Stephen W. Potts
I climbed down into the humid shadows, nostrils flexing against the familiar reek of unwashed flesh and damp rot. At bottom I found the boys huddled around Kid Vicious, who lounged on his bunk, displaying his tickler. To their appreciative grunts, she was “climbing the mast.” They never seemed to tire of this trick.
“Think she’d do that for me?” asked Sweet Cheeks.
“Naw, she needs more’n that bung-stopper you have,” came Really Rotten’s toothless lisp. “I mean look at her. She must be all of four inches.” Harsh laughter rolled in his wake. I waited for the wave to pass before breaking in.
“Hop to it, old sons,” I called. Heads turned toward me. “Drop your bangers and grab your hangers.”
“What gives, Mate?” said Mad Max.
“Glad you asked,” I answered. “Captain says it’s time for another trip to the island. We’re getting low on food and wood.”
A single whoop popped through the general muttering. A walk in the woods meant a break from the monotony of shipboard life. Of course, it also meant danger.
“And what did we do to get so lucky?” growled Really Rotten.
“Nothing,” I said. “And because you’re doing nothing, you’re all in on the party. Captain wants to see every one of you topside now.”
“Well, if the Captain says,” drawled Kid with ill-concealed irony. He stood, his tickler in one hand. I could not help flinching inwardly at memories of wings torn from tiny shoulders to bell-like shrieks, of delicate bodies crushed in cruel fingers. But Kid simply shoved her in the handmade wicker cage dangling over his bunk before tugging up his threadbare trousers.
I waited, arms folded, as they fished their kit from various stowholes around their unkempt bunks and shuffled past me to the gangway, a smelly, motley crew in patched rags. The squat Really, his horse-like mane flapping, elbowed aside gaunt Mad Max to grab the rungs, both carrying hacking blades fashioned from ship’s parts. Dragon Fists followed with bow and quiver over his pigskin vest, all hand-fashioned. Kid Vicious with his rusty ax, Sweet Cheeks and his pointed stick completed the party. As weapons these wounded more often than killed — a fortunate fact, considering shipmates were the usual targets. I generally carried a modest knife at my belt, a simple tool.
I lingered behind to peer into the cage over Kid’s bunk. The tiny nude form straddled the closed door, slender limbs spread against the lashed twigs. Despite her size, she was visibly female. With repeated flicks of her transparent wings, she scolded in tones that rang so high against the limit of hearing they seemed imaginary. She was indeed an abandoned creature.
We were all abandoned creatures.
Topside again, I found the lads loosely clustered amidships, engaged in a shouting match with the three crewmen scuffling amid the litter that cluttered the weathered deck: X-Treem, the ginger-haired Red Jack, and his sullen companion Bloody Raj. The last two had been our most recent additions from the island before Sweet Cheeks. Apparently there was some bad blood between the newcomers, so I avoided asking the pair on the detail and left them pretending to work on deck.
I found Captain Edge loitering on the quarterdeck. I climbed the steep steps, careful to avoid the most brittle, and approached him where he leaned on the unsteady rail, facing the lagoon. His ropy locks draped the sleeveless topcoat, passed down from captain to captain from a time before our grandfathers’ grandfathers were born. Once upon a time blood red, it had long ago scabbed to dull brown, and only scattered tatters remained of the gold braid that had once trimmed it.
“Island crew’s ready,” I told him.
His head turned; he eyed me glassily under drooping, bruise-hued lids. Evidently he had been tapping the coconut milk again. As he pivoted to peer down at the main deck, the topcoat fell open. His bare torso, once sculpted with muscle like a demigod’s, now slumped. The old scar below his heart was not so taut. More evidence, like the deterioration of the ship, that time indeed passed. Nevertheless, as I studied his face I could still recall the dusky good looks and firm jawline under the hint of jowls.
“That lot enough?” he asked.
“We can’t spare more,” I answered. “Anything you want to say to them?”
He cast one more indifferent glance in their direction before turning back to the lagoon, where a duo sat in one of our two seaworthy boats, presumably fishing. Once the man called Rude Edge had been a charismatic leader and a good provider, a king of scroungers. I thought then he would make a promising captain, as did most of us when we elected him after Dredd’s death. But thousands of days and nights had passed since then, and Edge had grown dull. Despite the endless summer of this land, his season had passed.
“No, Mate,” he said in answer to my question.
“Nothing about the Undead’un?”
“Just remind them that if you come across — you know — He belongs to the Captain.” He spoke without conviction, out of rote.
“Of course,” I said.
“You know the rest.”
I did. After all, I was First Mate.
At my order, my crew clambered down the bamboo bridgework that bound the ship to The Rock; the beach at its base held our other seaworthy boat. We found Darth Jagger dozing inside it. Kid Vicious roughly roused him, ordering the “lazy bugger” out and yanking his lank hair when he moved too slowly. Instead of replying with salty wit as he once would have, he withdrew with a breathless “Sod off” to the shadow of The Rock, looking wasted and haggard. I let him be, knowing he could be of no use on this or any other task. I was sorry I could not save him.
As the lads tumbled amid buckets, baskets, and bags to take their seats, careless hangers knocked bones and broke skin. I jumped inside the boat in time to separate Really and Max before their exchange of curses could turn into blows. We shoved off onto the lapping surface of the lagoon, steering clear of the timbers that wedged the stove-in hull of our ship against the shore. From my seat in the stern, I pondered whether the puddle at our feet was springing through the much-patched planks of the bottom. I eyed it as we crossed the lagoon, passing Big’Un and Sirius D in the other boat. Instead of fishing, they were swatting each other with their poles and shouting as the boat rocked — I don’t know whether in play or in anger. I yelled at them to stop, but they did not hear or care. When their boat tipped over, my lads enjoyed a hearty laugh. I could only think of the potential damage.
As we dragged ourselves onto the pale beach, a dozen iguanas scattered into the jungle. While the crew removed our kit, I peered down the strand. I spotted Batty Bert beachcombing, too far away for his perpetual chant to be audible. I adjusted my headband, fashioned from strips of old leather and wire, which held my remaining lens over my right eye — not unlike the classic pirate’s eyepatch, if to opposite purpose. The other lens was broken long ago by a lost boy named Tig, back when I was called Goggles. Tig never made it to the ship.
