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Council of Fire: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, September 2, 2019 14:45 EDT



Part I: Transit

March, 1759

    Dr. Halley observed . . . how much greater irregularities must not a comet be liable to, which at its remotest distance gets near four times farther from the Sun than Saturn, and whose velocity in drawing near the sun needs but a very small increase to change its elliptic into a parabolic curve.

    –Charles Messier,

    A Memoir, containing the History of the Return of the famous Comet of 1682, Phil. Trans., Jan. 1765

The sea giveth and the sea taketh away

Aboard HMS Neptune

North Atlantic

    A few minutes after three bells Sir Charles Saunders, Admiral of the Blue, set his quill aside and rubbed his eyes, unsure how he should continue writing the account of Neptune‘s current situation. It was all for posterity, of course; it would be transcribed into an Admiralty book and placed upon some dusty shelf somewhere, to be reviewed sometime by someone.

    Lord Anson had told him years ago when they were circumnavigating the Earth in Centurion that, as much as every captain–or, for that matter, every admiral–dwelt on the exact words he might use to convey the account of his travels, in the long run they were largely ignored. But it doesn’t mean you don’t write them nonetheless, Anson had told him.

    He wondered whether now that Anson himself was First Lord, he took the time to read what was written in ship’s logs that found their way back to London–as opposed to the ones that were lost, destroyed or neglected.

    Saunders took his hat from its hook and left the cabin to go abovedecks, hoping that there might be some inspiration there.

    Middle watch belonged to his executive officer. Mr. Prince they called him in public: Prince Edward Augustus, third child of the late Prince Frederick and younger brother of the Prince of Wales, was certainly the socially highest-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Navy. It had taken some negotiation and discussion between Whitehall and the Admiralty to settle the delicate point of address–but the Prince: Mr. Prince–was junior on board to the Master-before-God Commander of Neptune.

    Saunders walked up onto the quarterdeck, offering only the slightest of nods to each salute. He reached into his sleeve and withdrew his glass, turned to face east and focused on the horizon. There was light all along it; it looked a great deal like sunrise–but the new day was hours away.

    “Mr. Prince. Tell me what you make of that.”

    He snapped his glass shut and gestured toward the eastern horizon.

    His executive officer stepped forward to stand beside him and took out his own glass and raised it to his eye.

    “I have no idea, My Lord. Maybe it’s the comet.”

    “The comet? That should be over there.” Saunders gestured toward the northern sky, which was muddied with low clouds. “But that–I don’t know what that is.”

    Commander Prince closed his own glass and tucked it away. “Perhaps we should ask the general.”

    Saunders snorted. “I do not think the general has anything much to say.”

    “Still hasn’t managed to get his sea legs,” Prince said.

    “He doesn’t have sea-guts,” Saunders replied. “Apparently he has always had this . . . weakness. I expect he goes queasy when he strolls across London Bridge.”

    “He is quite capable on land, My Lord Admiral. His bravery at Louisbourg several months ago led to the capture of that fortress. I trust that you are not questioning His Highness’ choice of commanders.”

    Saunders cocked his head and smiled. “I don’t usually tolerate that sort of insolence from my officers. But, of course, only one of my officers is a Prince of the Blood. So let me assure you that I mean no disrespect to His Highness by my remarks.”

    “And I mean no disrespect to you, My Lord Admiral. Indeed . . . I am somewhat disheartened that General Wolfe has never accustomed himself to travel by sea, since he seems to have done so much of it.”

    James Wolfe was only recently elevated to the rank of general as a part of this expedition. As a colonel the previous summer, he had seized an important post on his own initiative during the British assault on the French fortress of Louisbourg–their present destination, a few weeks away. He would be in command of the next step in the war against the French; this time, instead of seizing some jumped-up fortress in Godforsaken Acadia, there would be an expedition along the Saint Lawrence to drive the French from North America once and for all.

    “We each have our assigned roles, Mr. Prince,” Saunders said. “When we reach Louisbourg I am certain he will . . . rise to the occasion.”

    Prince Edward nodded. “He is a very brave man.”

    “He–” Saunders began, but stopped. He looked up at the masts. The sails were rippling with a sudden and strong change in the wind.

    He shouted orders; Commander Prince touched his cap and headed for the main deck. Saunders opened his glass and looked east.



    In the pilothouse Saunders studied the barometer. He had been at sea for all his adult life and a few years beforehand, and he had never seen it drop so fast. A storm was coming–not just the stiff wind that had already led Neptune to haul its sails tightly before it, but a stronger, fiercer one; and it was blowing from the east.

    The horizon was aglow with a yellow-gray haze that he could not adequately describe. What he and Prince Edward had noticed on deck early in the watch had become a–what had the young royal called it?–a phenomenon. The sea was rough now. It had been nearly an hour since Neptune had been able to make out any sort of flag from the other ships in his squadron, and Saunders was worried.

    The sea giveth and the sea taketh away, he thought. Mastery of the oceans had made his country great, but the roiling Atlantic was still greater, and easily capable of swallowing them all up. Spithead was far behind, and Nova Scotia far ahead–it was as if they were alone, with the hostile sea all around them.

    “There is something unnatural about this.”

