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The Seal of Approval
As the sun set over the misty headlands of the nearby peninsula, the Surprise rocked gently on the swell of the dark, nearly wine-dark sea, surrounded by strains of a violin and cello in an improvised duet. Suddenly, though, the music came to a ragged halt as the motion of the ship changed. No longer merely riding the swell, the ship was clearly moving, even though the water was not. Within instants, the figure of her Captain, Jack Aubrey, could be seen on the quarterdeck. "What is it, Zimmermann? What's going on?"

"I don't know sir, it's not like any phenomenon I've seen before."

"Can we escape, Critchley?" Aubrey hoped that he could rely on good news from his engineer. "I don't know sir, we'll give it all she's got, but I don't think the dilithium sails are strong enough."

The Captain swivelled in his newly installed chair, located in the center of the quarterdeck, to face his trusted scientific advisor. "What is it, Maturin? Can you identify it?"

"Captain, having examined the surface of the water at close range with your excellent telescope, I can not assign any logical reason for the ship to be moving in this manner. However, sampling of the water just below the surface revealed that, however against logic this may be, we seem to be caught in a large mass of

subaqueous seaweed, in much if not most of its superficies very nearly identical to that so common in the distant Sargasso."

"Seaweed, Stephen? We are being drove along by seaweed? Some goddamned plant is overwhelming the power of our dilithium sails? Killick there! Light along the brandy we took from that Frog lugger."

"You are to consider, brother, that I use the term ‘seaweed’ loosely, for without we lay hands on a specimen more significant than the little small pieces in my water sample no degree of exactitude can be attempted to be observed. I may add that no weed of this type has ever been reported in these latitudes; that it lies two or three feet below the surface of the water; that the colour of the billows about us is almost certainly the result of some chemical reaction to the presence of the weed, whether to some substance deliberately exuded or to some attribute of the outer cells of the weed is impossible to say; and finally that to speak of the phenomenon as ‘seaweed’ or ‘weed’, presupposing as such terms do a species belonging to the vegetable kingdom, is very likely to prove grossly inaccurate and indeed misleading since the weed is clearly in independent motion. Ha! How the Royal Society and, indeed, the Institut will be confounded by this discovery! I shall just fetch my little net from downstairs for I believe if I lean well over the side I may be able to secure a specimen."

The Doctor was summarily prevented from executing this plan; eminent scientist though he was, upon the purely physical and material plane no greater lubber ever trod the deck of one of His Majesty’s ships. Instead Skilful Skinner was given a megatron hook and the gig’s crew told off to stand by with a length of dinkum cloth, for the Doctor was most insistent that the specimen should suffer as little damage as possible. Skinner fired the hook; it hissed into the water alongside; the chime rang and Skinner hit the switch. Every eye was fixed on the line as it ran steadily into the waist, water spouting from the anhydrous fibres as they were exposed to the air. Gradually a dark mass could be seen approaching the surface; it rose into the air; it swung aboard; and on the instant

a tendril shot out from the writhing mass and wrapped itself around the red shirt of a nearby crew member. The man uttered a short, choking noise and fell to the ground. Exuding an air of obscene satisfaction, the tendril slithered back across the deck to the main body of the weed.

Stephen ran towards the injured man. He had just realised that, in all of their previous adventures, he had never before noticed this crewman... for whom he now felt a particular responsibility.

"Is he badly hurt?" asked the Captain, looking appalled.

"It's worse than that, he's dead, Jack."

"Killick——belay that brandy. Coffee and lashings of it" Jack called.

"Well, gentlemen, here's a fine mess. Seven of nine new hands shipped at Valparaiso dead already, and we but days from the Horn. That damned mass of weed in the waist, and now, if I'm not mistaken, we are making way again." Indeed, Surprise was heading to the open sea, a bone forming, spray coming over the bow. As she gathered speed, she seemed to rise up, to skim and skip across the sea. The rush of air in the rigging made a deep thrumming—like the Doctor's 'cello on a good evening—then a higher register—perhaps Jack's violin when in tune—and finally an unearthy scream, as if the ship herself were voicing her pain at the torment of the acceleration.

"Take in all sail! All hands to stations! Bonden, lash the Doctor to something!"

"She'll not hold together at this speed, Cap'n!" Critchley yelled as he grabbed a loose end of shimmying sail that threatened to sweep the deck officers into the sea.

