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Council of Fire: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, September 13, 2019 18:53 EDT



What has happened to the world I knew?

The Caribbean

    The crew and officers of Namur were surprised by the appearance of the Frenchman and his young lady companion but asked no questions as the admiral came back aboard. He left Mademoiselle LaGendière in the care of Father Frederick, and escorted Messier to his private cabin. With the hatch secured, he directed Messier to place the unusual instrument on his chart-table. With the sides opened, Boscawen reached his hand toward the glass with the same result as before: the gray liquid climbed the side of the vessel to follow the movement of his fingers.

    Boscawen settled himself into his chair, leaving the Frenchman to stand, slightly hunched, in the cramped cabin.

    “I require an explanation, Monsieur. Who you are, what this–instrument–might be, and why you are aboard my ship.”

    “You invited me–”

    “Do not try my patience, Monsieur Messier. I beg to remind you that your king and mine are enemies, and our nation is at war. I suspect that you have knowledge that I need, and there is some reason that Governor Pinfold is eager to send you packing. Now, out with it, sir.”

    “I am an astronomer,” Messier began. “I am formerly in the employ of Monsieur Joseph Delisle–”


    “I believe that employment ended a week ago, Admiral, when we were deposited on this side of . . . whatever the comet has wrought.”

    “Pray continue.”

    “Monsieur Delisle is the astronomer of the Navy of His Highness King Louis. I had the honor to be in his employ for several years, during which I applied myself to the discovery and cataloging of comets. I had a particular interest in the one that was predicted to return this year.”

    “You said that you discovered it in the sky, Monsieur.”

    “Yes . . . with the assistance of Mademoiselle LaGendière and her instrument.”

    “Ah, so this peculiar device is something of her invention? Then perhaps we should send for her to join us.”

    Messier shook his head. “She is generally reluctant to discuss the device. Partly, I think, because she got the inspiration for it from her father and–” He broke off, shaking his head again. “Her family situation is . . . ah, difficult.”

    Boscawen frowned. “Her family . . . Is the lady married?”

    “Yes, but–ah–her husband chose not to accompany her on the voyage. As I said, the situation is difficult.” Messier’s expression made clear that he did not wish to pursue the topic any further.

    There was some mystery here. Boscawen had gotten no sense at all that the relationship between the French astronomer and Catherine LaGendière was in any way an amorous one. Yet why was she traveling unaccompanied and under the title “Mademoiselle”?

    But there seemed no need to investigate that now, so the admiral decided to acquiesce to Messier’s clear desire to avoid the topic. “Tell me more about this alchemetical compass, then. And why it seems attracted to me.

    “As to the latter question, I cannot say, except that she assured me that it was you to whom we would be guided. The device detects the . . . patterns of the earth and aligns itself to them. It was particularly active during the period just before the arrival of the comet, and as I told you earlier, it was necessary that we distance ourselves from land in order to properly calibrate it. While we were at sea, the event happened.

    “Our ship was hurled against a rocky shore, and only a few of us survived, thanks be to God–” Messier crossed himself piously–“Mademoiselle LaGendière and I were among them. And we were able to save one of our three instruments. The others . . .” he made a dismissive gesture.

    “The rocky shore was Barbados, I presume. This must have come as something of a surprise.”

    “Not to Mademoiselle LaGendière. She assured me that it was Divine Providence that had guided us to this point, and that we need merely present ourselves to the governor of the island and inform him that we were waiting for you to appear.”

    “Governor Pinfold was then expecting us?”

    “Expecting you, Monsieur Admiral.”

    “I still fail to see why . . . why me.”

    “I cannot answer that question, as I told you.”

    “Then perhaps you can explain to me what we have experienced, and what has happened to the world I knew.”

    Messier looked around the cabin; his eyes fell on a small piece of round shot, perhaps three inches in diameter. He picked it up and drew out a pocket handkerchief. He took the ball and draped it in the handkerchief, then held it at arm’s length. “Imagine this is the comet, a heavenly body of some sort: a rock like a lump of coal. This object flies through the heavens, and when it gets close enough to the Sun it catches fire and streams the result behind it.” He moved the shot about so that the handkerchief fluttered. “This is the tail. As it swings around the sun, more and more material streams out; when it falls away and back into the void, it eventually cools enough that it is no longer afire.”

    “Why does it not all burn away, then?” Boscawen asked. “And why isn’t it smaller the next time? You would think that, after several trips around the sun, it would be all consumed.”

