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If a game hasn't begun yet – which we're a-coming, ain't we?

 

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As always, Captain Aubrey felt keenly the absence of his particular friend and surgeon of HMS Surprise, Dr Maturin. At that moment Stephen was conducting a census of the wolves on a nearby island. This involved spending the night listening for their distinct calls while concealed by a small pond, a prospect that Stephen faced with extreme happiness, but in Jack's private view amounted to mere howling demography.

Jack was comfortably installed in the quarter gallery with a cup of grog and a letter from Dr Skinner, Professor of Mathematical Husbandry at the University of West Doggerland, an ivy-covered brownstone red-brick institution on (and, depending on the weather, sometimes off) the shores of the North Sea. Jack had much admired her presentation to the Royal Society titled Some Influences of Nutations on Mutations. She in turn knew of Jack's astronomical writings and Stephen's papers on natural philosophy, and they maintained an amiable academic correspondence.

This letter though was something of a puzzle. It was addressed to Captain Jno. Aubrey, Esq, but intended for Stephen: "Please pass on to Maturin at the very first opportunity." (This quarter gallery was really too gloomy for comfortable reading, and the professor's handwriting... was that word 'Docking'? And 'eels'... no, 'all eels'.) The remaining sheets were covered in some sort of code, from which only a few scattered words made any sense to Jack:

TACT ... GAG AT ACT ... TAG A GAGA CAT

What on Earth could have a cat have to say to eels?

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"Dorking," said Jack, "is a strong contender for the most boring place in Surrey; no, no, I do it down – the whole of South East England. Why did the professor want to meet us here?"

"I am sure that she will explain," replied Stephen, looking gravely at his coffee. They were sitting in the White Horse, a rambling inn located at the end of the High St.

Just then, a short, plump, pale woman of a certain age approached their table and peered through her glasses at Stephen. "Maturin!" she cried happily.

Time passed: quickly for Dr Skinner and Stephen, interminably for Jack. His mind wandered as they bandied terms that meant nothing to him or made no sense. Blending theory quite exploded? Base pairs, incomplete penetrance and codominance? These last did not sound quite respectable phrases for a lady to use. His companions sounded impossibly advanced; they were really ahead of their time.

"Jack, Jack!" called Stephen. "I am afraid that you do not quite attend. The professor was saying that we meet in Dorking because

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"the inhabitants, remnants of the forgotten peoples of East Doggerland, moved to Dorking when, as it does every three hundred years, the ever-shifting sands emerged from out the ice-cold waters...

"Why, that's poetry, Stephen. Say it again!"

"When, as I say, remnants of the forgotten peoples of East Doggerland insinuated themselves stealthily into the population of Dorking, as they do every three hundred years, what one might almost describe as "mutations" began to manifest themselves in ..."

"Indeed!" exclaimed the professor. "The Dorking specimens we have examined, though low of brow and crossed of eye, are capable of almost coherent utterance and they have an instinctive genius for stone-axe manufacture. Dr. Maturin here has been dissecting...."

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Just what Dr. Maturin had dissected Jack could not later recollect, but the word set off a chain of reminiscence. The long battle with an unseen foe, a base pair indeed whom Stephen had finally despatched and snipped up on the far side of the world in a fashion Captain Aubrey must remain unaware of but which friend Jack knew perfectly well and heartily approved of.

Base pair... snips... Jack dimly felt the presence of a prime jest that might be flashed out at a Gunroom dinner. Stephen would be amazed, dished, taken aback.

Back at the White Horse, Stephen consulted his new anachronometer, an advanced timepiece of surpassing beauty with an unfortunate tendency to run far ahead of its time. 'Goodness. We had best be gone.'

Dr Skinner urged them to take the Deepdene Road, wherein a rare and prodigious fowl of interest to natural philosophy was to be found, unique in its... size? Number of toes? Composition of its feathers? Jack did not fully attend to his friends' detailed explanation, but sensed that during his reverie they had come to some agreement of a scientific or confidential nature.

'Friend Jack, I wonder if Surprise might have cause to visit the North Sea in our near future...'

* * *

'Nice doggie,' said Wilson.

'Come, boy,' said Stephen. 'Be fearless, confident. Place the swab inside the creature's cheek and swirl it firmly about, just like that implement which the sailors so expertly belay about the, err, ropework and like-minded contrivances. The wolf is a beast of the pack, a follower of the strong and the sure. Has not Captain Aubrey told me many a time of the boldness of the British midshipman, unparalleled among all the seafaring nations?

Or did I mistake his meaning? Perhaps the bravest young mariners are to be found on vessels under the flag of Spain, or the Dutch, or (whispered) France? Sure, Baker would not be so shy. Baker would risk all to advance natural philosophy...'

Stephen had been doing rather well but this last sally was an unhappy one. Baker was a beautifully absurd young topwoman who had consulted Stephen about her morbid fear of ducks. Diagnosing a likely disease of the mind, Doctor Maturin's initial prescription was for the wearing of duck trousers at all hours and in all weathers. When this resulted in a livid rash from ankles to waistband, Stephen next reasoned that repeated exposure to a creature with the mildest possible resemblance to a duck might sensibly diminish the bodily reaction from Baker's philosophical humours, and she had thus been persuaded, with the utmost reluctance, to cuddle Stephen's pet ornithorhynchus.

Wilson had been one of the rapt onlookers crowded into the cockpit as Baker sat on a sea-chest with the animal perched on his lap. He watched as they regarded the other with a sober reserve, blinking occasionally, until after some minutes she slowly extended a hand to stroke Billy McBillface. He witnessed Baker's agonized shriek as a pair of venomous spurs sank into the partially healed flesh above her right knee.

At first Baker had demonstrated mild platykurtic symptoms before seeming to recover from the near-fatal sting, but the syndrome had since developed into full-blown kurtosis. Wilson reflected on this as he and the wolf regarded each other across the clearing.

Just then came the unmistakeable budda budda budda of a Heligoland Wolf-Biter in flight. 'Heligopter lupodontus, what joy!' Stephen cried, and ran toward the sound. The wolf disappeared into the undergrowth. Wilson fled to the boat.
 



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