In which Rodney McKay emulates a mouse, but fails to learn a lesson from Monsieur Perrault
Some time between noon and two of the clock, Rodney McKay realised that he was disgusting.
He wrinkled his nose at the stink of himself. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, horrid with dirt and mud. Sweat poured down his neck in torrents, and he had worn the same stockings since he had been abducted by these evil creatures so many days before, and since then he had waded through swamps of unimaginable foulness.
He needed to wash – not himself, of course, because everybody of any intelligence knew that too much water on your skin was a sure-fire way to catch vile diseases – but he at least needed a clean shirt and a new pair of stockings.
He wrenched his cabin door open, then halted, struck by the realisation that it was no longer locked. Thinking about it, he realised that it hadn't been locked for a good long while. Hmm, he thought. Interesting. But the need for clothes was a more pressing one, so he climbed up the steep staircase and headed onto deck.
"You," he shouted, calling to the nearest man. "I need my clothes washed."
The man looked at him with utter insolence, and carried on his way.
They all stank. Perhaps it was just the heat of the afternoon that made him notice it. Perhaps it was because he had made three attempts to design his valve, and the fourth attempt was a crumpled up piece of paper on his cabin floor. It was a stinking den of villainy. Stinking. Stinking. Stinking.
He stamped along to the quarterdeck and made for the stern, where at least the air was fresh, having come across nothing but open sea. There he spread his arms and raised his face to the sky, and felt the cool breeze flow under his arms and across his neck, drying the sweat.
It was only when he looked down again that he realised that Sheppard was there, sitting on the folds of a cloak, a book in his hand.
"I need someone to wash my clothes," Rodney told him. "I can't work when I'm filthy."
It was a shocking lie. His mother had oft rebuked him for emerging from his laboratory with stains on his shirt front; she shuddered to think, she said, that he would one day come down to dinner like that when they had company. But he called upon all his outrage at his unnatural imprisonment, and managed to invest the statement with ire and dignity.
Sheppard looked at him. His own shirt was vexingly white. Rodney was just drawing in a breath to present his well reasoned case, when he was struck by curiosity – "men of our station are not meant to be curious, my son. I do not care how old the earth is, or how far away are the stars; I just take the money." – by the book in Sheppard's hand. He twisted his head, trying to read its title. What did pirates read, anyway?
"A Treatise on Divers Ways to Torture Trembling Dowagers?" Sheppard closed the book, keeping his finger in the page and the spine turned away from Rodney. "A Murderer's Almanack?"
And how did you learn how to be a pirate, anyway? One could not go to university and study under a doctor of piracy. Rodney shook his head briskly. Filth, he thought. "I need fresh clothes," he stated, "or these ones washed."
"Then wash them yourself." Sheppard's eyes gleamed nastily. "Or can't you find any water, out here on the open sea?"
"I can't…!" He stopped, adjusted his mantle of dignity, and said in a measured tone, "I need to devote all my attention to my work, just like you need to devote all your time to your… captainly things." He was proud of that shot, though he took care to check that he was out of sword reach. "I see you are not partaking of the work."
"I'm confined to ship." Sheppard placed the book down, slowly, deliberately, firmly. Rodney still could not read the spine. "Carson was quite insistent that if I was bloody-minded enough to leave on any damn fool excursions – those were his actual words; he was not polite – then it would be no-one's fault but my own if I died there and then."
"Which would be good riddance," Rodney said after a pause, because he knew he ought to.
"Perhaps." Sheppard shrugged, then gave a faint gasp, as if of pain. "So here I am, and Ronon's out there in my place, getting you lead." He spread his hand. "I'm waited on hand and foot. Food. Wine. Books. Anything, as long as I don't move." There was an edge to his voice. His fist slammed towards the book, then at the last minute slowed, so his hand touched it quite silently.
"How nice for you," McKay said bitterly.
Sheppard's mouth tightened. "Get back to work, McKay," he said after a while. "Wash your own clothes. Next time one of my cowed minions comes to feed me grapes, I'll get him to bring you one of my spare shirts." He was silent for a while. "Go," he said, when Rodney hadn't moved.
"Going," Rodney said, and fled with quiet dignity, telling himself that he had come out of the encounter quite well. He had faced the demon in his lair, at any rate, and had dared to tweak his beard.
The sun was setting as the Atlantis drew into sight. Ronon smiled at the sight of it. This was home, calling to him across the sea. He imagined Sheppard standing at the rail, waiting for them – and perhaps that was him there, that shape at the bow – and Teyla and Beckett, and all the others who had become his friends.
Then something about the angle of the light made him remember another home – returning from the fields to be greeted by his mother and his grandmother and the shy smile of Melena. He had never asked her to be his sweetheart. Perhaps he would have done so at harvest, but at the end of the summer, the storm had struck, and the mountain had turned to thick dark mud, had shivered, and had fallen.
He gripped the side of the boat with whitened knuckles. "An act of God," the priest had said, smiling benevolently. Ronon had turned his back and walked away, leaving the ruins of the church, wading through the burial ground with its newly dug graves, and had left and never gone back. If it had been an act of man, he could have spent his life seeking vengeance, but there had been nobody to blame, nobody to hate, nobody to care for, no cause to fight…
The water shone like liquid gold. He saw shapes in the rigging, and knew each one by name, just by their tiny outline and the way that they moved. Nearer, and he saw that Sheppard was indeed waiting for them, and Ronon's nostrils caught the faintest scent of broth and ale. The sail billowed, and he was in the lea of the brig. Soon he was home.
"You're late," Sheppard said, as he clambered onto deck.
"Did the job, though." Ronon grinned. "No, no-one's hurt. Took a little longer than we thought; that's all. There was no trouble."