A terrified cry from aloft: "Ahead, ahead! Wreckage dead ahead!" sent Jack leaping for the ratlines. Through the flying spray he could just make out a mass, dark, huge, ominous. He glanced at his officers: Critchley frantically knotting and splicing; Zimmermann wrestling the wheel; Skinner making a double turn of rope round her waist and then binnacle, then swung fo'rard to see that they were being carried at some sixty knots or so straight at a half submerged and massive cube of scrap iron.

"Jack, Jack!" the Doctor screamed, "I know what that is—but, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it cannot be! Whatever you do, don't

, I beg, do not make the mistake of thinking this floating, ferrous parallelipid can be taken, burnt, sunk or destroyed. But I forget myself." Stephen paused and considered, then spoke in a more moderate voice, "I should think our best hope is to negotiate, though the concept is quite unknown to the Berg."

The ship juddered to a halt, threatening but miraculously sparing spars and rigging, the entire vessel groaning with the sudden strain: but she held. Jack lifted his friend from his resting place among the wreckage of a providential cheese of wads, peered into Stephen's face and caught the deeper meaning behind his words: this was a matter to do with intelligence, and his surgeon wished it not to be public knowledge. "Right, then. Killick, light along a dozen of the Madeira with the yellow seal; Bonden, captain's barge and crew. Stephen, do you choose to accompany me on this mission, or should you rather stay and catalog your seaweeds? You'll come? I am pleased. Capital. Away team..."

From the depths of the waters ahead an immoderate commotion burst to the surface near the Berg. A hollow, mechanical voice boomed out, echoing from the slab-faced apparition: "Resistance is

futile, utterly, utterly futile, not a hope in Hell, totally pointless, not worth..." The door to the Berg ship slid open as the boat approached. "...another thought."

"Oh hello," said a miserable-looking Berg standing the doorway.

Jack straightened his jacket and squared his shoulders. "There seems to be a misunderstanding, sir. Take me to your leader."

The Berg raised his eyes at Jack's choice of words but shuffled aside and allowed Jack, the Doctor and the crew to climb aboard.

"I shall need to take your weapons," he intoned sadly. "Your sword, captain," he sighed ignoring Jack's outraged exclamation. "Doctor, that catling and your Sick and Hurt board sonic screwdriver, if you please". The Berg looked wearily at the over-burdened engineer. "I don't know where to start; just leave them in a pile in that corner." The Berg winced at the crash.

"Branden 1 of 6 wishes to see you" he stated. "Follow me".

"1 of 6?" asked Jack puzzled by the name.

Stephen turned to Jack and in a low voice explained: "It would appear that a Branden is a senior Berg, Jack."

"A first among equals?"

"If you will..." Stephen seemed to be having trouble with the term. "Although I believe the Golds are higher".

"Gold Bergs are simply Variations," intoned the Berg escorting them.

"Mind you," he added after a pause, "we're all Berg here Berg, Berg, Berg all bloody Berg. Sometimes I dream of an alien infestation or a normally logical shipmate overcome with a primitive homicidal mating urge, but it's not worth the tribble - we're all Berg".

He sighed miserably. "Welcome to our Bachey, Gentlemen."

"Resistance is futile. You will be Orchestrated".

"No doubt, no doubt," said Stephen somewhat testily, "all in the fullness of time. I should, however, be much obliged if I might be conducted to the Berg known as Schoen."

In a muttered aside to Jack he added: "He may be our only hope, for Sir Joseph believes him to be not only a renegade from what one may loosely term this hive mentality – oh, Jack, consider however its advantages, its very considerable advantages! You have not forgot my bees?"

Jack's florid face contrived to look pale as he shook his head. He would have spoken, spoken warmly, but Stephen had not waited for a reply.

"Their combined intelligence! The inestimable boons of that communal knowledge! Why, one need only consider – "

"You will be Orchestrated!" boomed the Berg, thus fortunately recalling Stephen to the matter in hand.

"Tah, tah, tah." He waved a hand at their interlocutor. "Patience and a degree of flexibility are by no means to be despised, sir." He stood upon the tips of his toes to whisper in Jack's ear. "Dear me, the hive state clearly has its drawbacks; perhaps a certain drear uniformity, a certain – well, well, it does not signify. Now, brother, this Schoen Berg may not only be secretly independent but actually active in our cause. However, there is the matter of that 'Ode to Napoleon' to be clarified. I am far from certain whether – "

He fell silent, his pale eyes glittering, as

Critchley stumbled back into the room. He was paler than Stephen would have liked and there was something uncommon strange about one of his eyes.

