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A small, dusty mule trotted in the desultory fashion of its kind through the country north of Barcelona. Upon it sat (he could not be described as doing anything so active as riding) a figure as small and dusty as his mount. Many would have recognised don Esteban Maturin y Domanova (estate up by Lerida, was used to dance the sardana after Mass); a few others El Savi, a trusted friend in the struggle against Napoleon; while a very few whispered of one Le Spectre and strove constantly to discover his name and face.
Dusk thickened: mule and rider approached the lonely coastal cliffs, the latter pondering a sighting of podiceps auritus disquieting signs of an extension of French intelligence activities the effect of hunger upon the spirit and vice versa.
Full dark, the sea sighing on the beach below. The rider slid to the ground. "Off with you now, my dear." He slapped the mule's neck, scrambled down the cliff, flashed his dark lantern and sat upon a rock, gradually unconsciously metamorphosing into Dr Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon of HMS Mornington Crescent (38).
A darker blotch, a muffled curse, and two figures splashed ashore: Critchley and Trinque, no doubt, sent to lift him into the gig the people had no notion of Dr Maturin's seamanlike qualities. He walked to meet them. A figure sat in the sternsheets, so muffled up that no features could be descried. Chill, inexplicable unease: and at that moment Stephen heard behind him
As Stephen climbed into the boat, the shrouded figure in the sternsheets spoke in an icy voice. "Do not waste your time lamenting the state of your friend, Maturin you know what I want. Bring me the device and the Captain will be returned to his natural form. There will be no lasting damage... a herring fixation for a while perhaps but nothing permanent."
Stephen stared after the boat until it crept out of sight into the darkness. Could it really be that he stood on a Catalan beach with... His knowledge of medicine, of anatomy, his whole scientific soul cried out against it. And yet...
He addressed his avian companion. "Listen now, will you? I once heard of a poet so utterly devoted his work that he would rise in the morning and immediately begin penning new couplets. So devoted, mind you, that it was said that he went..." A feathered head tilted enquiringly. "...from bed to verse."
The penguin did not at first seem to apprehend his meaning, but slowly its beak twisted into something near to a grin. It threw itself to the ground, its shoulders heaving and its webbed feet kicking the sand. Its black face was a mask of ludicrous amusement as tears ran down from its beady blue eyes. At last, the bird seemed to collect itself, and leaped back onto its feet, its wings held together behind its back in a most officer-like manner.
"Aptenodytes forsteri is not known for its sense of humour," thought Stephen as
"Come, my dear," he said, taking a flipper, "I have a place near here with a large bath, a large marble bath. It is just the thing. And the new wine is ready for drinking. We shall do very well. And with the blessing we shall find Rosalita, the mule, dallying in the orchard, before we have walked very far."
But Rosalita had urgent business which had hurried her away, and they walked the whole distance, surprising Barbarella and the rest of the servants by arriving for breakfast. Stephen lingered over his first cup of coffee with great satisfaction. The penguin considered its herring. Presently, however, he took notice of Barbarella's lithe form and appeared to cheer up considerably.
"I wonder," said Stephen to his guest, "if you would like to see my little clockwork
Stephen read: "Wind key at left. Withdraw arkle to full extent. Insert phlange in decalogue while keeping spon enabled. Umlaut and wait 10 seconds. Rewind and push transmission button on peripheral with farnarkling activated. Place ear close to output till tenterhook engaged. Decramatise."
"Well, that seems clear enough" he commented, "but what's it for?"
The penguin gazed at the machine with a wild surmise then, squawking excitedly, attempted a complicated mime. Stephen replaced the device in its glass case, "Will you listen now Jack, we must be back at the rendezvous by noon. There is just time for a quick bath before we set out and you may enlighten me on the way."
The penguin gave a start and issued a sharp croak that sounded for all the world as though a large, beefy post captain had found sudden inspiration while pondering a thorny problem of seamanship and naval tactics. Shepherding a number of smooth round pebbles into the semblance of two lines with his rough, orange, webbed feet, he cocked his head, peered at Stephen with uncommon penetration and waved his flippers energetically.
'You mean to engage the enemy more closely by means of...what? I cannot say. But our first order of business is surely to create conditions favorable to your metamorphosis back into human form, my dear. There is little likelihood of your being able to command the obedience of even so congenial a body of man of war's men as are to be found aboard the Mornington Crescent; not in your present aviform manifestation.'