They had been away for two days. Sheppard nodded once, and stepped back to allow the winches to be hauled into place. Ronon took the opportunity to examine his captain critically. He looked better, he thought, as if by some miracle he had acceded to Beckett's orders and rested. Perhaps it was the closeness of their goal. Just months before, if Sheppard had been told that a certain course of action would almost certainly get him killed, he might have just done it, anyway.
"I need a drink," Ronon told him. The journey had been arduous, and land was a thin strip to the east, fading into the darkness away from the sun.
He headed towards the ladder that led below. As he did so, McKay accosted him. "Where have you been?"
"Away," Ronon said, but McKay stood his ground, red-faced and stubborn. "Getting you lead," Ronon told him.
"Why do people keep on saying it's for me?" McKay protested. "Your imperious captain's the one who wants this thing made. I just compile the shopping list. Oh, and do all the work and supply the brains, of course. And suffer. He made me wash my own shirt." He frowned, cocking his head. "Where did you get lead from, anyway?"
"Took it from the roof of an abandoned church." An image flickered into his mind of a ruined church in world turned brown with mud. He pushed it away.
"You stole from a church?" McKay's voice was shrill. "That's… That's…"
"No different from anything the nobles and gentlemen of England have been doing for centuries," Sheppard said from behind him. "Half the mansions of England were built with stone and lead plundered from the monasteries."
"We're pirates, McKay." Ronon heard the edge to Sheppard's voice, symptom of two days of waiting. "We steal things. And now you have your lead."
"Now I have my lead," McKay echoed, "and an unwelcome history lesson. Thank you very much."
Rain sent them below deck. Those who could be spared from running the ship were gathered around the wooden benches, faces lit by flickering lanterns.
"Your turn, Teyla," Tom Evans called.
Teyla shook her head. "I have already sung tonight." She sometimes wondered what they really thought of her – a woman who was neither a lady to be treated with respect, nor a whore to tumble in the hay. Perhaps their banter with her was a little less free than with each other, but it was not enough to cause her worry. This was so much better than it could have been.
"Then who?" Tom appealed to the room. "Somebody give us a song."
Then she saw McKay faltering in the doorway. It was the look of cautious disgust on his face that decided her. "McKay can sing a song."
"Oh, I don't… I can't…" But the men were baying, laughing, reeling him in. McKay's hands flapped, and his mouth was opening and shutting like a fish. "I can't sing. I sound like a frog."
"We like frogs," Tom said. "Sweet William sounds like a dying sea cow, but he still takes his turn." That was Jones. "Come on, Master Scientist, take your turn," William urged him.
"But I can't… I can't…" McKay drew himself up, and she saw his hands clenching and unclenching at his side. Then he assumed an affected pose, twisted up his face, and started to sing. "Gather your rosebuds…"
"No!" Carson stood up, raising his tankard. "None of your namby-pamby chamber songs. We need a muckle sang – a ballad from bonnie Scotland."
She saw hurt pride and relief war for precedence on McKay's face. At least he had tried. He had stood up before them – and she had been terrified the first time she had sung here – and he had been prepared to sing. "Move over," she told Tom, then gestured McKay over to the space she had made.
"A muckle sang." Carson had drunk a little too much, though she knew from experience that he would be as calm and steady as any man if anybody required his care.
Carson's voice was far from perfect, but he always sang the words with feeling, telling the old ballads more as stories than songs. He sang of Tam Lin, the young and handsome lord who drew the attention of the Queen of Elfland, and was doomed to live in thrall to her, cast out of human society, and feared by all. Then he sang of Thomas the Rhymer, who met the same queen, and was taken away beyond mortal ken.
"And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven."
She heard McKay shift beside her, but she was held by the story, although she had heard it so many times before.
"For forty days and forty nights
He waded thro' red blude to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea."
She heard McKay suck in a breath as if to speak, then heard him let it out again. It was only when the song was finished that he spoke. "Your songs are all about death and violence. Why…? No, of course I know why."
So, defiant, she stood up and sang of Sovay, the woman who robbed on the highway to test her sweetheart's love, and Lovely Joan, who robbed the young dandy who would have stolen her maidenhead. McKay stayed, though, so she let Tom sing "Good luck to the Barleymow," and by the end of it she saw that McKay's lips were moving, joining in the chorus as if despite himself.
He did sound like a frog, though.
"No!" Rodney bellowed, his hands on his hips. "Are you fools? Have you got straw for brains? Put it there! No, there!"
The diving bell was taking shape. Sheppard had given him free use of the ship's carpenter, his mate, and the ridiculous overgrown boy who looked as if he had been behind a hedge with his britches round his ankles when God was handing out brains. He had given him brawny men to work the cranes and winches, and pock-marked gunners to work with the molten lead, and the cook, of all people, to tend the furnace, although shouldn't he have been back in the galley roasting albatross and trying to make salt beef taste a little more like a royal banquet and a little less like leather?
"Yes, yes, there, you brutes. Now run along and do whatever it is you people do, and come when I snap my fingers. No, not you! Boy! Stay there. Cut that plank of wood. No, there!"
"You shouldn't talk to them like that."
It was the Scottish man who had been presumptuous enough to rescue him from having to sing. Why not? Rodney was about to demand, then remembered that these people were heartless pirates. They could slit his throat if he provoked them too much.
"Good point," he said. "Nice pirates. Good pirates. Good… muscles. Please don't kill me."
"No," the Scotsman said. "You shouldn't speak to them like that for any reason."
Rodney took in a careful breath, then let it out when he realised that nobody looked likely to disembowel him at that very moment. The Scotsman's face was mild, almost gentle. Of course, one could smile and smile and be a villain, according to the bard, whose place at the pinnacle of the pantheon of English worthies would be less certain once Rodney had…
His thoughts trundled to a halt. It was harder to think such things when he was stranded on a floating den of iniquity, casting his pearls before swine. For the first time, they felt almost foolish.