Behind the engineer followed a tall, distinguished-looking Berg, dressed respectably in clothes of the last age. Someone had made a concerted effort to remove the mysterious code "BWV 1046-51" written in a crabbed hand on his cravat.

The newcomer glanced almost affectionately at Critchley. "Tone deaf—he could not sing a note without the kitchen dog started howling, but he had a good address. We have therefore assimilated him in a different way."

The unfortunate engineer began to declaim: "Fourscore years and seven... conceived in liberty... of the people, by the people..."

"Gentlemen, meet our latest recruit: Gettys."

"The devil, Stephen, pressing my engineer right from under my nose——t'ain't seemly at all."

"I doubt a hive has much time for the niceties of sea law, Jack. Survival is the highest, indeed, the only purpose. It will take what it must. The outward appearance of this cuboidous vessel—I noted Irish Pennants, sprawling strangles, and unstoned blockheads as we came aboard—would surely make Critchley a prize for its commander."

As the Doctor spoke, a yellowish miasma permeated the room, tart and stinging to the eyes. Music swelled behind the walls.

The Berg began to chuckle, to laugh out loud, then to dance and cavort: "Bergamot! Bergamasco! Prime, prime, eh Captain? Who says the Berg have no sense of humour?"

Jack, light-headed and weak from the scent, unable to stop his feet moving to the rhythm of the antic tune, cackled along with the Berg.

"Jack, Jack" the Doctor gasped, "they're going to, to...."

"Feed you cake!" the Berg howled.

"Battenberg!" Jack cried, realising as he slipped from consciousness that he'd made perhaps his greatest, and last, sally.

Jack struggled up and out of a deep slumber, Stephen watching from his place in a corner of the featureless room, a perfect cube about 3 yards on a side without doors, windows or markings of any kind. Dimly lit though it was, no source of illumination could be discerned. "You are awake, I find, Jack. Pray do not blunder about in that half-witted, mooncalf fashion. There is no profit in it, and you may do yourself an injury."

"I would ask that you not shout in quite such an intemperate manner, old Stephen. My head feels like a church bell just finished its part in ringing out the change."

"I speak with the most mellifluent and gentle of timbres, Jack. But, however, you are more right than you know. While you were taking your ease under the influence of that vile gas I was able to spend some minutes alone with the Berg called Schoen. It is as I suspected: far from being fully assimilated he is still his own man, and will do what he can to help us. But it seems his former pupil has turned out to be the most potent force in the collective. Alban, he is known here, and your head feels as it does largely because he has had this vessel fitted out with a series of massive bells employed not on the diatonic principle, but along some radical line of musical thinking I cannot fathom. The change was just rung, a horrid endless nauseating affair known, as Schoen informed me with no little pride, as The Twelve Tailors. Not a tune in the lot, nor even a recognizable tonic. Mathematically, however, it is a different and not altogether..."

"Stephen, I beg of you: no more. My head cannot stand it. But pray tell me, as quietly and succinctly as ever you can: if survival is the only imperative for a collective mind of the kind we face here, how does the ringing of bells fit in?"

Before Stephen could answer, the morose Berg who had first greeted them entered the cell through an opening whose existence had not been suspected a moment before. "Don't think it will help you, because it won't, no, not in the slightest; resistance is futile, as I'm constantly told by every Gold, Schoen and Batten. I don't see why they always ask me to do these things."

"...Really, it's more than a being can stand; it's always do this, or clean that, or orchestrate the other thing. Never a moment's peace. But, nevertheless, I have been instructed to escort you to the Bergathon for processing. Follow me, and mind you don't bump your head on the way out. You'll bleed all over the place and who'll have to mop it up? Me, of course. I ask you, what's the point?"

Jack and Stephen were marched along a dimly lit corridor for what seemed like several minutes when a Berg came up to them and addressed them directly.

"Gentlemen, come with me you will."

Jack stared at the Berg. He knew the voice, a glance at Stephen told him he was not mistaken. In utter shock he stuttered "J-J-Jagiello! My God!"

"I am Ingmar now, Berg man I am", replied the Berg. "Gentlemen, you will, with me come." And with a nod to their erstwhile gloomy captor he marched them down a branch passage.

"Jagiello", Stephen started.

"Not now" came the terse reply, and he lead them to a dank room smelling strongly of fish.