Suddenly rough shouts tugged my attention. Kid, Max, and Really had closed in on Sweet Cheeks, who hugged an armload of canvas bags to his chest as though they would shield him from the shoves and curses.
“What’re you soddin’ thinkin’, you daft bugger?” Kid screamed above the others. “You can’t just bleedin’ say that out loud!”
I dashed past the onlooking Fists and stormed the huddle, elbowing my way between Kid and Really.
“Give way!” I ordered. I whirled to face the angry men, my back to Sweet Cheeks.
Kid snarled through the ash-brown hair that spilled from his sun-bleached kerchief. “The little wanker said the name.”
“His name,” glossed Really, his spotty face creased with angry lines.
“So he has to learn,” I snapped. “But I’ll be the one to sort him out, hear?”
Kid jabbed a forefinger at Sweet Cheeks, its long nail broken and black. “If anything happens, it’ll be his arse.”
I ordered them back to divvying the gear before returning to the boy. His English skin, already pink from tropic sun, flushed even brighter.
“Did you name the Undead’un?” I asked him.
“I just asked what we’d do if — if we saw ‘im.”
The youth brushed aside his veil of flaxen hair and fixed me with haunted grey-blue eyes. I rested a hand on his narrow shoulder.
“If you say His name, it’s as good as summoning Him — to you and your mates.”
He nodded uncertainly, and his hair fell back over his peeling brow.
“Anyway, remember: if we do meet Him, do nothing. Whatever you do, don’t lift a weapon.”
He glanced dubiously at the stick in his hand.
“Even that,” I added. “Best stay close to me.” Gently I squeezed his shoulder. “The island’s not your home any more, and you’re no longer under His protection. In fact, you’re at the point of His sword now.”
I stared into those liquid eyes until he nodded again, still looking the lost boy.
“It’s time you earned your ‘pirate’ name.” I always thought inverted commas around the word “pirate.” “Have you considered what you want to be called?”
He perked up, half smiling. “Yeah. Skywalker.”
“We’ve had a lot of Skywalkers,” I said. “None of them lasted long.”
The half-smile faded.
“But we’ll think about it,” I added, sliding my hand off his smooth arm.
When I found Really and Max squaring off over who was going to carry what, I promptly appointed Kid Vicious temporary Second Mate, which gave him leave to kick arse. He received the assignment with a grin of broken teeth; we would all have to deal with his outright bullying, but if it helped keep the others in line I could sort him out later.
“I’ll watch the rear,” I said as I slung a bag of tools over my shoulder.
“Whose rear?” called out Max.
“Oy, keep a lookout, Cheeks,” said Really. “He’s not called First Mate for nowt.”
“Shut your gobs!” I commanded. As the men’s guffaws died down, I felt my own cheeks burn.
We paused where a rill bathed the beach, scouting for crocs before broaching the jungle’s palpable curtain. In the dappled shade the scent of the lagoon — what Darth Jagger had christened “eau de fish pee” — gave way to the rank miasma of the land. When the stream deepened, we stooped to fill our canteens, then beat through the undergrowth along its bank. Heading inland, we could hear the seabreeze licking at the treetops as the dank shade enclosed us. Spotty sunlight struck the jungle’s overlapping greens, with otherworldly splashes of crimson, magenta, violet, and orange, colors out of dreams belonging to garish tropical blooms and gnarled fungal growths. We dodged the long sticky tendrils dangling from meatflowers, which squatted on limbs overhead like whorls of rare beef. But as the flying stingers found us, and we added swatting and cursing to our tasks, we hoped the meatflowers ate their fill.
We did not expect to meet anyone on this side of the island. The logs of past captains record that savages had once lived here, perhaps descendents of West Indians who had slipped through the worldgate. At some point they had finally packed up and paddled away, probably tired of “pirates” raiding for women and goods. I was the sole reader of the old books, at least those still legible despite mold and age. Sometimes I wondered if my mates remembered how to read, or if they retained any information I shared. Did they recall that our ship has been on this world a hundred years, though easily twice that old? That it was seized by the crew of another ship marooned here even longer? Did I alone recollect that the final logs mention doomed ships of steel on the horizon, trailing plumes of black smoke? At least wooden vessels could theoretically sail as long as the wind blew, if their crews had the wherewithal to keep them in trim. No one had reported another since the logs ended.
With Kid Vicious leading the way, and Max and Really swinging their blades in his wake, we hacked through the overgrown trail that followed the stream. Bow at the ready, Fists kept an eye out for small game and perhaps small threats. I mostly watched slender Sweet Cheeks, so recently ejected from this land of make-believe. It was time for his salting and renaming. At my own, however long ago, it was still common to “go fish” — to capture one of the sirenes that haunted the lagoon then and, while a few seasoned hands held the thrashing creature to the beach, let the initiate have at her. I had only to see the rite up close to know I wanted no part of it. With her gray-green skin, seaweed hair, and porpoise teeth, a sirene was only vaguely human. But she had breasts and a hole to stick it in, all that a desperate lad needed. Personally I thought cold fish a poor substitute for warm seamen. It was moot now, since the sirenes had abandoned our cove.
Between the toes of the foothills at the edge of the highland, the stream exited a clear pool just wide enough for a man to swim across in half a dozen strokes. We knew it was just ahead when we heard the modest waterfall that cascaded into it. Our trail intersected a wild pig run, and as we turned onto it I kept a look-out for spoor. Not far from the pool we crossed the tracks of a crocodile dragging through the mud. I reminded the lads to keep an eye out for crocs as well as pigs. We wanted to catch a hearty meal, not become one.
“We hunting?” asked Mad Max hopefully.
“Not yet,” I answered. “First things first.”
Amid some grumbling, I divvied up the work: I would take Dragon Fists into the jungle, where there was a stand of useful bamboo within shouting distance. The rest of them could chop the fallen timber in the area into portable lumber. We would all harvest any edible fruit we came across. Anyone who sighted pork afoot would give a whistle.
Suddenly Sweet Cheeks cried out “A tinkler!” and dashed away. “Tinklers” was our childhood name for ticklers. I halloed after him, but he quickly disappeared in the dense green understory.