"They're used to it," he said, shaking his head. "Captain Sheppard bellows orders all the time, treating them like mindless animals, reinforcing his commands with the crack of a whip." Not that he had heard such goings-on, of course, but the captain had been injured. He would be in full fettle soon. Leopards could not change their spots, although perhaps they could disguise them for a while, perhaps by… uh… painting them with… mud…
"Who are you, anyway?" he demanded briskly. He faced the man, then recoiled from him with a gasp. "You've got blood on you."
"I'm Carson Beckett," the Scotsman said. "Ship's surgeon."
"Oh." He wrinkled his nose. "Have you been… uh… cutting somebody's leg off?"
Beckett shook his head. "The blood's from earlier – lad got an elbow to the nose. Bloody awful. No, I've just been seeing to a stubborn bastard who thinks the normal rules of human endurance don't apply to him. He's well on the road to recovery now, but only because I sat him down and reminded him of… Well, enough of that. But it's enough to drive a man to drink. He always was like that, even when we served the Queen. He once fought off pirates with half his thigh laid open. Damn nearly died of it, but I cured him afterwards. I was down below, of course, sewing up the other poor buggers, and didn't see him play the hero – another word for idiot, if you ask me – but they told me afterwards, when they helped him down below."
"Sheppard," Rodney realised. "You're talking about Sheppard. He used to be in the Navy?" And the man was literate, of course, and spoke like a gentleman, despite that untraceable accent. "He was an officer?"
It was… it was horrible. Sheppard had taken an oath. He'd served beneath his country's flag, and then turned pirate. How could any man do such a thing? How could he? Rodney quivered with all the outrage he had been taught in tedious sermons and dull lectures. He had to go and confront the man. He had to shame him. There must have been a scrap of honour in him once. Rodney would use all his eloquence to appeal to it, and if that failed, he would… he would challenge him to a duel.
"…and when he left," Beckett was saying stiffly, "I came with him. There are still a score of men here today who did the same as me. When you see how a man deports himself as his comrades fall around him, then you know him. When you have a man on the surgeon's slab, then you know what he is made of."
"Yes," Rodney said in disgust. "Blood and guts and violence."
Rodney thought it might be Friday. The night before, the moon had been almost new. That meant that he must have been on the ship for nearly two weeks. He wondered if the people of Kingston were in a consternation over his departure, but then he let out a breath, knowing that they were not. Then he wondered if a ship was already carrying news of his loss back to his father. His mother would scream. His father would mourn an heir, but would he mourn a son?
He was fixing tubes into barrels, his shirt still damp and prickly from the sea water he had washed it in rather badly in the night before. It was not long after dawn, although when he had emerged proudly from his cabin, he had found that the bulk of the crew was already up.
"Where's the captain?" he asked the carpenter's mate as he passed him.
"Away," the man said.
Rodney sat very still for a few minutes, as thoughts pattered across his mind like scampering feet. Sheppard was off the ship, and he was still on it. Sheppard and…? The next time somebody passed, he asked them where Ronon was, and received the same answer. Sheppard and Ronon; captain and savage. He saw no sign of the woman, either. The evil triumvirate was gone. And what did the mice do when the cats were away?
He moistened his lips. Not that the crew was showing much sign of playing, now that the cruel yoke was loosened from their necks. But Rodney was fully capable of being the mouse. A brave mouse, though, not a cowed one. A mouse that roared, not a mouse that squeaked.
He cast the barrel aside, flinching as it rumbled across the deck, to come to rest against a bulkhead. He stood up, and smoothed his clothes down, feigning casualness. Sauntering, whistling a little, he went to where the little boat was stowed. It was indeed gone.
Rodney looked from side to side, then shielded his eyes to peer up at the crow's nest. No-one seemed to be watching him. He sauntered towards the stairs and clambered furtively down below deck, grabbed a lantern from his room, then went even lower, lower and lower.
It had to be here somewhere. What? he wondered, so he shook his head twitchily and told himself that he was looking for piles of ill-gotten loot or chained up prisoners or a harem of captured maidens that he could rescue. He went past guns. He tried closed hatches, but none of them were locked. He found a room full of powder barrels, and backed away swiftly, guarding his lantern. Rats were nibbling at bags of flour, "which is disgusting," and he found sealed barrels that claimed to hold ale, "and the smell's right, so they're certainly heavy, so it's probably true," and right at the bottom there were barrels of water.
It was horribly dark in the hold, and he suddenly realised that he was below sea level, with water pressing in on him from all sides, kept out only by a thickness of wood. "He won't keep it here," he said, "not where everyone else can find it. No, it's in his cabin."
He headed back to the deck, where the air felt sweet and almost homely, even though it was flavoured with all the scents of a pirate ship. Sheppard's cabin was in the stern, and Rodney made his way there.
Soon he was trembling. He touched the door casually, his body averted, his hand at his side, touching the wood only with his fingers. The door stirred. He swallowed, and pulled his lip in with his teeth. Nobody was looking.
Taking a deep breath, he darted in, and shut the door behind him. This was the monster's den. This was the enemy's heartland. He thought of Monsieur Perrault's Bluebeard, who told his wife not to enter the forbidden room. She entered, and crept out again, but there was blood on the forbidden key, and Bluebeard knew, he knew. He killed her, and 'be bold,' the room said, but that was another story – a tale his nurse had told him. "Be bold," he whispered, "be bold, but not too bold, lest thy heart's blood should run cold." And in that tale, that started so like Monsieur Perrault's tale, the lady had killed the murderous husband, chopping him into a hundred pieces.