"Listen carefully Stephen" he whispered. "Sweden has sent me to turn Schoen, but I think I can get you out without revealing my hand. It is after all my friends the Swedish secret service which has placed me under cover here."

Stephen nodded. The I.K.E.A made good covers; Jagiello was deep underground.

"I have located their underwater messaging system" Jagiello continued "and am training them to place small amounts of gunpowder in key parts of the ship. Come let me introduce you". Jagiello led them towards a series of cages within which were a number of seals.

"Here is Heidel, Carl, Kronen, Fredrick, the fat one over there is Hinden, here is Lenin... you changed your name for political reasons didn't you Peter?" Jagiello chuckled scratching the seal's ear. "And here is...."

Stephen looked at Jagiello, or Ingmar as he told himself he must get used to thinking of him. The Berg man's face was a picture of concern. "Stephen, the seventh seal is missing!"

"You need have no fear, my dear," said Stephen, "none in the world. Salz is an old friend of mine, I met him when he was undercover in a travelling circus in London, playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on the bells. I have every confidence that – "

A muffled bark beneath their feet caused Jagiello to touch his belt, thus opening a hatch in the floor. A seal flopped out and instantly wrapped its flippers around Stephen, huffing joyously.

Stephen returned the embrace and then drew from his pocket a bloodstained lancet, some indeterminate bones, his Breguet watch, greyish bread that Jack’s nose told him was garlic’d, a vial in which floated material of uncommon sinister appearance, and finally a brace of herring which Salz devoured with every appearance of delight.

Even as Jack reflected upon his own residual unwavering affection for herring, the seal turned to Jagiello and barked unmistakably: "Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me. I open with Ruy Lopez."

The young Swede’s handsome face paled, drawing into a look of horror. "La plage vert! Oh heavens! Did you notice a growth in the water as you came? As it were a weed?"

"We did indeed encounter some such phenomenon." Stephen shot Jagiello a penetrating look. "You call it ‘the green plaque’; may I ask why?"

"It was cultured by a countryman of mine, Alfred Lebon, from growth he scraped off the teeth of one Jonas the Unwashed. He believed that modifying the plaque by the application of the electric fluid and nitroglycerin might render it beneficial to mankind, utterly eradicating tooth decay. However his plan threatened many commercial interests; rockets struck his laboratory even as he reached the crux of his experiment; the resultant explosion mutated the plaque beyond his wildest nightmare, fusing it with a dish of spinach and a chess set before dropping it into the Baltic. Since then it has roamed the oceans, visiting instant decay upon any organism it encounters and challenging all intelligent life to play chess. I understand the intellects of a young fisher who encountered it have never recovered from the dread experience. If it is outside this hull – " Jagiello’s voice broke and tears spurted from his eyes " – we are lost, all lost."

"Never in life, my dear," said Stephen briskly. "For you are to consider that

we may be able to call upon the combined powers of a hive intellect."

On the main deck of the Surprise, an assorted crowd of Bergs, seals and sailors stood in a hushed circle around the players. The two crews had put aside their differences and united against the malignant vegetation. Branden, Schoen and even Salz (All-Austria Phocine Chess Champion, 1799) all frowned in concentration as the collective mind waited for its opponent's next move.

Critchley, the Berg's representative at the board, watched as the seaweed stretched out a tendril and lifted a piece. In the audience, dozens of lips formed the words "knight to king's bishop three" in perfect synchrony. "They're uncommon bent on wiping that wicked weed's eye!" exclaimed Jack. He paused and mumbled. "At least they would be if it had one, I'm sure".

One member of the collective was not on deck. The glum Berg – Mervin? Martin? nobody had quite caught his name – was drinking tea with the Captain's steward. Kindred spirits, their voices rang out in a competitive catalogue of woe... Who has to muck out that Ingmar's seals? Who I ask you? And just what does he need 'em for?... Which he's getting as fat as the Durham ox what with all the extra food I cooks... Berg and Boy, Berg and Boy I've been orchestrating until my fingers bleed... treats his epaulettes something cruel... must be something wrong with that Alban's hearing, or I'm a Dutchberg...

Zimmermann's grinning face appeared at the cabin door. "We've won! In ten moves too. Don't that amaze you?"

Killick and the Berg emerged on deck in time to see the seaweed begin to crumble in despair. As it died, it released its hold on the two vessels. Six streamlined shapes swam through the debris, munching on the remains. The bright, knowing eye of the seventh seal was fixed upon Schoen, who was announcing that there were going to be some changes around the cuboid.


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