”
“Blue indeed,” he snarled. “Clear and blue all the way to New Nassau. To your smiths.”
The clear blue was astern. “New Nassau is the other direction.”
He huffed and gave me a snarly smile.
Blue. The sickness in my head was clearing. Blue, blue. “You’ve not told me about Bluebeard.”
“I know you, Yellowbeard.” I closed my eyes, to shield myself from his reaction. “And I know that Redbeard will torture men for information. He tortured Bob’s killer to learn why he’d met his victim in the World Facing.”
I opened my eyes. Yellowbeard had a gentle smile.
“You did not tell me whether he learned anything or not. You don’t like me philosophizing about details like that.”
“I do not.” He shifted in his chair and closed his lips in a tight grin. “It leads to unfortunate necessities.”
He wanted to talk about the starboard watch. I didn’t. “I know that Blackbeard was originally Edward Teach and that he’s been replaced twice, and that you think I could be his next replacement.”
“You have Teach’s drive.” He lowered his eyelids. “And, one day, his beard. You should buy ribbons in New Nassau.”
“Will the current Blackbeard put up a fight?”
He ground his canines against each other. “We were talking about what you’ve already learned.”
“Okay,” I said with an annoyed drawl. “I know that Graybeard is aged by tedium, rather than age. And that Whitebeard is even more tedious.”
I leaned against the shackles behind my back, behind the chair.
“You are a white man, like me. Redbeard is also, presumably, a white man. That’s a demographic anomaly in a world populated by the random dead. Your crew’s diversity tells the same tale.”
His brows scrunched. “That’s an odd tack.”
It was a feint. To put him off course. “I’m right.”
“You were talking about Bluebeard.”
“Nobody has blue hair.”
He laughed. “It’s a poeticism, you fucking idiot. It’s black. As is he.”
Time for my broadside into his stern. “You haven’t mentioned Bluebeard because he’s your greatest enemy.”
His elbows withdrew like a wilting flower.
“He trades out of Jissamán,” I said.
He ground his white teeth together. “You go to far.”
“I identify flaws,” I said. “I’m an engineer. Your engineer.”