“Oy!” Kid shouted. “Get yer bleedin’ arse back here!”
I hushed him, fearing other ears.
“He’s chasin’ a soddin’ dragonfly,” he snarled. “Should I go after him?”
“Bugger ‘im,” said Max.
“There’s an idea,” Really Rotten chimed in. “He gets a jolly roger from all of us tonight. That’d teach ‘im.”
I had a gentler salting in mind. “I’ll fetch him,” I said. “Fists, you’re with me. The rest of you, get to work. Kid, you’re still Second Mate.”
Kid’s scowl of protest curled into a smug sneer. “You heard the man,” he told the others. “Get to work.”
I led Dragon Fists away, plunging along the pig run as the quickest route. The jungle folded itself around us like a damp green blanket. When the noise of the cascade was no louder than the breeze in the treetops, I paused. Fists came to a halt at my back.
“Do you see something?” he asked.
I shook my head. Cupping hands around my mouth, I dared to call Sweet Cheeks. In response came the whine of insects, the chitters and far-off whoops of tropical birds.
“Damn ‘im,” I muttered, thinking both of Sweet Cheeks and the lord of the island. I raised a hand to hold the lens steady over my eye, squinting through it at the jumble of foliage. My other hand rested on the knife at my belt. I asked Fists if he had water. When he answered “some,” I wiggled my fingers to request it. As I sipped from his gourd canteen, I contemplated our next move. We were far too close to familiar territory.
“Where could that lad have gone?” I muttered as I handed back the gourd.
“You don’t think . . . “ He didn’t need to complete the thought, and I didn’t need to reply to it.
“Give a whistle,” I told him.
Doing something with his tongue and teeth I had never learned to do, Fists shrilly complied. We listened: the jungle stirred. Among its preternatural whispers, I could sense His presence saturating everything. He was one with the island — Hisland. He shared its perpetual summer. This was a paradise for boys, but the garden from which we had been banished.
“Just a little further,” I said.
As we cautiously made our way through the bush, I found myself contemplating appropriate punishments for Sweet Cheeks. Too soon they devolved into explicit scenarios of submission and humiliation, and I stopped myself. That was not what I wanted from him.
Abruptly a horrid face leapt into view, halting us in our tracks. A skull with a few scant patches of hide stared hollow-eyed at us from a perch atop a bamboo stick, lording over a host of flies. We dared go no further. A shriek sent both Fists and me into startled crouches. A macaw broke cover overhead and flew off, its blue and red plumage glowing on the surrounding greenery.
“Surely he couldn’t have come this far,” said Fists. “We must have missed him.”
Steadying my lens, I scanned the jungle. I listened to it breathe.
I was about to turn back when I heard them. Fists met my stark glance, and I hastily gestured for us to withdraw off the path. Crouching in the bush, I was relieved when Sweet Cheeks walked into view, though cross enough that I almost leapt from cover. But I balked as two others appeared behind him, both newbies. I watched them flinch as they gave the pig skull a wide berth. Only one, I realized, was a lost boy.
Restraining Fists, I let them pass us to make sure there were no more. Then, jumping upright, I called out, “Hallo!” All three whirled. Seeing me, Sweet Cheeks turned a piebald pink.
“You dumb prat!” I barked. I lunged at him. “That was a stupid bloody thing to do.” I wanted to seize him, shake some sense into him, but he cowered behind his companions, who cringed from me.
“I’m — I’m sorry,” he sputtered. “I — got took short and went into the bushes. And — and then I guess I got turned around and ran off in the wrong direction and, um, lost my way. And then I met — I ran into these two.”
The pair were dark but not as dark as Edge or Big’Un; both had brown skin and black hair. One was a chunky lad, not much younger than Sweet Cheeks judging from the swarthy fuzz on his face. The other meant trouble: a girl, shorter than the boy but definitely shapelier. Her thin blouse stretched across her bosom, and hips ripe with promise filled her ripped jeans. Other than that, they looked enough alike to be siblings. I took for granted they were.
“Anyway, Pe — He, uh, He’s not around,” Sweet Cheeks continued. “They say He’s been gone for days. And they say they’ve had enough. They don’t want to play no more. Tell him.”
Fixing dark, moist eyes on me, the boy spoke in the thick accent of central London. “Ralph here said you wouldn’t hurt us.”
I almost asked “Who’s Ralph?” before recalling it was Sweet Cheeks.
“We want to go home,” the boy added.
“I can’t send you home,” I said. “Only He can take you home.”
I guessed that it was already too late for the boy, that when He returned, it would likely be with fresh catch, and time to “thin out” the older ones. I glanced at the girl, and my eyes drifted to a gap in her blouse, where a button had popped off between her breasts, exposing a fawn-colored cleft. Real trouble. Misunderstanding my stare, she lifted a hand to clutch it closed. I looked up into dark eyes under dark brows.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Waleed,” said the boy. “Actually, just Wally.”
“We call them Wally Wog and Polly Wog,” said Sweet Cheeks.
“We don’t like those names,” remarked the girl.
“What name do you like?” I asked her.
She blinked at me with long black lashes. “Gwen.”
Wally’s eyes flicked at her, hinting that was not her given name. It didn’t matter: none of us used our given names. Her gaze roved past me, and she clutched her blouse even more tightly. Alarmed, I glanced back, only to find Dragon Fists openly ogling her, mouth agog. I had more than one problem on my hands, and little time to decide what to do. I peered into the jungle as if my next move would appear there, knowing that matters were about to turn worse. It seeped into my thoughts how alone I was, not just now but always. I felt a twinge of nausea.
“Can you find your way back to the others?” I asked Dragon Fists. He nodded. “Tell them Sweet Cheeks and I have a couple of prisoners we’re taking back to the ship.”
“What?” piped the girl as her brother cried “Prisoners! But Ralph said —“
“Quiet!” I barked. “It’s for your own protection. I’ll explain later.”
“Why don’t you send Cheeks back,” Fists said, “and let me go with you?” His eyes stayed on the girl.
“Because I need someone who’ll watch my arse instead of hers.”
He looked back at me, abashed.