There was a whistle and loud crump from outside.
Stephen rushed out to see a twelve foot firework quietly smoldering in the courtyard. "Congreve Ballistic Airmail" he read on the side. "Don't get a Red Glare for late delivery targeted marketing our speciality! Estd. since 1812."
Stephen carefully walked over and pulled free a small, rather singed package that had been tied to the side of the rocket with a piece of string.
The package contained a short letter and two well padded small glass phials. One labelled "Anti penguin serum" the other "Herring substitute 3 day course".
The letter read:
Just as Stephen was walking back to share his joy in the serum with the penguin formerly known as Captain Aubrey, a great shriek arose from the upper floor and a window flung open.
"Doctor come quick, the giant sea bird is loose in the maids' quarters and it is only dressing hour." Stephen could hear the jumbled cries of surprised women in the dormitory. Grinning as he walked into the room, he thought, "Same old Jack, though a cock of a different feather."
Upon ascending the stairs, Stephen witnessed something in his long study of aviary that he had never seen....an overweight penguin in flagrante with:
"To be sure." Stephen seized the penguin's wing, urging it to the door. "But it will not answer, honey, for you are to consider that you never could stomach fish. And you," peering into the penguin's face, "do not be more of a jackass than you must, I beg. Come, let us lose not a minute!" A grin of purest glee overspread his pallid features as he dragged the unwilling bird from the room, expressing the while his regret that it should be thus wrenched by the demands of the service from its favourite pursuit.
A retired olive grove near the beach: Stephen administered the glutinous serum. At once the bird swelled, skin stretching, stretching tiny popping sounds as the feathers flew off wings extruding, beak shrinking, skin pinkening, crest yellowing ere Stephen could complete his notes, here stood the fine figure of a Royal Navy captain.
"Ain't it the completest thing, old Stephen?"
"I cannot agree. There is a lack, a total lack, of clothing."
"Why that don't signify! What a fellow you are! But damme, it was hellish unpleasant even now there is a certain plucked feeling I should be uncommon glad to get my hands on that shrouded scrub."
"And so you shall, my dear, for if
"Jack, honey, your gluteal muscles are somewhat more visible than I should wish." A muttered oath came from the direction of a large pile of seaweed. "For shame! I hope that your sphenisciform experiences have not left you..." Stephen broke off suddenly. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! He has gone too far this time."
An amazing crowd of penguins were swimming ashore: some carrying boathooks and cutlasses tucked under their flippers, others rope in beak pulling a gig onto the sands towards Stephen. A large, burly penguin directed the birds dragging the boat, for all the world like a feathered bosun.
A familiar, muffled figure called out from the gig: "Yes, it is the crew of the Mornington! They will do anything to return to their usual form; a very pitiful exhibition. You will surrender the device... otherwise the Admiralty will be issuing half-pay in haddock." Some of the more officer-like penguins glanced at Stephen with discreet curiosity, others leered at him and nodded emphatically.
Stephen was amazed to realise where he had heard the shrouded man's voice before. He was about to reply when
Weeks of fowl weather but slowly, slowly they made Plymouth and so Bath, driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, midst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the strange cries of the newsmen, the muffin-men and the herringmen, the ceaseless clink of pattens and gentle flapping of broad orange feet.
Jack left Stephen at Sir Joseph's lodgings, for half London was taking the waters. Even after so much time in a world so strangely afflicted by the contagion, Stephen was somewhat unsettled by his friend's new appearance. He shook Sir Joseph's flipper and talked a little at random of their trip; apart from he and Jack, not a whole man was left in Europe or, judging from the newly returned Indiamen they had met, anywhere else. The complete lack of effect on women "Could it be hereditary?", wondered Stephen, "And if so, why, why?" Jack quite fagged out from a rout the night before; had never stopped dancing and was quite overwhelmed by countless possibilities and several probabilities and, to Stephen's certain knowledge, at least two eventualities; his subsequent high spirits and endless wordplay felt quite sorry for the victims, "knew eggsactly how they felt. Oh ha! ha! ha!"; the great good nature with which women had generally accepted the change; many seemed to quite welcome it "had made the rout extremely picaresque".
