Illusions

To steal a few moments of peace, to be gently rocked by the sea sleeping his cot—Jack Aubrey could think of nothing sweeter. Sighing deeply, he heard a knock on his cabin door, and before he could respond, Stephen's scent, Stephen's cool hand on his forehead had materialized by his side. When he opened his eyes, he saw only blackness, but before the panic bubbled into his throat, he heard Stephen's raspy whisper, "Hush now, joy. All is well. You mustn't strain or worry. I daresay you'll be good as—mettre les canons à l'arrière, rapidement!

Grunting to true consciousness, Jack Aubrey's body flung suddenly, caught on his restraints, twisting him alert, crying out. Before his dazzled eyes, Stephen's visage tunneled into blankness, leaving Jack blinking at his grim imprisonment.

To steal a few moments.

These visiting visions were his release and greatest torture, for when they left Jack Aubrey felt he faded one minute faster, as though the clock of his life jumped two-three seconds at a time now and he would expire all the quicker—a thought increasingly comforting.

It was several minutes before his addled mind registered the commotion above, and, gratefully, several more minutes before he felt the needle-sharp sensations of his numbness, his nerves in and out of salience.

All went quiet above again—at least to Jack-whose senses lapsed into an under-water-like state, hearing and vision muffled. He reflected on the visions he often had, longing to slip back into them.

In the dark, apparitions would appear—memories visiting him like ghosts in the shadows—and for a few moments the throbbing numbness of his tied-up extremities, the screams of his shoulder blades from his arms held so far and so long above his head, would dissolve and the foreground of his dim consciousness would be graced by Stephen's face, quizzical and warm as they played an adagio, or the sea would spread beneath him, at first seeping up through the gray-brown planks he stared at endlessly, neck drooped in agony, despair. Seeping, rushing, and then rolling in gallant crests, the vast Atlantic out to the horizon, a glorious four o'clock sun blazing low in the sky shooting ruby arrows of color into the clouds. The wind would blow his sweaty curls from his forehead and he would bellow a great belly laugh in sheer joy of his home on the water. Just for a moment. Just for a moment until the apparition would vaporize and the water's waves would harden back into the unforgiving floor of the Turmoil.

Past hunger and thirst, past pain but unwilling to concede to oblivion, Jack exercised naval discipline over his faculties when he could, reciting his ships lines from bow to stern, naming the items around him sometimes having to be very patient with himself, simple words and descriptions failing to break through the spreading fog in his brain.

Either his hearing emerged from its cloudy state, or the ruckus above him resumed, but this time his brain feverishly processed what he heard and for the first time in—days, weeks?—Jack Aubrey felt driven, felt a moment of hopeful energy.

The Turmoil was engaging—the thought registered in Jack's mind before he opened his bloodshot eyes—causing him to yank against his restraints in violent recognition—the familiar sounds of cannons being loaded—the rhythm of the calls albeit in French—and the thundering of forty men's running steps.

In his next breath, Jack Aubrey recognized the opportunity for escape. With newfound hope he examined the restraints above his head, shaking his numb arms, attempting to find a flaw in the construction, but his tip-toe only reach to the floor prevented much reconnaissance and these simple gestures of movement had soon winded him, sending his vision swimming in the light-headed sensations of starvation and sleeplessness.

Jack growled and yanked, and then just hung, swaying painfully in his cruel hold. If only he could get one foot further flat on the floor for leverage—if only, if on—
It could have been three years in between this thought and the first round of cannon fire, but Jack knew it was only moments. Snapping to full attention again he demanded himself to stay sharp now, wait, listen, and hope the French ship be taken by friends, or at least toppled enough to gain him access to his restraints. One blow soon came close but the force of the cannonblow missing him by only inches.

Another, this one above him, showering him with splinters as it demolished the deck above him, his rope restraints along with it. Jack thudded to the floor, laid there for many seconds, assessing, listening. The rush of blood back into his limbs, bringing sweet heat—he savored the sensation, trying to work quickly through a plan—for the warmth was quickly turning to searing agony as feeling returned. Cradling his head from the fallout of another blast, he yanked a shard out of his right cheek, stanching the blood with his filthy shirtsleeve.

The cannon fire ceased; the scramble of bodies above him raged on, and through the now open roof above he could see—indeed—it was indeed another British ship brought to battle under Farrar's disguise. The familiar uniforms of the officers gave Jack a surge of relief. Suddenly on his feet, he called out above the racket, began climbing the wreckage. A blast of ocean air revived him. For a moment, he thought he might faint or cry at the devastating joy coursing through him—the reunion more soothing than any balm, more comforting than the embrace of any long-distance lover.

No sooner had he gulped the salty air and made to move toward a British officer dispatching with a French sailor than both of Jack's legs were iron-gripped and yanked so hard his hip popped. Jack clattered face-first to the deck below, and the relentless grip on his legs pulled him swiftly across it, into the darkness, the grey patch of sky disappearing from his upturned gaze. Rather than turn around to see his attacker, he stared at the sky until it was out of sight, soon replaced by the pitch darkness of the bowels of the ship.