    Saunders looked up from his barometer to see the pale face of James Wolfe. It was a far stretch from handsome–angular, with close-set eyes, a prominent nose and a receding chin that always seemed to be jutting upward. He looked drawn, as if merely standing erect was an effort–which, under the circumstances, it likely was.



    “It’s just a storm, General. Nothing unnatural about that.”

    “And the bright light on the horizon? What might that be, my Lord?”

    “I wish I knew. Please feel free to give me your thoughts, sir. I am sure you will do so whether I solicit them or not.”

    Wolfe appeared ready with an angry response, but seemed to bite it back. “I am concerned for the welfare of the royal person we carry aboard,” he said. “I assume that you are doing whatever you can to get us away from this storm.”

    “I have only so much control,” Saunders said. He wanted to add the words as you know, but concluded that Wolfe probably had no idea what was involved in making an Atlantic crossing–he likely spent most of them hurling his dinner over the side or collapsed on his bed. “And the royal person is an officer of this ship. A valued senior officer who, despite his youth, has more than proved his mettle.”

    “Nevertheless, if anything were to happen to him–”

    “I fail to see where this discussion is going, General. Perhaps you will be so kind as to let me attend to my business.”

    “If I can be of assistance–”

    “You can stay out of the way, sir. And for pity’s sake try not to be washed overboard. I might be court-martialed if I lost His Highness, but if I were to lose you it would be endless paperwork.”



    The storm blew harder and harder. General Wolfe bravely stayed abovedeck, but out of the way of the sailors and well back from the railings–which was just as well, Saunders thought; four able seamen were washed overboard as Neptune pitched and struggled at waves and in wind he had never seen in any Atlantic crossing–or anywhere at sea, ever in his life; not rounding the Cape of Good Hope, not circumnavigating the globe with Lord Anson in Centurion.

    And unlike any storm he had ever known, it was cast in an unearthly pall of yellowish-gray light that dominated the eastern sky from the horizon to forty degrees azimuth–like a huge sun that gave no warmth. There was no point in trying to raise signal flags, since there was no one in sight to spy them.

    There was no dawn–at least none to be seen from the decks of Neptune–but when the ship’s chronometer recorded a time a few bells after sunrise, a cloud of glowing mist gathered aft of the ship, emanating–so it seemed–from the glow at the horizon. Neptune was making a remarkable headway, a steady eight knots due westward by the compass. The cloud moved considerably faster, overtaking the ship and cloaking it for two to three minutes, making sight nearly impossible and smothering sound.

    Saunders was unwilling to stray very far from the pilothouse. He could not even make out his own quarterdeck. As he looked out across the main deck, though, he thought he made out a familiar figure-a tall man dressed in a uniform of antique style, who gazed sternly back at him.

    “My God,” he said to no one in particular. “Admiral Wager–I–”

    He began to move toward the figure but nearly collided with Wolfe, who looked more gaunt and sick than usual, but his eyes were frantic. In total violation of decorum or protocol, he grasped Saunders by the shoulders.

    “It’s Neddy,” Wolfe said. “My Lord Admiral, why is Neddy aboard this ship?”

    Then, suddenly, Wolfe seemed to realize what he was doing and let go of Saunders. “I’m–I’m sorry, My Lord. I beg your pardon. But look–” he gestured toward where the admiral had seen his long-dead superior, Sir Charles Wager, Admiral of the White.

    Now he saw nothing at all. “What are you talking about, man? And who is Neddy?”

    “My . . . my brother, My Lord. My brother Edward. But . . . he died. Long ago, in Flanders, when we were both on campaign with the Pragmatic Army.”

    Wolfe looked away, then back at Saunders with a fierce expression. “But I saw him so clearly–dear old Ned–”

    Saunders had a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had seen someone as well: Sir Charles Wager, sixteen years in the grave. It made no more sense than Wolfe’s vision of his dead brother.

    “Pull yourself together, General,” he said after a moment. “The fog–this blasted fog is playing tricks on your eyes. And if you are seeing things, everyone else might be as well.

    “Mr. Prince!” he called out. “Mr. Prince, are you on deck?”

    From somewhere in the murk he heard an answer–something inarticulate, between a cry and a shout.

    “Mr. Prince! This is the admiral. Report, sir!”

    Prince Edward seemed to stagger out of the fog, like a man who hadn’t gotten his sea-legs–or, Saunders thought to himself, like a man who had seen a ghost. The prince stopped and straightened, offering a smart salute–but Saunders could see some pain, or perhaps fright, on his face.

    “Reporting, My Lord,” he said.

    “Call the roll of the watch, Mr. Prince. See to it that the men are all accounted for. At this speed we’ll come out of this fog shortly, and I’ll want us to be properly manned and the sails correctly trimmed.”

    The prince hesitated for only a moment and then said, “Very good, sir.” He saluted again and turned, vanishing into the fog.

    “You saw something,” Wolfe said quietly. “You saw someone. And so did he.”

    “We’ll discuss this later, General,” Saunders said, pushing past Wolfe and out of the pilothouse.



    Fifteen hours after it began it began to subside, with Neptune still making headway westward–but there was no other means of determining their location other than to note that the ship was beset with ice floes, suggesting that they had been driven far to the north. Neptune was alone in a partially frozen sea, with a leaden sky above and choppy, icy water beneath.

    There was no other ship in sight.

    The sea giveth and the sea taketh away. But it was unclear just then what the sea had given them.

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