"No time," he whispered. "No time for this. Think. Concentrate. Mark every sign." He pushed himself away from the door, adrift and unanchored in the murderer's lair. The cabin was almost austere, with a narrow bed and a bare table. There were rolled charts against the wall, and a chest beneath the window… "Aha!" he said, and knelt down in front of it, but it was locked. It undoubtedly held – the talisman. The jewel that is the secret of his strength – something of immense importance, and Rodney could…
Footsteps! He bit his lip, but they passed on by. He remembered what it had felt like to be in that poor settler's house, robbing him of his store. This felt worse. But it wasn't; of course it wasn't. Pirates had no rights. This was his duty. He was being quite amazingly brave.
Be bold, be bold, but not too bold…
There was a small bookcase on the opposite wall, and he stopped, drawn by the books. Euclid! Oh. It was the same edition as the one he had. The Principia? Ha! The man was showing off, pretending to understand it. Leviathan. Over-rated. The Faerie Queen. Sentimental nonsense. A life of Pliny the Elder… Acceptable, though the prose was over-rated. Robinson Crusoe. A book he hadn't heard of! He pulled it off the shelf, and looked at its title page. It was barely two years old, and claimed to be a true account of a mariner stranded on an island for twenty-eight years, until he was 'strangely deliver'd by pyrates,' or so the title page said, "and I don't want to read about them." He shoved it back on the shelf, then pulled out the Newton, just to make sure that the covers weren't being used as a blind to cover more nefarious works within.
"See anything you like?"
Rodney dropped Newton with a crash. It was Sheppard. Sheppard was back. Rodney turned round – turning had never seemed to slow – and saw the pirate captain standing in the doorway, leaning against it with one hand.
"You were off the ship," Rodney stammered. They had distinctly told him that Sheppard was not here. "You were off the ship," he said accusingly.
"Was," Sheppard stressed. "I came back."
"I can see that."
There was silence. Rodney wondered which bodily part he was going to lose first. Not my tongue, he thought. Please not my tongue. Or my hands. I'm attached to my hands. That is, I want to remain attached to them.
"It was unlocked," Rodney protested. "You shouldn't leave doors unlocked if you don't want people to go through them."
"Unless I left it open as a trap." Rodney hated it when Sheppard's eyes glittered like that, and hated that slight smile.
"Did you?" His mouth was horribly dry.
Sheppard said nothing. He took a step forward, and Rodney felt the bed pushing against the back of his legs, showing him that he had been steadily retreating.
"I'm going," he stammered. "I… I won't do it again."
Sheppard stepped to one side to let him past. The doorway was narrow, and Rodney had to brush against the fall of Sheppard's coat, and his flesh crept – he hadn't known that such a thing was possible before, and thought it just the foolish fancy of the poets – at the proximity of the man, sure that he was about to be gutted.
"No," Sheppard said, "you won't." But he let Rodney pass before he said it again. "I mean it, McKay. Never do this again."
Rodney fled, running with quiet dignity to the safety of his own prison.
"We have fresh reports, sir." Barrington placed a sheaf of papers on the table. "He's been sighted across the archipelago. He appears to have no clear route in mind, but he's sending men ashore in several places."
Lorne looked at the reports. They were ghosts and rumours, but it was all he had. It had to be enough. "Then we proceed."
"With respect, sir…" Barrington's ruddy complexion was even more flushed than normal. "We haven't received fresh orders. Perhaps we should…"
"We proceed," Lorne said. This was worth risking his career for. For years he had toed the line, going out on patrol, returning to port with the scent still fresh in the air. He had broken off the chase to escort passenger ships. He had languished for days in port while noble-born lieutenants were entertained by ambassadors in their mansions.
Not any more. "We are close, Tom," he said. "I can feel it. And this time I will not rest until he is ours."
end of chapter five
This portrait has been included for the sake of completeness, but almost certainly does not portray Ronon Dex. This drawing was done by an artistically-inclined maiden from Marseilles, who caught a glimpse of this man down at the docks and was most taken by him. In her journal, she waxed lyrical about his "pirate garb" and his "look and hair, like unto a savage from Herodotus." The similarity of this description to Rodney McKay's thoughts on Ronon Dex has led me to include this picture, although needless to say, the chances of this handsome stranger actually being Ronon Dex are so minimal as to be practically non-existent.
In which Rodney is almost useful in a naval battle
Rodney looked out one morning to see dolphins playing beside the ship. "Look!" He cried out without thinking. Smiling, he looked around, but there was no-one to share them with.
The dolphins were sleek and gleaming, and they seemed to look at him with merry eyes, and grin with delight at their own antics. He watched them crest the waves; watched them plunge down below; watched them emerge to leap even higher than before.
He glanced round again, but he was still alone. The morning breeze was cool, tugging his hair free from the twist of leather he had artfully tied it with. In that moment, he vividly remembered the night he had first trained his new telescope on the sky and seen the disc surrounding Saturn, that had so amazed Galileo in his time. He remembered trying to drag his mother out to see it with him, but she had yawned daintily at the very thought, and after that, he had only ever watched the heavens alone.
He turned back to the rail. "Sail to windward!" someone shouted from far above.
His hand tightened. A sail? Windward. That meant… He moved along the stern, leaving the dolphins behind, but he could see nothing on the horizon but haze. The sky seemed to bleed into the sea, and he could barely tell where one became the other.
Sheppard was suddenly prominent on deck, although Rodney was sure that the man had been nowhere to be seen a moment before. He pulled out a telescope and extended it, looking grim. Everyone watched him. "Prepare to go about," the captain commanded.
The crew rushed in diverse directions. It looked like chaos at first, but then Rodney realised that there was actually scrupulous order to it, if only you knew where to look. Not that he knew, of course. His father had tried to teach him about sails and lines – "Not so you can captain a ship, of course, but enough to tell if a master knows his trade, when he comes to us with a pretty tale of how well he will guard our cargo" – but Rodney had never been able to keep the jumble of explanations in his head.