“Besides, you’re needed with the crew. Tell Kid you’re his second in command. My orders. Once you finish the other tasks, you can lead the hunt for pig.”
Fists looked mollified, if still not eager to leave. “What if they won’t follow?”
“They will,” I asserted. “But stay away from this part of the island. I’ll see you at the ship.”
He hoisted the bow on his nut-brown shoulder and dashed back along our path. I watched him until he was just a long black ponytail swaying into the greenery, then turned to the youngsters, who eyed me expectantly.
“Listen well. You’re heading into rough company. They’re not like him.” I nodded toward Sweet Cheeks, who was characteristically stroking hair from his forehead. “Do what I say, and I might be able to keep you safe.”
I thought about adding that I was making no promises, then thought better of underscoring the obvious.
Our trek to the ship was a race against the sun. Rather than retrace my trail, I struck out in a rugged diagonal that would take us more or less directly to the lagoon as long as we hewed a new path through the jungle. I soon learned neither the boy nor the girl, now confirmed as brother and sister, were up to the effort. I answered their pleas for water by locating an animal trail that led to a shallow stream. After our drink, I marched them downstream, knowing the watercourse would eventually lead us to the coast. It was a long slog, longer than I wished, but it gave me plenty of time to sort out what I was going to do. Or try to do. None of the outcomes looked good; some were just less bad than others.
At long last the jungle thinned ahead of us, and soon thereafter we stepped out under coconut palms and onto the beach, in sight of The Rock, whose skull-like hollows stared back at us. As I squinted against the sun, holding my lens in place, a solitary figure shambled towards us along the curving strand. Even as his motley rags came into view, I heard his voice droning above the lapping surf.
“We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.” And again: “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.” And yet again, over and over, as he approached. Batty Bert’s signature tune.
I led the others towards him. When Bert spotted us, he ceased his toneless chant then stopped altogether. We paused scant steps away. What passed for clothing flapped around him like pennants in the breeze; his simple garment was a collection of any fragments of cloth he could scrounge on an ongoing basis, stitched on at random. His scabby, hairless legs remained uncovered, and as he gawked at us, his mouth slack and all but toothless, I spotted his raw meat flitting into view. The newcomers’ education had begun.
“Uah,” grunted Bert, eyes goggling through grizzled hair. “Fresh fish.”
His breath rasped audibly as he gawked at the youngsters. The girl sidled behind her brother but continued to peer over his shoulder.
“They looks juicy too.” He licked his lower lip. “Specially that one wi’ the titties.”
He started, eyes snapping to me as though he had just noticed me.
“These two are prisoners — do you understand? They must be delivered directly into the Captain’s hands.”
“If anyone interferes with them in any way, he’ll have to answer to Captain Edge.”
His lips retreated over his grey gums in a grimace of disappointment. His gaze slumped into the battered bucket in his hands. Suddenly his face lifted again.
“Clams?” he said. He held forth his bucket, offering it. “Clams?”
“Later, Bert. Right now we need to know if the rowboat is still onshore.”
His eyelids fluttered while he parsed out my query and his response.
“Boat, yeah,” he answered hoarsely. His nod included the upper half of his body, almost like a bow. “We goes back to the ship now, eh? We all goes back together?”
“Sure, Bert. We could use another hand at the oars.”
As I led us past his scrawny form, he shoved his bucket at the girl and repeated, “Clams?” He fell in behind Sweet Cheeks, muttering to himself loudly enough for all to hear. “Oh yeah, Bertie knows what he wants. Bertie’s pride-n-joy is so-o peckish.”
“If he touches my sister,” Wally hissed at my back, “I’ll give ‘im a good kick in the pills.”
“You do that,” I replied. “You can’t miss them.”
When we finally reached the beached boat, I ordered the youngsters in first, instructing Sweet Cheeks to take the fore oars. Bert and I shoved off the sand and jumped in after them. I made Bert take the oars aft, so he would face the beach as he rowed. As we crossed the lagoon, I fought to keep my thoughts in order, aware than any plan could be ruined in the next few minutes. By the time we bumped against the ship’s hollow hull to the pungent mold and sewage scent of home, a row of raunchy faces had gathered at the gunwale. The crew welcomed us with obscene whoops and throaty guffaws.
“Hey, Mate — you finally brought back something we could really use!”
“Do we all get a piece?”
“She won’t need ‘er clothes. Just leave ‘em in the boat.”
“The queue starts here!”
“Where is Captain Edge?” I yelled. I had to repeat the question twice before he shoved his own face forth among the others.
“What gives?” he asked.
“I have a brace of prisoners,” I called out. “They must be placed directly into your hands.”
“Why not my hands?” shouted Big’Un.
“Let ‘er work ‘er way up to the Captain!”
“The Undead’un —!” I shouted at the top of my voice.
The men quieted.
“The Undead’un might be right behind us, for all I know,” I continued. “We have no time to waste. No time at all.”
“Bloody hell!” shouted Edge.
“Cast the ladder!” I shouted back.
In a moment the rope ladder tumbled down the hull. I ordered Batty Bert to stay at the aft oars, grabbed the ladder and gestured for Sweet Cheeks.
“You first,” I told him. “Keep between the men and your friends. Don’t be afraid to use your weapon.”
He nodded uncertainly, eyed the ladder just as uncertainly before starting up.
“You next,” I told Wally. “Protect your sister, if you can.”
As he started wobbling up, missing his footing on the second rung, I turned to the girl.
“I’ll be right behind you,” I told her.
She struggled up the swaying ladder. At one point she slipped, and my hand leapt to her bottom. She lurched so violently she nearly let go.
“Steady now,” I said, replacing my hand to the small of her back until she was stable.
As we clambered on deck, I counted the onboard crew — Big’Un, Sirius D, X-Treem, Red Jack, Bloody Raj. Fortunately, we were a near match in numbers if not in strength. Their barrage resumed.
“Got a nice blood sausage for you, luv.”
“I ‘ave a better one!”
“And you’ve just the bun for it!”
They persisted as I confronted Edge.
“Where are the rest of the lads?” he asked. “Are they . . . ?”
“They should be on their way.”
“But what about —“
“I suggest we talk in your quarters.”