Dishes of tea and cod tongue were brought in by Sir Joseph's Welsh maidservant, fingers being so handy in a household, and Stephen said: "Have you any notion if who is behind this, Sir Joseph? His voice was familiar to me, but I could not place it. And this obsession the the sail fone, with completely controlling new modes of communication..."
An emphatic squawk and nodding, and two flippers raised. "Two words?" said Stephen; more nodding. The Sir Joseph touched his beak. "Beak?", said Stephen, "Bill?" More squawks, and penguin dashed to the desk, returning with a paper, clearly ready to draw something, but with no quill in sight. Stephen rang the little bell, crying "A pen Gwen!", and when it was brought, watched Sir Joseph draw a fence, a gate, another gate.
"Just so!" cried Stephen: "Bill Gates, the cant-ridden, double-poxed grasscombing lubberly scrub! Quickly, we must
In the dim recesses of Naval Research, deep beneath Royal Crescent, vast great vats of Anti Penguin Serum were being stirred by anomalous avifauna in smocks; alert on their firing ladders under an opening in the ceiling perched a array of Congreve Rockets aimed at every parish in the Kingdom; and supervising all, a weary figure half human, but penguin from the waist down the chemical genius Nicholson himself.
Something, he explained to Sir Joseph and Dr Maturin, had gone wrong. the few remaining drops of the first batch had been insufficient to fully restore him and for weeks he and his dedicated team had laboured to concoct a second batch with the virtue of the original and had used it upon themselves with zoologically interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory results.
"All we need is time. Another 24 hours will see the third, true batch through its processing."
Sir Joseph turned to Stephen, who nodded, and together they made their way back to the light and then to Stephen's lodgings, Jack and the sail fone.
"Well, I have enabled the spon", said Jack, "but you do not mean to tell me that you are going to hand over the device, that you are going to give in to the demands of the power crazed Gates?"
"Never in life, my dear. But you are to consider, we have a mere single sail fone."
"Eh? Ah. What use is one sail fone without there be another!"
"Exactly. We shall call and we shall see who answers."
Stephen wet his lips. "Who is this, please?"
"S'il vous plait, monsieur," Stephen began, but there was a harsh clack from the sail fone and it fell silent.
Stephen set down the apparatus. "Perhaps not entirely without result, Jack. Do you remember the porter at Doctor Choate's Asclepia in Boston? The large Indian? After an awkward and, on my part, embarrassing beginning, I had several lengthy conversations with the gentleman about the customs and languages of his native countrymen. I do not believe myself mislead by any false associations with penguins, birds, feathers, head-dresses when I state that I am wholly confident that the language spoken just now through the sail fone was one of those tongues indigenous to the American continent. Consider if you will that, following his lengthy and ultimately successful public struggle against those tragically deluded apple-growers, Gates was rumored to have retired to an estate which the late King of France would envy, an estate in the northwestern part of America. Yes, Jack, we see here an alliance between Gates, Napoleon, and natives of that distant unknown land, a land I long to see with its great bisons."
The clatter of footsteps on the stairs outside and the door burst open.
"If you please, gentlemen," cried Lucy, seizing the device and speaking into it as she hurried away again.
Stephen slipped out behind her. After a moment Jack overcame his good breeding and followed him down. Lucy was in the kitchen wiping glasses, the fone trapped between her ear and shoulder as she spoke into it.
"Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Did he? Oh dear. Yes. Yes. Yes? No! He did? Yes, he is. I will, I most certainly will! Yes, heís just here, behind the door."
She handed Jack the device: "Mrs Williams, sir. You may bring her home instantly if it suits you."
* * *
"And so my dears," began Mrs Williams for the fourth time in as many breakfasts, "Never trust your man of business. Mr Gates certainly seemed very much the thing when first we met. Now that I have had a little talk with him, he sees things more clearly, and the operations of his new computing machines are to be entirely, entirely along my own principles. Most sensible and straightforward. And I am to have my just share of the profits. Oh, the profits may well come to nothing," with a modest simper, "but a small return is all that a helpless widow could ask for the sake of her poor, defenseless daughters. And as for penguins, I find they suit very well, donít you?"
"Yes, mama," said Sophie, with her shoe beneath the cloth pressed close against Jackís boot.
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