    “I don’t know. In any case, the comet is usually at some remove from our terrestrial globe.” He removed the handkerchief. “But imagine now that this ball is the Earth.” He moved it to his other hand. “And this is the cometary tail.” He waved the handkerchief. “I think that somehow we passed through it this time, instead of watching it go by.” He moved the handkerchief past the ball, letting it brush the surface. “I don’t know how that could be, but I do think it’s happened.”

    “Wouldn’t that mean that this lump of coal has changed its course?”

    “Yes. In fact, I think that already happened–the last time it came this way in 1682. There is a book about the comet’s motion, written by the esteemed Dr. Halley, which was originally published with an unusual essay–”

    Boscawen held up his hand. He leaned over and unlatched a sea-chest, from which he drew a slim volume, which he handed to Messier.

    The Frenchman took it and leafed through the last few pages with an almost mystic reverence. “Yes, yes–this is the first edition. It was largely suppressed by Newton, when he was head of the Royal Society, as a courtesy to Halley. Have you read this book, Monsieur Admiral?”

    “Yes. It was a parting gift from my wife. It is a load of rubbish about ætheric patterns and mystical awakenings. It is no wonder that Newton removed the essay. It would have destroyed Halley’s reputation for all time.”

    “Be that as it may, Monsieur, there have been a number of incidents and tendencies that suggest strongly that the transit of the comet in 1682 began to awaken latent abilities among those disposed toward them. It is no accident that individuals like my companion have what I might generously term ‘attunements.’ Unusual things. Visions; clairvoyance; that sort of thing.”

    “There are places in the world–including your native land–where one could still be burned at the stake for exhibiting that sort of ability.”

    “Quite true. But if the 1682 transit awakened a few latent abilities–perhaps even what might be taken for witchcraft–in the past, what would a more serious interaction bring about this time?”

    “This is all speculation.” Boscawen looked from the French astronomer to the alchemetical compass. For a moment, the liquid seemed to move of its own accord, rising on the side of the glass nearest him.

    Messier moved the handkerchief across the surface of the ball again. “As you say. But whatever this material is–fire, or gossamer, or æther, or something completely unknown–for it to fall to earth could do more than simply change one man or another. It could change all of us. It could remake our image.”

    “I don’t know what that means.”



    “Nor do I, Monsieur, but if Divine Providence has placed us here, I would assume that It has some purpose for us: myself, you, my companion.

    “You asked me what has happened to the world you knew. I cannot say except to suggest that it is gone forever.”

    With exaggerated care, Messier placed the round shot in the place from where he had picked it up and tucked his handkerchief back into his vest.



    There was a compromise. Pinfold wanted to send Namur packing, water-casks full but otherwise not reprovisioned. Pascal was in favor of seizing both Achille and Lady Ann, the two cargo ships in Bridgetown Harbor, to supplement the ship’s stores. Instead, Pinfold let Namur‘s purser gather the most important items–flour, sugar, pease and rum, primarily–and they left the rest for the other ships in the squadron. Pinfold’s letter went off to Admiral Cotes; there was no ship bound for London to take his complaints to the Victualing Board–he would wait for the next supply ship to take it back. Messier and his female companion remained on board Namur, no longer the problem of the governor of Barbados.

    Boscawen did not expect another supply ship–not in the next few weeks; perhaps never again. And he didn’t care what Thomas Cotes said–if there was no way to contact London, the chain of command would be confused enough. Two days after arriving at Barbados, Namur set sail for Jamaica. Whether or not there was a personal conflict ahead, Admiral Boscawen was expecting to reach Kingston before Governor Pinfold’s letter. Whether his voice would be louder remained to be seen.



    The charts Boscawen was able to obtain told him in detail what he already knew: that the trade winds blew more steadily from north to south. Ships departed Jamaica for Barbados and Barbados for Europe–going in reverse was more of a challenge to sailing.

    “But sail it we must, and shall,” he said. “Mr. Pascal, I should like to see wind filling those sails.”

    “We are making–” Pascal checked his watch and looked up at the topmast–“a bit over four knots, my Lord, and we are sailing four points to port.”

    “And Saint Lucia is well behind us.” Boscawen looked out to sea, watching the waves. “I wish I was more comfortable with this.”

    “My Lord?”

    “Over my career, Pascal, I have prided myself on preparation and planning. I had specific orders for my ship and the other vessels in the squadron–the Mediterranean Squadron. We are not fitted out for this assignment. The men are improperly clothed, our hull is not properly proofed against boreworms. I have inadequate charts.”

