The Black Pudding docked a few weeks later on the coast of Brighton, and this time the population reacted appropriately. They screamed at the sight of the pirate flag and ran indoors, terrified of the pirates that lined the ship waving their cutlasses going 'aharr' and the plundering that would soon follow. Rose ordered the ship to drop anchor, a boarding plank was dropped, and the ship's crew rattled their way onto land, eager to finally have their bit of fun.
"The global plague that caused every single human being to fall into a catatonic trance has ended as mysteriously as it began," went Rose's boom box radio. "In a single instant, every single person who suffered from the condition simultaneously recovered. Some have reported experiencing strange visions or having memories of being made to perform certain deeds against their will, but most are just pleased to have regained control. Scientists are already looking for explanations involving atmospheric phenomena, group hallucinations and all the usual rubbish..."
"Turn that bloody thing off," I said.
For all Bulstrode's talk, our wishful thinking had proved accurate. After his death - his body was claimed in a mysterious fire that coincided with the incineration of his astral self - every zombie he had had under his power regained control. Of course, people had been killed, there had been disasters worldwide caused by everyone not being able to summon the effort to do anything, but that was all over now.
The accountants had for the most part not complained about having to spend the journey back to England in the ship's hold, because it was apparently a marked improvement on the sleeping arrangements on Accountancy Island. They departed the ship in single file, chatting about all the wonderful data they would type up as soon as they got home. Finally, only two of them remained aboard - Steve and Penfold.
"I just wanted to say good job and all that," said Steve, shaking me by the hand. "I knew Bulstrode would try to trick you in some way. He was an unpredictable fellow. But I'm glad you saw through it."
"Oh, it was nothing, really," I said. "I could tell he was lying. He was trying too hard. And there were certain things about his body language and expression that just tipped me off."
"I'd better go off and see what my arse of a son has been doing to my company during my absence," he said, glaring at the horizon. "Goodbye, Jim. Thanks again."
"Bye, Steve," I muttered. I was a bit too tired for enthusiasm, but I watched him until he was on dry land and out of sight.
"So, he really tried to convince you that the whole thing was your hallucination?" said Frobisher, somewhat unwisely still wearing his ninja outfit on the pirate ship. "Man, that's just bizarre. And he went to all the trouble of creating astral illusions of me and Rose to pull it off?"
"But in the end, he didn't think it through properly, and the best man won," I said.
"And by that I presume you mean Penfold?" hinted Rose.
"No, by that I mean me. Credit where it's due, let's be fair here, that's all I'm saying."
Penfold, to whom the entire story had been exhaustively explained during the voyage home, coughed politely. "What will you do now?"
"Well, I'm heading back to the ninja temple," said Frobisher. One of the pirates who had remained aboard and who happened to be standing nearby flinched at the sound of the word. "Rose has agreed to give me passage most of the way there."
"You won't be completing your studies, then?"
"Well, I thought about it, and I decided I'd rather be learning how to kill people with my armpit than getting a philosophy degree and then using it to stop my chair wobbling while I'm working at the Drive-Thru."
"And I'm staying on the Pudding," Rose informed us. "I mean, there was just a whole ship and crew sitting there like a lemon without a captain. I just thought it would be my duty as a pirate to fill Bancroft's boots."
"Well, remember to pad them first." I turned to Penfold. "Well, Penfold, guess this is fare-thee-well."
He smiled nerdily, pushing his spectacles back up his nose. "I guess it is."
"I'll look you up if I ever happen to be passing."
"Likewise. It's been... er... interesting knowing you these past few weeks, Jim. I know I was kind of a wet blanket throughout the whole thing, but I want you to know that I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
"You're a pansy, Penfold, but you're welcome to come round my house and sit on the best chair and eat all the bourbons whenever you want."
"Thanks, Jim." He put out a hand.
"Thank you, Penfold." I shook it, and we looked each other in the eye, as if we were sharing some great, completely heterosexual bond. Then we nodded, as between equals, and we detached ourselves.
There was a long pause. Neither of us moved.
Then there was another long pause, which went on for about the length of a conventional long pause, then continued until the word 'long' was no longer adequate and we were forced to upgrade to 'stonking great'. Our warm smiles both became confused smiles.
"Aren't you going to... leave, then?" I said.
"Me? But I thought... you were going to leave."
"No... no," I clarified, taking Rose's hand. "I'm staying on as first mate. With Rose. I'm a pirate too, you know. I thought you were going to leave."
"No, I'm staying as the onboard ship's accountant," he said, still wearing a confused smile. "So you're not leaving?"
"You know what? Let's just forget it."
"Er... right. I think I'll just go below decks and get to work on the account records, then." He nodded at me again, waved, then scampered below decks rubbing his hands together with glee.
And then only Rose and I remained of the little grouping, because Frobisher had melted away at some point with trademark ninja discretion. I was still holding her hand, and she hadn't made any effort to remove it. This, I decided, was a Good Thing.
"I think we should have a sleep," she declared, not looking at me. "Make sure all the damage that was done to Fogworld is repaired, you know."
"And then maybe we could... experiment with the whole joint astral projection thing."
"If you say so."
"And by that I mean we could have astral sex."
"Aye aye, cap'n."
It was a bit later.
I stood at the prow of the ship, gazing into the moonlight as we left England far behind. Bound for Japan, to drop off Frobisher as fast as is humanly possible, then away to wherever we liked as long as it involved adventure in some way. I stood, comfortable again in a repopulated world, taking occasional swigs from the grog that I still couldn't taste but which might as well have been the sweetest Roman wine.
Penfold appeared at my elbow. "Nice night."
"It is that."
"Well, enough of this small talk. There's something I want to ask you."
He rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. "How do you know?"
"How do I know what?"
"How do you know that Bulstrode wasn't telling the truth? I mean, the evidence you presented for him lying was pretty flimsy, and his evidence was pretty solid. How can you be so cool about it? I mean, if that had been me, I'd be fretting like hell. This could all be a coma dream and I wouldn't even know. The plug could be pulled at any second and I'd never see it coming. I think I'd go raving mad."
"I guess that's how some people would deal with it."
"So... how do you know this is reality?"
I took a long swig and finished off the mug before answering. "Penfold," I said, turning to face him. "You remember Bulstrode asking me what I'd do if I could free an innocent prisoner, and I said I'd do it?"
"And then you remember him asking me if I would do it if the prisoner was happy and the cell was all the world he ever knew, and I said I'd still do it?"
"Well, after some thought, I think I've changed my mind. I don't think I would do it. I think I would leave him in there."
"But why? He's a prisoner, isn't he?"
"Of course. But he doesn't think he is. From his point of view, he's got it made. What gives me the right to force my own perception on him? What gives anyone the right? You see, you can't look through another person's eyes. There's only one point of view that matters, and that's your own."
"I don't really see how this answers my question."
I threw the mug over the side as we tough pirates have been known to do, and treated him to a smile. "Maybe you will."
He gave me a vague smile back, and wandered off, confused. I watched him go, then gazed up at the stars, trying not to think about the sharp stabbing pain in my right forearm.