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Arms and the Man
jg
We evil seas did look upon, lessr. than they we might not conceive in haste. The weather seemed more wet than formerly. Our Mstr.'n C'dr. appeared today more pear-shaped than at Ydys repast.

Our Barque's stores must be in such Dire Straits but we must gnaw upon her, clenching her with our scorbic fangs in desperation: we are slothful all, but while our frail vessel floats it shall never yet be said that..

bat
Doctor Stephen Maturin picked up his bottle of laudanum and inspected it in the dim light of the lantern hung from the overhead beam. Bits of foreign matter floated in the usually clear liquid. Surely this strange, unprecedented feeling of disconnection mixed with a self-contemptuous dread stemmed from an unknown contamination. Coleridge in Malta had told him of unsettling effects in such circumstances. Perhaps poetry might benefit, but trepanning never. Sighing, Maturin bent low and poured the contents into the scupper to be swept away in the sea. He heard the approach of footsteps on the floor — on the deck, he corrected himself — outside his cabin door. From the particular cadence of heels upon wood, Stephen recognized the approach of ...

psm
...the gunner's wife. The footsteps slowed, stopped and for an moment his whole being was tensed, waiting for the knock.

It didn't eventuate. Instead there were hushed rustlings and a low murmur of voices without. Stephen crept back from the latch, drawing back from the verge of springing out and confronting the woman with a glare. Mrs Lucas had fallen into the habit of delivering oddments of the plant and animal kingdoms to him, though sometimes at sea it was hard to distinguish between them, and when his afternoon contemplations were interrupted by the arrival of a glabrous green lump it was hard, very hard to feign an interest.

Curious spiders, strangely marked shells, a remarkably ugly fish, they had all found homes in little jars filled with spirits, though the latest gift had been granted a temporary reprieve.

He picked it up now, set it on his sleeve, and began to stroke it with a cuttleface bone lying ready to hand. It gazed up at him with a small but oddly human regard, its tentacles flaring and mottling in rings of blue as the tiny octopode crawled along his arm.

For a slow minute man and beast examined each other, the one deliberating upon the diverse natures of intelligence, the other inching ever closer along the extended arm to the pulsing wrist.

All at once there was a cry overhead, a confused roaring noise, sounds of alarm and dismay and a thunder of bare feet on the deck. The ship lurched to leeward, the frail latch gave way, the door burst inward with shocking force and of an instant the cabin was full of struggling, writhing bodies.

"Ah, there you are, Doctor!" said Jack, his bulk overflowing the door's vacancy. "I was just coming to tell you of a prodigious vast water spout – you'd be sorry if you missed it, ha ha!"

Stephen untangled himself from the writhing mass on the floor, and rescued the agitated octopus from where it had come to rest on, or rather in, the...

js
rolled up sheets of his diary. Stephen looked over his words with something not far removed from a smile. In the sober light of morning he was still rather proud of "scorbic fangs"; even so, he resolved to start abscinding his usual dose. As he prised the suckers from his forearm and returned the octopus to its bucket of water, the creature looked up almost affectionately into his face.

"Jack, dear, what can you tell me of our new shipmates? Sir Joseph's letter gives away little but their initials: JG and PSM..."

"I suspect the latter may have been aboard since we called in at Australia. Don't that amaze you, Stephen? Both are clearly of some family and education and are most welcome aboard. They are..." He paused as a figure approached the door. "But they can speak for themselves. Here is one of them now."

psm
The gunner stood speechless, looking into the packed cabin, but the steadily rising tide of red on his face was eloquence enough.

Without a word, he reached in, seized his wife, and hauled her up. In doing so, he revealed the prone figure of...

ldt
Mr Midshipman Calamy. That merry squeaker hopped unabashedly to his feet, drawing up his breeches with one hand and holding the other out. "Pray, Doctor, see what we have for you!"

As Stephen stared upon another coruscating gastropod, Mrs Lucas gave her husband a round shove. "And what be you gawping at, Lucas? ĎWife, do you be a-eddicating of them young Ďunsí sez you. And eddicating I am, and thereís many as wouldnít, lively young gentlemen as they be, not to mention of being throwed around by waves Ė all along of you not doiní your work, Fred Lucas, you aní that no-good Critchley Ė bosun indeed, Iíll give him bosun, ainít he síposed to keep the water outside the barky?" Lucas stumbled dizzily through the door pursued by his spouse.

"A waterspout, old Stephen!" cried Jack again. "What say you to that?"

"That all prior observation suggests such a phenomenon must be accounted unprecedented in these waters. As are these nondescript gastropods. Yet they are plentiful. How are we to explain such extraordinary upheavals in the natural order?"

A whining voice erupted outside the cabin. "Which they says toasted cheese. Toasted flaming cheese. I asks you. Aní the barky crawling with outlandish critters. Eels, all right, thatís human, that is. Whelks. Cockles. But not a cabin full of crawling bastards as is all legs and comes a-worshing in on giant waves, it ainít fair, that ainít."

Stephen grabbed the creature from Calamyís hand. "Jack, I believe we may draw a conclusion from the temporal nexus between the gastropods and the water spout. Are they res causalis et res eveniens? Even if simply res nescioquo concatenatae, the phenomena demand immediate investigation."

"Stephen, Stephen, what a fellow you are!" Jack cried. "All these years, and you have still not grasped – "

Stephen shot him a cold and reptilian look. "Nay, Jack, do not prate to me of winds and tides and lose not a minute and similar inane truisms! Surely you have realised that these singularities may very well be connected with our present mission!"

"Ah. To be sure. That is to say – "

"Come, come. It would be evident to a child that

bab
that the root of these disturbances is wombats, that Buonaparte's morbid fascination with the marsupial has proved – but here is Mr M at the door, let him construe the relation between the phenomena for us."

Enigmatically, the black-coated PSM sidled into the room. In response to Captain Aubrey's polite enquiry he replied that he been a little flattened by the precipate exit of the Gunner and his wife but was quite well now thankyou and, indicating Callamy, that the information that he was able to impart was of a confidential nature.

In a low voice, Mr M recounted the tale of Napoleon's folly – the scientific expeditions to Terre Napoleon, the secret collection and transplantation of a breeding population to France and the extravagant attempts to introduce the Grande Nation to wombat husbandry. Plucking a gastropod from his shoulder, he expounded upon the near-starvation of the hardy wombat hunters and the provisioning of the infant colony with snails – "what could be more rational? But I fear that a French storeship has vanished in this waterspout and that we are seeing what remains of its live cargo."

A witticism died on Jack's lips. It would not do to make light of the loss of even a French ship. But what did this mean for their mission? Could the French foray into southern Australia have really had no other object than wombats? Had the Emperor's ruthless pursuit of glory come down to this? Could they all go home now?

Yes, said the intelligence agent, he and JG had completed their task and Napoleon was now as insignificant in human affairs as...as..., he cast around for a simile and lit upon the bucket of water, this octopod in this small bucket, he said, waving his hand close over it. The little brown octopus narrowed its eyes. It was peaceable and affectionate by nature and had shown its true colours to the doctor merely by way of being obliging. But it could not endure a slight. Slowly its blue rings began to irridesce....
 

It was days before PSM spoke again and then it was only because Mrs Lucas had come to cheer him up with a strange jelly fish shaped like a box.

Finis

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