He looked at the siblings, lingering on the girl, then nodded. “Right. Make way, bloods.”
We pushed our way past the gantlet. To his credit, Wally did his best to fend off the hands that reached for his sister. I did my best as well, throwing out arms and unheeded commands. Sweet Cheeks gingerly employed his pointed stick, although when a stiff poke elicited an angry cry from Red Jack, the simpleton actually blurted out a “sorry.” Still, filthy fingers grasped breasts, arse, and hair as the whimpering Gwen flinched and swatted. We managed to reach the quarterdeck ahead of the men. I told Sweet Cheeks to stand guard before the door, knowing it wouldn’t be his token presence that would keep them out. Edge and I herded the young pair inside, shutting the door against a surge of protests. Immediately silhouettes loomed at the shabbily curtained windows of the room. Under cover of the gruff yelling, we were able to speak plainly.
“Bugger,” said Edge. “Why would you bring prisoners from the island here? You might as well bring the Undead’un hisself. Just how close is He?”
“He’s not. Yet.”
“He’s not right behind you?”
“Not as far as I know. I just said that to warn off the crew.”
Edge visibly relaxed.
“But it’s just a matter of time,” I added. I nodded at the newcomers. The girl huddled close to her brother, still clutching her shirt closed. “These two wanted off the island.”
“Are you barmy? Like they’ll be safe here?”
As if on cue, the voice of Big’Un bellowed through the curtained window. “Hey, is it our turn yet?” followed by Sirius D’s: “I have just the spit to turn her on.”
As more coarse laughter followed, I sensed the siblings’ eyes on me, but I kept my gaze on Edge, who was appraising the shaken girl with an expression of interest and doubt.
“So what were you thinking?” asked Edge. “We could have a mutiny on our hands if we keep her here. And just where are we going to keep her?” He glanced at her brother. “Them.”
“They can stay in my room.”
He rolled his bloodshot eyes at me. “Right. They’ll be safe in your bunk.”
“I’ll move to the cabin. I can guard them better from there. ”
“And when the Undead’un shows up?”
I took a deep breath, reviewing my plan once more before the plunge.
“This is your chance to take Him on.” I hoped Edge had not noticed the shudder in my voice.
His eyebrows arched. “You bleedin’ serious?”
“You’re captain. You’ve always said He was yours.”
“That’s just something all captains say.”
“All right, so order the boys to take him on — alone or as a group. I’ll bet some of them would go along, especially if they thought the girl was up for grabs.”
“Oy!” said Wally. “That’s not what you —“
“Shut it!” I ordered. “In fact, I’ll bet when Kid Vicious finds out —”
“Bugger Kid,” snarled Edge. “He’d also expect that killing the Undead’un would make him captain.”
“Let him think that,” I said. And more gently, “For that matter, consider that maybe you have been captain long enough. Maybe it’s time for some new blood.”
I saw old blood in his eyes as he glared at me. “You saying I should step down? Sounds like you’re feeling a little mutinous yourself — First Mate.”
“Not at all. I’ll back you up,” I told him, backing down, “whatever you decide.”
He studied me a few seconds before saying, “Glad to hear it.”
Bodies slammed against the door, accompanied by shouts. I recognized the voice of Red Jack demanding entrance, and Sweet Cheek answering, “Captain’s orders!”
“You two,” I said, pivoting to the siblings and pointing at the next door, “get back there before that lot breaks in.”
“But what —” the boy began.
“Just do it!” I said. “I’ll join you in a moment.”
They shuffled with haste into the inner room.
“What do we soddin’ do now?” Edge asked.
“Our boat’s still in the water with Bert at the oar,” I told him. “Order a pair of the lads to take both boats across the lagoon and wait for the foraging crew. Send the rest to the beach below The Rock. Keep them all busy gathering fuel, crabs, coconuts, whatever.”
“And why would they do that?”
“They’re getting everything ready for a barbecue. At the end of day we’ll open a barrel of coke and have a rave-up.”
“But what about the girl? And the lad? And, you know, Him?”
“Just keep the old sons occupied on the beach. If you have to, hint that the girl will be joining them later.”
“What if I don’t want to share her?” said Edge, narrowing his eyes. “I am the captain.”
“As captain you can tell them whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be the truth. You just have to keep them on the beach until, you know, He arrives.”
“And what then?”
“Then we’ll see.”
Edge’s eyebrows arched. “You’re not going to take him on yourself.”
“Of course not. You know me better than that.” I almost grinned. “I’m a thinker, not a fighter.”
“Yeah,” he said after a moment. “You’re always thinking.”
He gave me a measuring, almost sober look with his dark, red-marbled eyes. In that moment I could not help recalling a dusky boy named Percy Dobbs — Dobbsy — whose bravado had stood up better than the rest of ours, both on the island and on the ship. There was more shouting and pounding at the outer door where Sweet Cheeks was supposedly standing guard.
“Now go show them who’s in command,” I concluded.
As he shambled to the door, I noticed that he gripped the rusty sickle that was his hanger, originally some old tool for barking lumber. He rarely wore it, because it tended to stab him as it swung at his thigh. He had reason to carry it now. Hand on the door, he turned to me.
“You better know what you’re doing,” he said.
“I do,” I replied with more certainty than I felt.
With a last dubious glance, he hefted his weapon and opened the door. Sweet Cheeks tumbled inside amid guttural calls, with Jack and Bloody Raj right behind. Edge elbowed Sweet Cheeks aside and shoved at the others.
“Get your bloody bums away from here, you sons of turds!” he bellowed.
As he started shouting out orders, I gestured Sweet Cheeks inside and told him to shut the door behind the captain. I took the fair-haired lad by the arm and into the cabin, where Wally and Gwen waited at its warped mahogany table under the broken skylight. I hustled them all thence to my quarters in the very aft of the ship. The room held my narrow bed, a time-bleached, flat-topped chest supporting a fish-oil lamp and a large leather-bound tome, and a single chair holding a pair of smaller books. The back wall was all windowpanes — the remaining glass, deep lavender with age, much broken and patched with wood or canvas. I was the only one who knew that this had once been the captain’s bedroom, but its disheveled condition had led an earlier commander to swap with his first mate. I didn’t mind. It was farther from the main deck and therefore quieter, and it shared a passage with the old compass and chart room, where I hoarded the remnant library. Once in the room, the girl stopped beside my bed, hugging herself and shaking with barely suppressed sobs. I invited her to sit on the hummocky mattress.