"Lee ho!" the captain shouted, his voice carrying across the ship.
The man at the wheel turned it hard to the left – port, Rodney reminded himself. The boat turned, and the wind hit Rodney full in the face. We're heading directly at the other ship! he thought. He's going to…
The ship lurched. People hauled at ropes and lines, and he was aware of enormous movement overhead, as many tonnes of canvas and wood swung into a fresh position. Wind tore across his face, hair in his face, in his mouth.
There was going to be a battle. There would be guns and cutlasses, and they would be wading through red blood to the knee, as Beckett's ballad so ominously put it. There would be innocent people hacked to pieces, and golden ear-rings torn from the ears of lovely highborn ladies, and no quarter given, and Rodney was right in the middle of it, and, yes, he could hold up his hands and tell them that he wasn't really a pirate, just an innocent prisoner held against his will, but what if they found the diving bell – and, really, it was impossible to miss it, since it took up half the aft deck – and asked him if it was his work, and…
The wind was solidly behind him, cold on the back of his neck. Behind him. The wind. Behind him. The ship...
So now, apparently, they were going away from the invisible boat on the horizon. It seemed a very curious way to plot an intercept course. It was probably a trick. It was some vile, dastardly pirate trick, designed to lull people into a false sense of security before…
Oh. And now Sheppard himself was approaching him! "We're all going to be somewhat preoccupied for a while," the captain said. "You should go down below."
Rodney was not sure if it was an order. "While you board an innocent merchant ship."
Sheppard just looked at him. Rodney had never before known that a single blink could convey such disdain. Perhaps it was just his imagination, though.
"Right." Rodney pushed his hair back with his hand, fighting the errant strands. "How long's a while? How long until it's… over?"
"She's faster than the Atlantis, and has already changed course to give chase, but I have a good crew. If she catches us, it won't be until at least noon."
"Oh." He gave up, and turned to face the wind, leaning on the rail at the stern. "Is it a navy frigate –?"
"Come to drag my evil soul to justice? No. We believe it's one of Kolya's – Captain Ladon's sloop, by the looks of things."
"Oh. Then shouldn't…?" Rodney swallowed; tried again. "Shouldn't you be off doing… captainly things?"
"I have a good crew. They know what to do." Rodney turned just enough to catch the look of pride on Sheppard's face. Then a strand of hair blew into his eyes, and he couldn't see anything at all.
Even so, when Rodney looked back from the top of the hatch that led below, he saw Sheppard back on the quarterdeck, master of the ship, at the heart of everything. His hair looked quite impossibly dashing, despite being tied back with a leather thong as flimsy as the one Rodney had essayed that morning. Perhaps Rodney should ask him how he managed it. After they had finished fighting for their lives, of course.
Ronon found Sheppard on the quarterdeck. "We're running?"
He got a brisk nod in reply. It was all he expected.
"If that's Ladon," he said, "we're bigger than them, and better armed. If we move to intercept him–"
Ronon slammed a fist into a bulkhead. When he had first felt it, this urge to fight had taken him by surprise. As a young man, he had been good at fighting, but had never taken any joy in it. But then, two years after the loss of his home, he had come upon Sheppard fighting for his life on a beach. Ronon had joined in, and suddenly, for the first time in two years, a part of him that had been dead had raised its head and became alive again. In the months that followed, he had only felt this sense of being alive when he was fighting. Now, of course, he felt fully alive all the time, and that fierce sense of near joy could be prompted by any manner of things, not just by a sword, but the feeling had never entirely gone away.
He liked to fight, and he was good at it. At every other task, there were others who were better than him, but nobody was better than him at fighting. Everyone had a part to play upon the Atlantis, and this was his.
"It's not like you to run from a fight," he said.
Sheppard looked at him with deceptively mild eyes. "You know the truth of that."
And Ronon did, of course. Sheppard was scrupulously careful about choosing his fights, and avoided far more than he sought. It was just that this was one of Kolya's men, that thorn in Sheppard's side. If they took him on, they would win, and Kolya would be short one ship, and robbed of his best lieutenant.
"No-one else is arguing, Ronon," Sheppard said. "We're running. Need I remind you who's captain round here?"
Ronon ran out of arguments. The cause had been hopeless from the start. He knew Sheppard's reasons for acting like this. It was partly for McKay's sake, and partly because of the monstrous machine that was taking shape on the aft deck. Sheppard was so close now to achieving his desire, and he would do nothing to jeopardise that, even if it meant slinking and running like a coward.
"Cheer up, Ronon," Sheppard said, with a smile that failed to reach his eyes. "She's faster than us. You may get your fight, after all."
Rodney paced in his cabin, and tried several different ways of tying his hair. He pulled out a pen, and tried to write down ruminations and musings, but his thoughts were far too full of imminent death to have much room for profound truths about the workings of the universe.
He was cooped up, pushed aside, told to get off the deck because he was would be in the way. It was quite outrageous! "But it's safer here," he told himself. Masts could fall on your head when you were on deck. He'd seen a picture of a ship with its mainmast down, bodies crushed beneath the wood and ropes.
But he couldn't see! Doom could be fast approaching, and he couldn't see. He opened the door, went up the steps, and poked his head out. The hair stayed unruffled, the thong secure. He emerged completely, and took a few steps towards the stern, then crept to the rail. The pursuing ship was definitely visible now. doggedly gripping the Atlantis' tail like a terrier. He heard Sheppard's voice – something about a stern-chaser – and saw Ronon standing like a Drury Lane savage, bristling with guns.
"Captain says you're to go below," someone shouted.