    “With due respect, my Lord,” Pascal said, “Whatever the circumstance, we are here, and not at the bottom of the ocean, or shipwrecked on the . . . what was it O’Brien called it? The Place of Bone. I agree that the situation is not ideal, but we are officers in His Majesty’s Navy–as I am sure you would tell me yourself if I were making such observations.”

    Boscawen fixed his junior with a stare that had caused many a junior officer to wilt. “You are being extremely forthright, for a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Navy, sir.”

    Pascal did not look away. “My Lord, do you think we will ever see England again?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Nor do I, Admiral. And if we never do, then I daresay that the social order to which we both have become accustomed will be severely changed. Our place in it will depend on our own will. I . . . have no reason to tender you anything but obedience and respect while aboard Namur, sir, but there are assumptions that are likely to be challenged.”

    “Such as?”

    “I should think that would be obvious. Sir.”

    Boscawen considered a response, but just as with the governor at Barbados, he wasn’t sure what the point of it would be. The man was right; all the polite veneer that constituted military discipline, not to mention civil society, would be upended if this was their world–if the realm and the King were out of sight and inaccessible.

    And for now, there was nothing but open ocean–at least several hundred miles of it–before they reached Jamaica.

    “Pascal,” Boscawen said. “Look at the waves.”

    The lieutenant looked out to sea, away from the bow. “Waves, Admiral?”

    “Look ahead, a few points to starboard. Something is interrupting the waves. Ask the top if he sees any land.”

    “Aye, sir.” He shouted the order to the sailor in the topmast. “But we are unlikely to find an island out here–”

    “I do not trust our charts. It’s possible that something was overlooked.”

    Pascal touched his cap and nodded, walking back toward the pilothouse. Boscawen looked through his spyglass again, in the direction from which the cross waves were coming. There was something . . . a small formation, like a tiny island, several hundred yards away . . .

    . . . And as he watched, he saw it begin to move.

    “Beat to quarters!” Boscawen said. “Division officers, prepare all guns to fire! Come about–” he called out a heading that took them in the direction of the formation.

    It takes only a few minutes for a well-trained crew to prepare and run out the guns on a warship. Namur had an exceptionally well-trained one–Boscawen had picked most of them himself, including a fair complement of Cornishmen loyal to their Cornish admiral.

    The ship’s gun crew was separated into six divisions, each under the command of a junior officer. Namur had two decks of guns as well as bow- and stern-chasers. The process of preparing the main broadsides was a demonstration of the well-oiled machine: loading the cartridge, pricking it open through the touch-hole, loading the shot, applying the rammer, rolling the gun carriage out through the port, and waiting for the order to pull the lanyard to set off the gunlock on order so that the entire broadside was fired at once. The recoil from the discharge pulled the gun carriage back inboard, where it was stopped by the breech rope. Then the cannon was swabbed, and the process was repeated. A good crew–and Namur‘s crew certainly qualified–could do all this three times in the space of five minutes.

    Boscawen assumed that the object he saw was another ship–and in mid-ocean, it was as likely to be an enemy as an ally. The guns could always be hauled back in if he spied a Union Jack.

    Namur‘s sails caught the wind, and its smooth bow cut smoothly across the crosscurrents generated by the other ship–except, as they approached the target, it became apparent that it was no ship. The dark form that Boscawen had seen was the top of a head that slowly rose from the waves, water washing off the skull, and then the torso, of a great, fanged, tentacled thing–a creature from nightmare, a sea-creature. A more lyrical person, like his beloved Frances, might have called it something like a kraken.

    It loomed up, fifteen or twenty feet in the air–which suggested to Boscawen that there was likely a great deal more of the creature submerged nearby. It was not an island or a ship–it was some terrible enemy.

    In the face of a thing he had never before seen, in the middle of an ocean he had never before sailed, Admiral Edward Boscawen had only one thought.

    “Gun-captains! All guns–fire!

    The kraken was a terrifying thing, but the gun-crews were too busy to see what they were firing at, which was just as well. Even his brave Cornishmen might have hesitated in the face of the impossibility of it. They fired on the roll, after Namur turned to present its broadside; after two cannonades, the being–which, for all Boscawen knew, had never encountered round shot before–retreated beneath the waves.

    When all was quiet again, and the guns were secured, Boscawen stood for a long time at the rail of the quarterdeck, holding it tightly as he gazed overboard into the dark, choppy sea below.

    What has happened to the world I knew? he asked himself once again. But from the wind and the waves there came no answer.

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