“You said you’d help us get home,” Wally wailed.
“I said I’d try,” I replied. “And I can think of only one way to do that.”
“How?” he asked. “By locking us up here?”
“For now. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Why should we?”
“Because you have no choice.”
The boy gave me a cold stare but said nothing more. I picked up the books and offered him the chair; he grudgingly sat.
“I imagine you’re hungry and thirsty.” I turned my face to Sweet Cheeks. “Go below and see what you can scavenge for your friends.”
He nodded, willingly if worriedly, and took off to comply.
“So how did you meet Pan?” I asked the pair. “How did He find you?”
It was Gwen who answered.
“He came to my bedroom in Hackney and — crawled through the window even though it’s two floors up. Course I was scared at first, so I ran to Wally and woke him up. By the time we got back to my room, we found him sitting on my dresser. Wally tried to chase him away.”
“Yeah, and we knew som’n was weird when he just — you know, vanished from one spot and turned up in another. Like he was flying but you couldn’t see him in between.”
I nodded. “Sounds familiar.”
The rest of the story was also familiar: the initial fear and wonder, as though you had entered a fairy tale, the promise of escape and adventure, the scepticism finally overcome by those first seconds of floating. Then the long flight through blue nothing.
“What did you leave behind?” I asked.
“Whadja mean?” said Wally.
“What were you running away from?”
“Our mum married this man,” said Gwen.
“Our father died when we was just little,” explained her brother.
“But he was really mean to us —”
“Our stepfather, she means. He used to beat us. He threatened to send me off to a religious school.”
“And he was going to marry me to some old guy in Pakistan, where girls can be forced to marry old guys.”
“So why do you want to go home?” I asked.
“We’ve been here too long,” she said. “I’d like a proper bath again, and some fresh clothes. And I miss my friends. And the telly.”
“So do I,” said Wally. “And my Gameboy.”
I assumed he meant a special mate.
To gain their trust, I shared a little of my own story: the detested school where I lived nearly year-round, bullied by older students and schoolmasters, abandoned by parents who had moved to Spain. Then the winter night Pan appeared like a figure out of dream, promising freedom, followed by the magic flight that banished all doubts. I wanted the pair to understand that our stories were basically the same.
“Why did you become a pirate?” asked Gwen.
“It seemed the only option,” I replied.
By the time I finished my tale, Sweet Cheeks showed up with jungle pears, jerked pork, and dried fish, along with a full gourd of water. We laid the food on the chest. Gwen reached for a jungle pear while Wally gingerly picked up a twisted hunk of pork.
“It’s good,” said Sweet Cheeks. “We jerk our own meat.”
Wally glanced at him, confused then bemused, while Gwen hiccoughed with suppressed laughter. Reddening, the youth sputtered, “I mean —”
“It’s pork,” I finished for him.
“We don’t eat pig,” said the boy. He threw it back on the chest, took up some dried fish. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose. “This smells grotty.”
“Then don’t eat it,” I said.
He sullenly settled for the fruit, while I partook of some jerked meat. After washing it down with some water, I picked up the pair of books and backed to the door.
“I’ll be in the cabin—” I said, indicating it with a thumb. “— where I’ll keep watch. Sweet — Ralph will stay here with you.”
Two pairs of dark, moist eyes studied me from the bed. Sweet Cheeks stood silhouetted before the lavender glass. I considered telling them what to do if the men stormed the quarters anyway, but of course there was nothing they could do. As I left, I told them to barricade the door with the chest.
Back in the cabin, I had just dropped my books on the warped table when I noticed the door to the captain’s room was ajar. With a few decisive steps I yanked it open, only to find myself face to face with X-Treem, his ravaged visage a puzzle of pustules and scanty whiskers.
“Didn’t the Captain give you something to do?” I demanded.
He grumbled an inarticulate response, reaching back to scratch at the large black scab on his scalp.
“If not,” I continued, “you can spend the night guarding the beach across the lagoon, watching for you-know-who.”
Muttering a curse, he withdrew. I hoped I did not live long enough to see Sweet Cheeks degenerate into such a prematurely aged toad.
I held the door to the deck shut, listening. I heard Captain Edge proclaim, “There’ll be more than enough to go around, bloods.” It took a moment to realize he was referring to the barrel of fermented coconut milk set aside for the evening, the crew’s beloved coke. Satisfied, I withdrew to the cabin and took up my post at the captain’s table. All I could do now was wait and fear and hope.
While the afternoon waned to evening, I paged through the old books. The leather-bound volume was the oldest, the log of one of the first ships. I opened the mildewed pages at random, and my eye fell on a familiar line inscribed in eighteenth-century script: “Heading sowth of ye Bermoothes on yt Beering wee founde ourselves loft at Sea.” These were the words of one Captain McAulloch, the first to record that this world’s constellations matched none on his navigation charts. He had eventually calculated that it took 482 nights for the heavens to make a complete circuit. If that was a year, it was a long year, though not long enough to explain why he had left the seas of Earth nearly three centuries ago, while only half that had passed here since his log ended. Or why I have aged by my best guess twenty years since arriving, even though Red Jack and Sweet Cheeks describe a London that has seen forty.
The second book was much smaller and bound less durably: a nineteenth-century boy’s novel entitled Coral Island brought by some past captive. The other book was yet smaller, a brown and brittle paperback with no front cover. Named Stranger Than Fiction, it contained stories of the Loch Ness Monster, of flying saucer visitations, of — coincidentally — the Bermuda Triangle. Schoolboy reading from my own time. My generation was apparently the last to bring books. None of the newcomers bothered, so I had to content myself with the two dozen or so literary relics already in the library — logs and almanacs from past centuries, texts on science and shiplore, archaic though still useful, a few novels and schoolbooks. Limited though this collection was, I gave it credit for my endurance as First Mate. Even here there was an advantage to being a thinker.
Captain Edge interrupted my meditations. He stood in the doorway, topcoat framing his sagging belly.