"Yes. Yes." They all seemed so competent, all at their places, all busy with their tasks. Very few orders were shouted, and no-one was being whipped into submission with barbed whips. There had been three floggings on the merchant ship that had brought him out to Jamaica, and the master had seemed quite proud of them.
"Captain apologises; says he omitted the words 'without delay'; says that omission has now been rectified."
"Yes. Yes." He removed his hand from the rail. Nearly three weeks now, or was it more? Somehow, as the time went by, he had begun to forget to count the days. For most of those, he had been useful. He was the key to the success of the captain's nefarious enterprise. He was the only one who knew how to build the diving bell. People came to him for orders and instructions, buzzing around him like bees to a honey-pot.
"Captain wishes to add, 'and stays there until I drag him on deck myself.' He apologises for being too busy to phrase it as a request."
Rodney went down below.
Of course, he thought, a little while later, 'below' did not have to mean his cabin. His cabin had never been mentioned by name. 'Below' covered all manner of things, from the hold full of barrels of ballast and water, to the mysterious store rooms that had so enticed him, to the mess, where food could sometimes be found.
He closed his book, and headed for the mess. The tables had been cleared away, and heavy guns had been brought out and wheeled into place, their muzzles stuck out through hatches that had been opened in the side of the ship. "Where… Where's the food?" He knew it was a stupid thing to say, but it was just such a shock, to find these instruments of death in a place that just the night before had held food (poor fare, admittedly) and song (barbaric.) He could feel the beating of his heart; feel the sweat rising on his palms. Death was close. Death was close and there was nothing he could do about it.
No-one answered him. A red-haired man, who had sung quite eloquently the night before about his wish to be transformed into a small bird so he could fly to his sweetheart's breast and nestle there for ever more, appeared to be the chief gunner. Rodney sauntered over to him, then recoiled with a gasp when one of the man's unmannerly assistants walked directly at him, as if he was not even there. The lout's elbow caught him in the side.
"We're working," said the man who had wanted to be a bird. "Go away." It was not said quite that politely, though.
Rodney maintained a stiff dignity, despite the rudeness. "I can help. I know all about military engineering. Edmond Halley, my mentor – I'm like a son to him, his intellectual heir – advised the Emperor of Austria about the design of his bastions in the late war. In time of war, the mathematician is your friend. I trust you know what Galileo wrote on trajectories?"
The bird man grunted something that might have been a no. He was intent on doing something trivial to one of the guns.
"You don't know what Galileo wrote on trajectories?" Rodney exclaimed. "Of course, knowledge has moved on since then. When you want to fire them – so it's going to come to that, is it – actual firing? – let me work out–"
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Captain says…"
Rodney retreated. When they all died, let nobody dare say that it was his fault. He'd done his best. Pearls before swine, it was. Pearls before swine.
The sun was high, and the sloop was almost upon them. Teyla gripped her pistol, and readied herself for the fight. At last, she thought. At last.
She had hated the chase. When hard sailing was required, she was reduced to messenger. "I will expect the same from you as I expect from any man," John had said, when the truth about her sex was open at last, "unless you tell me otherwise. It is all I ask of any of my crew. If you feel that you cannot perform a task properly, tell me, and I'll give the task to someone who can. Pride gets us killed. If you accept the task, I will expect to see it performed well."
She remembered the quick spike of anger she had felt; remembered how it had faded as quickly as if had come, to be replaced by acceptance. She had kept the agreement, though. Although she was far stronger than she had been before she had gone to sea, she would never be a match for a man two spans taller than her, with arms as thick as her leg. She could climb the mast with the best of them, but she could not lift a cannon ball. She could fire a pistol and few could beat her when she fought with a stick, but when teams were chosen to haul sails, they did not include her.
The stern-chaser sounded, but the ball landed in the ocean, missing the sloop by several chains. The guns were ready below, in case the sloop drew alongside. She was ready with her pistol to pick men off from the rigging or to take a shot at Captain Ladon, if he showed himself. They all had swords and knives, ready to repel a boarding party, should it come to that.
Was she afraid? She felt alive, as if the blood that was coursing through her veins was more rich than it normally was. Everything was vivid; her feet could not stay still.
"I am afraid," she had confessed to John, one evening long before, when the prospect of battle had loomed in the morning. "I fear I will never be as brave as a man."
He had stopped her before she could say any more. "Every man feels afraid sometimes. No," he had said firmly, when she had tried to protest, "every man. Every sane man, anyway. The man who never feels fear is a fool – mostly likely a dead fool. You're not afraid because you're a woman; you're afraid because you're human, and because you're not a fool."
"Even you?" she had asked.
"Especially me," he had grinned. "I was scared shitless in my first battle. I still am half the time."
He had been exaggerating, of course, but since then she had learnt to read the subtle signs of fear in every man around her. They all showed it in different ways. Some showed it in twitches. Some touched pendants around their necks. Some tried to bury it in anger, and after the battle was over, many of them buried it in drink. Ronon hid his in fury, and John showed his in a tight jaw with a twitching muscle beneath it, and in the way he held his hands.
"It is a terrible thing," he had confessed once, over ale and a blood-stained bandage, "to stand there knowing that at any moment, something could pierce you or rip bits off you, and there's Carson waiting with his knife, like the devil at your shoulder, who sooner or later will get us all."
And as for her…? She shifted from foot to foot, and checked and rechecked her pistol, and readied herself for the fight.
The stern-chaser fired again, and once more the ball fell short. Then she frowned, seeing movement beneath the enemy's bow. "They have a bow-chaser!" she shouted. "They have a bow-chaser!"
The enemy's gun fired.
The guns had started firing, the sound echoing through the ship. Rodney paced, his hands pressed to his face. He thought of cannon balls tearing through the wood, erupting into his cabin because he was immured here and couldn't see them coming. He thought of people dying up above, and Spanish pirates swarming over the rail and cutting down Sheppard and all his crew.
