The Gamble – by Steve Luckham

Arthur C Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Captain Rackham woke at five-thirty sweating and with his heart racing. It was going to be another very hot day aboard the Jasmijn. The Sun was just below the horizon and the captain sensed good speed from the familiar creaks of the timbers and the sound of cracking sails of his fluyt.

His precious cargo of pepper and spices, silks,  porcelain, and furniture had survived a tricky and perilous journey across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape, and now, Rackham hoped, it would be literally plain sailing and home in less than a month. His purser calculated at least a four hundred percent profit for Rackham’s master Sam De Vries. A worried frown crossed his brow as he thought of the enhanced bonus he had been promised for carrying out his master’s wish. He drank deeply from his glass of water and rum to help dispel his night terrors.

Washed and dressed he started his daily routine. He supervised the changing of the morning watch acknowledging the crew members up and about at this early hour. He took the report from Lieutenant Cable in his quarters: eighty nautical miles travelled during the night, one crew member sick  and one in irons for starting a drunken brawl due to be released today. Rackham smiled uneasily; at this rate they would be home within a month.

After sharing breakfast with his Lieutenant, Rackham dismissed him with orders not to be disturbed for the next hour. He unlocked his desk drawer and took out a small grey metal box with a wire emerging from the top and a button on one of its smaller sides. Rackham’s expression was one of fear and determination. He trailed the wire out of the window and with shaking hands pressed the button. A small red light on the box winked on and off. Rackham, rigid with fear waited five minutes until the red light turned to amber whereupon he pressed the button again, gathered the wire and locked the device away.

Sam De Vries smiled contentedly as he observed the needle on his clock quiver to the right. In five minutes it would return to its rest position. His companion frowned and asked: ‘What is that Sam?

He grinned leaning over to plant a kiss on her cheek: ‘It’s just a piece of apparatus I’m playing with at the moment. I feel like celebrating. Let’s go out.

‘I’d better get dressed then,’ she smiled.

De Vries thought highly of Captain Rackham as indeed he did about the other four captains to whom he had entrusted his long-wave transmitters. This simple solution let him know which of his ships were viable. If transmissions stopped for three days he could cut his losses by selling the rights to an unsuspecting trader knowing the ship would never return. Bringing such technology to this time zone was a gamble and of course illegal, but there was a vast fortune to be made. He allowed himself a few moments to savour the life-style he would lead when he collected his invested gains in three hundred and fifty years. His Captains had readily agreed to carry out the seemingly weird demands when De Vries had offered them a double bonus upon their return. Rackham had been more curious than the others and De Vries had explained to him in simple terms how the device worked.

De Vries’ companion looked gorgeous in her red silk dress. ‘Come on Sam. What are we waiting for?’

Lieutenant Cable had observed Captain Rackham’s deterioration over the duration of the journey and was increasingly worried about him and the safety of ship and crew. It came to a head when his Midshipman reported in private that keeping discipline was made more difficult by a progressively absent and dissolute Captain. Cable determined to have a quiet word with Rackham.

Sharing breakfast the next morning Cable was aware of Rackham’s bloodshot eyes and shaking hands. He received the Lieutenant’s report in silence and made to dismiss him at the earliest opportunity.

Cable was having none of it. ‘Sir, I hesitate to bring this up, but I am concerned about your health. The crew have noticed and discipline is becoming an issue. If there is any way I can help then please tell me.

Rackham turned a haunted face to his Lieutenant. ‘Cable, the responsibilities of command have not brought me to this state. It is the Devil’s device that is haunting my dreams and tearing at my soul. This ship is guided by demons and we have been riding the long waves. I must ask you to leave now as I have work to do.’

Alone in his quarters, Rackham held De Vries’ device in his hand. He could not bring himself to press the button. Instead, he opened his window and dropped it into the sea. He sat down at his desk, primed his pistol and with a steady hand blew his brains out.

The Jasmijn was the first of De Vries’ ships to return to port. De Vries was lucky insofar as he had not had time to sell the rights to her cargo. Rackham’s death weighed heavily on his mind and he made sure to compensate the Captain’s family generously. In the weeks that followed all of De Vries’ ships returned making him a very rich man. Out of respect for Rackham he destroyed all the remaining devices.

Around the time of Rackham’s death De Vries’ communications with his own time zone had stopped. As the weeks turned to months De Vries’ resigned himself to being stranded in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic living the life of a rich merchant.

Steve Luckham
May 2016

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