“I’m sending the lads down,” he told me.
“Kid and the crew return?” I asked.
“Bring any meat?”
“Just a couple of iguanas.”
For those of us who remember chicken, roasted iguana tastes like compost.
“Well, keep the men on the beach,” I added.
“What about you?”
“I’ll watch the prisoners.”
“Right.” He studied me skeptically. “I’m not worried about you sampling that piece yourself. But you’re not thinking of taking Him on, are you?”
“Then what do you have in mind?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Leave it to me. I’m trying to save all of us.”
He nodded slowly, and for him thoughtfully. “All right.”
A moment later he left me.
“Bye, old son,” I murmured to the closed door.
As twilight crept in, I lit a fish oil lamp. I turned the pages of the ancient log, browsing without concentration, recalling the logs of Tremayn and Hooke in the chartroom with their accounts of Pan. When Sweet Cheeks poked his head from my quarters to ask if he could answer nature’s call, I told him where my chamber pot was and through which window to empty it. I also informed him I was going on deck to look around, but not for long.
Outside, I leaned cautiously against the rickety rail, gazing through the bamboo bridgework to the strand below. Scarecrow silhouettes danced around the bonfire to whooping and the irregular clattering of sticks and coconut shells. Sparks spiraled upward; ruddy light splashed the giant skull of The Rock. I hoped the coke would last long enough, and that Edge could handle a dozen pissed crewmen.
A balmy breeze flowed off the ocean and caressed my back. I gazed up into purple sky where the first stars sparkled. This world’s moon, too small to see clearly in sunlight, was crossing now as it did every day and a half. We counted no weeks or months here, and hours were meaningless.
“Where are you, Peter?” I muttered aloud. “Your lost children are waiting.”
No sooner had I spoken than I felt it: an invisible but palpable wave surging from the island, a brute force of nature alive with chilling awareness. I faced into it across the blackness of the lagoon. Below, the raucous chanting seemed to falter momentarily.
He was on His way.
Amid momentary panic I reminded myself that this was no time to lose control. I dashed back inside, through the captain’s room and cabin, and shoved at the door to my room before remembering it was barricaded.
“It’s me,” I called out. “Open up.”
Something heavy slid aside, then Sweet Cheeks appeared.
“Your watch is done,” I told him. “Go down to the beach and join the crew.”
“But what about Wally and Pol — uh, Gwen?”
“Say good-bye to them.”
“Couldn’t I stay?” he said.
“You can’t.” I gripped both his shoulders. “It’s too late. Go join the crew and drink to celebrate your salting. Choose your pirate name tonight.” I gently patted his soft, sunburned cheek. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He gazed at me through his flaxen hair, unwittingly becoming. “But —”
“Report to Captain Edge as soon as you get to the beach. That’s an order.”
He stuttered some parting words to the siblings before I literally pushed him toward the exit. With one last lost look he passed from the cabin. I turned back to the youngsters and met wide, wary eyes.
“You will wait here,” I said.
“What’s going to happen?” asked Wally.
“I can’t tell you. But no matter what you hear, stay out of sight until I say otherwise.”
I could still promise them nothing.
I returned to the cabin, shutting the door behind me. I crossed the cabin and closed the outer door. I heard my own breathing over the background whisper of surf. I shuffled to the table under the broken skylight and stood there, waiting, my mind feverish with contingencies. Remembering I still had my knife in my belt, I removed it and hid it beneath the books. There was a moment — just a moment — when I did not care if I survived the night. It passed when I heard the door to the deck opening.
“Oy, Mate?” It was Edge, drink fogging his words. My heart dove. “You here?”
I heard clumsy footsteps and started forward, preparing to order him away.
“Here, pussy,” he called. The subsequent chuckle ended in a hiccough.
And on his heels arrived another presence, one I could feel. I froze within reach of the door.
“No!” Edge shouted. Or had that been my voice?
Then came a raspy giggle that sent a chill rippling through me, followed by croaked words: “You have me mum.”
“No,” said Edge, all but breathlessly.
I heard a lunge, a wordless cry from Edge, a clash of metal. It was too late to warn again against showing a weapon. It was too late to join him; I thought about shoving the table against the door. Instead I crouched beneath it, grasping my knees, needing the chamber pot. I listened to fevered scuffling next door, to the scraping of furnishings, to Edge’s strangled gasps. Suddenly a body hit the door.
“Mate, are you there?” Edge yelped. “Help! Charlie!”
I nearly choked on the lump in my throat. I squeezed my eyes shut and gripped my knees more tightly.
There was a hoarse whimper, and a heavy thud against a bulkhead. A guttural cry of fear, deep-voiced but helpless. Hurried footsteps and another thud. I prayed that this would end soon. I prayed to no one.
“Help!” Edge shrieked. “Anyone help!”
And then a gurgle, a scream that died at birth. The shuffle of a body falling. Then a sound I had not heard for some time, one that raised all the hairs on my body — a squawking crow of triumph. The crowing rang out again. And again.
I was still quaking as I struggled to my knees, rising over the table’s edge with white-knuckled fingers. My legs felt boneless beneath me. I watched the door, which had been bumped ajar. In the next instant something like a puff of black smoke appeared and immediately dispersed. And then he stood inside the cabin, this creature I had once followed, even worshipped.
At first glance he was merely a boy, if an odd-looking one, his round head bobbing from side to side as he quickly surveyed the room. He wore only a tunic of broad tropical leaves stitched together, many torn. His thin, sinewy arms and legs flexed. As his popeyed gaze fell on me, he raised his tarnished blade, shaped like a Roman gladius, shining with fresh blood. I raised my empty hands.
“I am unarmed, Peter,” I said. “See, no weapon.”
As I stumbled upright, he watched with vacuous anticipation.
“Remember me? It’s Goggles.”