He tore his door open. Above him, through the hatch, there was an enormous crash, and he shrank down, shielding his head. Then he straightened, pressing his fist to his mouth, raced towards the mess; stopped, braced himself against the wall, looked wildly from side to side as the gun fired again. Somebody screamed, and there was shouting, everywhere was shouting.
Rodney ran – and it was dark down here, despite the sunlight up above. Was it noon already, or was it later? It felt like an eternity since he had stood at the stern and delighted at the dolphins. He heard another scream, and it was closer now, as if for some reason he was choosing to go towards it, choosing to go towards the place where people were screaming and getting hurt.
"Where is that boy?" someone shouted. "Oh, you'll do. Hold him down."
It was the Scottish surgeon. A young man was lying on his slab, streaked with blood, and screaming. "Belay that, Jim," Beckett said, his voice suddenly surprisingly gentle. "You'll be up and about in no time." The gentleness vanished like a candle flame snuffed out. "Don't just stand there, man. Hold him down."
"Me?" Rodney swallowed; looked over his shoulder. "I can't –"
"Of course you can. It's not bloody difficult. Just hold him down. I need to…"
Rodney decided not to listen to what the surgeon needed to do. His feet edged him forward, and he touched the young man's squirming body, careful to avoid the blood. "Where… where shall I hold him?"
"That'll do. That's lovely. A bit firmer. Higher, perhaps? Don't be squeamish. We'll both look as if we've bathed in blood before this bloody affair is over." The surgeon was talking to him as if he was a skittish animal that needed firm but gentle handling.
Rodney let his eyes glaze over, and wrote formulae in his mind. Beckett worked. Above them, not far away through the wood, guns sounded. The first time, Rodney flinched, and the young man's arm lashed out, and Beckett cursed. The second time, he kept on pressing down, and fought the movements of flesh and blood beneath his hands.
"There we are," Beckett said.
Rodney blinked. The young man was limp beneath him. "Is he… Is he dead?" He removed his hands from the body, finding them stiff and aching.
Beckett ran his hand over his face, smearing blood. "Fainted. We can't be certain of anything in this sorry world, but I don't believe this injury will be the death of him."
The young man would live. Rodney had helped save a life. "What happened?" he found himself asking. "A cannon ball?"
"He fell." Beckett grimaced. "Silly bugger was on the mizzen and didn't take care."
"He fell. But there's a battle…"
"And before it's over, we'll see more people injured through accidents than through enemy action. Ships are bloody dangerous places." Beckett scraped more blood over his face, then wiped his hands on a bloody rag. "Here comes another. Oh." His face turned grim.
"They have a bow-chaser," said one of the newcomers, as if this act was somehow cheating on the part of the enemy. "Brought a shroud down. A block hit him on the head."
"Help me." Rodney hesitated only for a moment, then took the legs of the lad who had fainted on the slab, and helped Beckett lift him onto a rough pallet in the corner. By the time they had finished, another young man lay on the slab, barely recognisable as human because of the blood that covered him. The two men who had brought him had already gone.
"Not good," Beckett said, shaking his head. He touched the man's throat and then his lips. "He's gone."
"Gone." Rodney swallowed. "Dead?" Another crash sounded on deck, horribly close. Was that thud the sound of another body falling? "Have you read William Harvey on the circulation of the blood?"
"Of course I haven't bloody read William Harvey on the circulation of blood."
"I just thought –" He felt blood on his own face now. "–that it might help."
"Nothing can help. He's dead." Beckett heaved a sigh. "Help me get rid of him."
"Off the slab. There'll be another poor bugger along in a minute."
"Oh." He was touching dead flesh. He was touching dead flesh. The slab was awash with blood, and another roar came from above them, followed by a mighty cheer. That was good, wasn't it? That was a good sign?
"The splinters are the worst," Beckett said. "At least a cannon ball is quick, but when it hits wood, it can turn a man's flesh into shredded meat."
Rodney felt bile rising in his throat, but kept it down. He could hear people moving, and the timbers were creaking and groaning like something that was a-dying.
"Would they tell us?" he asked. "If the ship was overrun and everyone was dead, would they come and tell us?" He remembered the cheer. "If the battle was over and the enemy was vanquished, they would tell us, wouldn't they?"
"Course they won't," Beckett said. "They'll be too busy."
"But that's… that's…" He swallowed again, tasting bitterness in his throat, and blood on his lips. "Inconsiderate," he said.
"Quite." Beckett opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle. "Brandy?"
"I don't…" It was probably cheap, probably horrible. Rodney looked at the blood on his hands; at the dead man lying in the corner. "Yes. Yes, please."
It was indeed horrible, but it also seemed like the most wonderful thing he had ever tasted. The guns were silent. No more footsteps sounded in the passage, bringing them fresh young men to die on the slab.
"Poor bugger." Beckett had drained his glass in one go. He was looking at the dead man, and for a moment he looked utterly heartbroken, as if he was about to cry. He looked ten years younger than he normally did. "I didn't think it'd be like this," he said, pouring another glass, "when I took myself down to the docks on the Clyde and enlisted to go to sea."
He sat down. Rodney hesitated, then sat down beside him. "Why did you leave the Navy?" he asked.
Beckett studied his tumbler, red fingerprints on the glass. "It isn't like it is in the songs. When there's a couple of hundred men in a floating hell, the monarch on his throne in London seems so very far away. You're loyal to your ship and to its colours, and if your captain is a good one, you're loyal to him. It means so much more than distant thrones."
"I don't understand."
Beckett took another sip. "I told you before. The captain left, and I followed. I wasn't the only one."
He saw the dead eyes of a man who had died before they could try to save him. "But why did he leave?"
"He had no choice," Beckett said harshly. "They accused him of treason. They would have killed him. We helped him escape. He hired us out to a master who was short of hands and not over-fussy where they came from, but even though the captain was damn near broken up inside on account of what had happened, he showed his worth. When the master died, the ship was his."
Rodney barely heard it. "Treason," he echoed.
"Passing secrets to the enemy."
"For God's sake, man," Beckett snapped, "have you got eyes in your head or a brain in your skull?"
Somebody coughed quietly in the doorway. Rodney started like a child caught with a tunic full of fresh apples. Brandy sloshed over onto his lap.
"I'm sorry. I…" Beckett scrambled to his feet. "It's over?"
"Took her mainsail down with a chain shot." Sheppard looked as taut as a rope that was about to snap.
"So we're out of danger?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard did not answer. He had taken two steps into the room, and was looking at the bodies on the floor.
Beckett was shaking his head. "Jim ought to recover, but he won't be climbing any more masts for a while. Wat's dead."
Sheppard said nothing. He was standing very still.
Rodney tried again. "So we're–"
Sheppard rounded on him. "I told you to stay down below." Each word was like a sword thrust. "I expect to be obeyed."
"You came on deck against my orders. You tried to interfere with my gunners. God alone knows what damage you did in here. If I hear that Wat died because of you…"
"He was quite helpful, actually," Beckett offered.
It did nothing to assuage Sheppard's fury. Rodney felt the wall at his back, and there was nowhere else he could back away to, nowhere else at all. If he had ever been tempted to forget that this man was a ruthless murderer, it was unmistakeable now.
"Never," Sheppard spat, "disobey a direct command again. Damn it, McKay, it's your life on the line."
"But… But…" Rodney was opening his mouth and closing it again uselessly. Sweat was sticky on his palms, mingling with the blood.
"I don't want to hear your voice." Sheppard held his hand out. "Give me the brandy." Snatching it up, he walked out, his steps almost silent despite his evident fury.
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. Beckett looked ruefully at his half-empty tumbler. "You got off lightly," he said.
"Lightly?" Rodney's laugh was high. He tried to get his breathing under control, and tried to stand steady and unconcerned. "So now he's off getting drunk, is he, to celebrate his mighty victory?"
Beckett shook his head. "There's work to be done. There'll be repairs, and this poor bugger to have a burial, and we need to put many more leagues between us and that sloop. But after that, when it's dark…" He let out a breath. "Then he'll drink, yes."
The sea was silver with moonlight when Rodney saw Sheppard at the bow. He had no idea why he started to move towards him.
"Don't," they tried to tell him. "Not tonight. Any time, but not now."
The man was completely alone. Everyone else, even Ronon and Teyla, kept their distance. They glanced at him often, but everyone was subtly turned away.
Rodney walked forward. He had helped save somebody's life, holding him down despite the fact that he had been terrified. He had shared a drink with somebody in the aftermath of a job well done. He had seen a man die.
The diving bell lay on its side, held in place by a wooden frame. Rodney touched it. That, too, was his.
"What?" Sheppard said. "They didn't warn you not to approach the lion in his lair?"
Rodney raised his chin. "They did, actually."
"Yet still you come." If Sheppard was drunk, he was hiding it well, but the bottle of brandy at his feet was almost empty.
"I… I was checking on the diving bell," Rodney managed.
"The monstrous machine." Sheppard quoted what some of his crew had started to call it. "Is it… well?"
"Quite well." Rodney moved to the rail. There was something quite beautiful about the sea at night, black and silver beneath the stars.
"I meant what I said earlier," Sheppard said. "I give you the run of the Atlantis, but when I tell you to stay out of the way, you obey me. You saw…" He stopped and snatched up the brandy. "You saw today how easy it is to die out here."
"Yes." The rail was cold against his forearms. "Is that why you're out here getting drunk?" he blurted out. "Because one of your crew died?"
"How perceptive." It was cold as ice.
"So why is everyone else staying away?" Rodney found himself asking. His nurse had always told him that his tongue would be the death of him.
"Because I told them to." Sheppard took a swig from the bottle. "Unlike you, they actually obey me sometimes."
He held the bottle out to Rodney. Rodney accepted it gingerly, and took a sip.
"So what do you want to berate me about this time?" Sheppard asked. "You desire perfumes for your shirts? Your ink is too thick? The cook refused to give you a second bowl of broth?"
"I…" Rodney's mind went blank. He was a prisoner on a pirate ship, and his whole existence was a catalogue of complaints, but in that moment, he couldn't hunt down a single one. "How do you get your hair to do that?" he blurted out. "It looks as if you've tied it back without a thought, but it stays like that. When I try it, it all falls apart."
"My hair." Sheppard looked incredulous. "You approach the lion in his lair because you want to ask him about his hair?"
"You should say 'mane', really, to maintain the metaphor." He stopped – Stupid, Rodney. Stupid – then opened his mouth to apologise, or perhaps to beg for his life, but then he saw movement in the silver path of the moon. "Dolphins!" he cried.
Sheppard looked the way Rodney was pointing. "Dolphins," he said, and smiled.
end of chapter six
This woodcut, which purports to show Teyla Emmagen, appeared in "A True Account of Divers Pirates and Buccaneers of the Caribbean, as Told by One who Sailed with Them, to Which is Attached many Illustrations and an Account of Many Hangings, Terrible to Behold," published in 1748 and attributed to one John Smith, clearly a pseudonym. The book devotes a whole chapter to Teyla Emmagen, but none of the facts stand up to scrutiny. It is doubtful that the author knew anything about her beyond her name, and the similarity of this picture to other pictures of female pirates suggests that the publishers have a selection of "stock woodcuts" that they inserted more or less at random.
On to part the fourth