The eyes, green and dilated like a cat’s, did not alter their wary stare. The familiar face was neither young nor old, weathered but not wrinkled, like soft leather. His lips were thin and pursed in concentration, the mouth and nose both inhumanly small for the eyes and brow above them. Suddenly the lips pulled back in something like a grin or a hiss, showing off those disturbing teeth. Various shades of yellow and brown, they were all baby teeth, and like a shark he had row upon row of them, self-replacing. That of course was his chief strength, the thing that made him unique and unconquerable: his body, instead of growing, constantly renewed itself. Even now he had baby fingers sprouting, pink and delicate, from severed stumps. He could never wear out, never die. I do not know whether he came originally from this world or was some sport born of Earth.
“You have me mum,” he croaked.
“I know what you want, Peter,” I told him. “Gwen! Wally! Show yourselves!”
As they emerged from my quarters, Pan’s lips pulled back, those teeth gleefully parted, almost as if preparing to swallow them whole. I gripped the chair to steady myself.
“But they don’t want to stay here,” I continued. “You must take them home, Peter. You must take them all the way back to their world.”
“Why?” The word like a high-pitched belch.
“They want to go home,” I said. “Tell Him.”
“We do,” said the girl. “We really do. We been here long enough.”
The creature pondered a moment and then scowled. “You want to go back to your —” He grunted as though the next words were sticking in his throat. “— mum and da?”
“Yes,” answered Gwen, and Wally, “No.” I was glad he did. Any other answer might have made Pan angry. “But we want to go home anyway.”
“In fact, you want to fight your da, don’t you?” I added.
The pair gave me puzzled looks but said nothing.
“Maybe kill him?” Peter said, eying them.
“Sure,” said Wally, playing along.
Pan’s mouth opened wide again, emitting a satisfied hiss.
“Yes. Yes, I likes. I takes you home. Find new mum.”
He noticed me again, and his garish grin collapsed.
“You try to stop?” he said, holding up his bloody sword.
“No.” I waved my hands as though shooing them all away. “Take them. Go.”
His eyes rolled to them and back to me.
“Now?” he said.
“Yes,” we all said. And then, overlapping, the siblings added, “We want to go now. Please take us home.”
Another ponderous moment passed before he tucked his scabbed sword into its scabbard. I shallowly exhaled. He took a bandy-legged step forward, hunched down, then jumped weightlessly onto the table. Knees bent, arms curved forward as though embracing an invisible companion, Pan stared over the heads of the children. Flecks of gold light began to spark around him — an effect we used to call “fairy dust” — and I felt a thrill despite having seen this many times before. The sparkles began to swirl around him, each trailing a tail of the darkest darkness, as though soaking up not only light but space. As the spin sped up, the sparkles phased to burning green then electric blue. The vortex with Peter at its core drifted from the tabletop, easing over the boy and girl, who
watched it in familiar wonder. It coiled downward to surround them. I watched their feet leave the deck as they were swallowed.
By now the spinning coil glowed violet, hissing and crackling as it deepened toward the ultraviolet. I could barely discern the amorphous forms within, though I held my monocle firmly with one hand while shading my eyes with the other. Even as its light filled the cabin, so intense I could barely endure to watch, the vortex began to shrink as if speeding into the distance while still hovering in place. Abruptly, with a snap and a flash it shot in a sinuous arc toward the half-open door, leaving a glow of quickly fading purple.
I was alone in the cabin. For a moment I thought I could still hear the sizzle of the vortex, until I realized it was the hiss of surf. It counterpointed a masculine chorus on the strand below, raggedly intoning the words, “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine . . . .” Only now did I stumble across the cabin, past the threshold into the captain’s room.
There he lay, beneath a window, limbs sprawled in the pooled folds of the topcoat, now a richer red than I had ever seen it. I barely reached his side before dropping to my knees. Blood poured from the chest, a clean kill. My gut contracted, and for a moment I feared I was going to vomit on the body. But what surged from my throat, to my surprise, was a wailing sob. I bent my head and wept.
I had heard my first name for the last time. When I fed this body to the sea tomorrow, that name would sink with it, along with the last scrap of the lost boy who once answered to it.
Before long I ceased my weeping, wiping my face with my sleeve, removing my lens to blot it on my shirtfront. His face was turned toward the outside door, mouth ajar, glazed eyes now lifeless. I saw no point in closing them. His time had ended. He was free at last.
“Dobbsy,” I whispered.
Only when I fixed the lens back on my brow did I notice the men clustered in the doorway: Kid Vicious, with Really Rotten and Mad Max behind him. I cleared my throat.
“I was expecting you earlier.”
They leaned unsteadily against one another, their stares on Edge.
“Sneaked up here for the lass?”
One by one they looked at me.
“Well, you’re too late. Pan has already taken her.”
Really and Max shot alarmed glances at each other. Kid glared hard at me.
“You dare to speak Pan’s name?” he snarled.
“As you just did, you drunken sod.”
His hand clapped to his mouth.
“Don’t worry. He’s come and gone.” I got to my feet, brushed off my breeches as if that would clean the blood from my knees. “As you can see, it’s time to decide who wears the captain’s coat next.”
Awareness sluggishly glimmered in the battered faces.
“But tomorrow will be soon enough. Tell the crew.”
With final glances at the corpse, the men shuffled out of the doorway. I heard them muttering as they returned to the night. If precedent held, the debate would begin in earnest after sunrise, proceed with fists and weapons, and end with begrudging consensus and a casualty or two, hopefully none fatal. I would have the topcoat cleaned and ready when it was needed again.
Tonight my last task was to find a square of canvas with which to wrap the body. Tomorrow I would ask Batty Bert to row to sea with me, where I would unfurl it. Maybe I would ask him to keep rowing until we found another island. In that case, however, I would need to bring along Sweet Cheeks for his own protection, and Dragon Fists for mine. And maybe the ailing Darth Jagger . . .
I could not leave. I was the crew’s mum.
Outside, I rested at the gunwale, facing the ocean, relishing the breeze in my face. I lifted my gaze to the alien stars, wondering in passing, as I did so often, if any were the one we had been born under.
We were marooned here, shoulders against The Rock, pushing on for the sake of pushing on. Perhaps I could guide the next captain to the restoration of our vessel, to make it livable for a little longer, to postpone the day when it was finally scuttled by age and storm and surf. Then we would have no choice but to move to the island, Hisland, and play out the game. Whatever happened, we could never wake from this dream come true.
I watched the tiny moon cruise the night and pitied all of us.