It came as something of a surprise to me that I was still alive. It was somewhat maddening. If I was going to get killed, I thought, the least destiny could do was get on with it swiftly and with dignity. If I kept being almost killed and then waking up in surprise to find myself still alive then some day the surprises would take their toll. I recalled the time my uncle Denny died. The nurse emerged from his hospital room with sorrow on her face and informed us that he had survived his tropical illness, but had been so surprised by this news that he immediately suffered a fatal heart attack.
I was jarred awake by water, but this was different water. This wasn't the clinging Pacific seawater freezing me from all angles of recent memory. This was someone emptying a bucket of water into my face. At least, I hope it was water.
I shook the hopefully-water out of my eyes, and saw a young pirate - presumably young, because his false beard was very poorly made and his eyes bore the innocent look of one not yet heavily bloodied in battle. He put his bucket down, and peeled my eyelids back inquisitively.
"'E's awake, matey," he said to his surrounding peers, pronouncing his pirate dialogue awkwardly.
Now that my brain was in a position to receive impulses from my nerves and ascertain my environment, I realised that I was on the pirate ship. This should probably have been obvious to me earlier when I saw the pirates, but I had just almost drowned and should therefore be cut some slack. I was sitting with my back to the mizzenmast, held in place by several thick ropes tied in expert knots, and a general air of awkwardness and temerity in my vicinity led me to conclude that Penfold was tied up on the other side. The sun was hanging low in the sky, so I don't know how long I was out. I suddenly noticed that I was wearing nothing but my flimsy underpants, so I almost without thinking adjusted my legs to prevent embarrassing bollock popping.
"'Ello again," said the pirate I recognised as the lead pirate, who was looking rather sheepish. "Ye're lucky we came back. 'Nother minute or three and ye'd've been drowned up the wazoo."
I didn't like the sound of that. I attempted to say something witty and cynical but all that came out was a hacking cough and a few fluid ounces of seawater. "Not that I'm complaining, but why did you come back?" I croaked, dreading the answer, certain as I was that it would involve keelhauling or oceanic buggery.
"Well, I know we already asked ye if ye were rich or if ye knew of any buried treasure," he said, fiddling with the end of his hook as if he were making excuses to his manager for poor performance. "The thing is, some landlubber at a pub in Bristol sold us this treasure map that brought us 'ere and it turned out ter just be a hanky someone had sneezed on, and we don't really want to go back empty-'anded, so... we really are pretty desperate for somethin' to do with our time... and a lot of us were pretty drunk when we ran inter yeh so we thought ye might've said that ye did know about some treasure or riches and we'd misheard ye or somethin'... so 'ave ye got anything we can plunder?"
They were all looking at me hopefully, like puppies hoping their owner won't notice the enormous pile of poo in the corner. I decided that an entirely negative response would probably lead to loss of life, which would have been very tragic as my life and I were still getting re-acquainted.
"I've got a Stinger," I said, after a moment's thought.
The silence that followed was completely unbearable, so I felt compelled to constantly add to what I was saying. "That is, I did have a Stinger, but it was in my trouser pocket and my trousers are at the bottom of the sea. Around here. Somewhere."
"A Stinger," said the pirate, deadpan.
"Yeah. It's a kind of... chew bar. You know. You get them from vending machines. And corner shops."
There was a long silence, the kind of silence that can only ever end really really well or really really poorly. My agitation rose in direct proportion to the length of the silence. All I could do was sit and look from pirate to pirate, their beards, false or otherwise, concealing any facial expressions they might have had.
"Chew bar," said a pirate thoughtfully.
"I like chew bars," said another.
"Arr, that takes me back," mused a third pirate. "Every day after school I'd run to the corner shop and hand over me ten pee and the little old lady would say 'ye'll be wantin' yer chew bar now, won't ye me lad', and be chewing in me youthful bliss soon enough."
"Can't remember the last time I 'ad a chew bar."
"What kind of chew bar did ye say it was?"
"Er... a-a Stinger," I stammered. The pirates collectively made an appreciative sucking-in noise.
"Them's were me favourite chew bars to get."
"It were like a little chunk o' paradise on Earth, the Stinger."
"Most o' me school days were either unbearable or are lost to me in a fog of alcoholism, but I'll never forget me Stingers."
"Does anyone remember Highland Toffee?" This was met by a chorus of appreciative 'arr's.
"I used to like Wham bars meself."
"Or Roy of the Rovers!"
"Shiver me timbers, I used to love me chew bars."
"I loved 'em all."
"So," said a smug-looking pirate smugly. "One could almost say that we... treasured them?"
That provoked a lot of thoughtful 'arr's, stroking of beards, and unpatched eyes lighting up. I looked around for tell-tale signs of being under Fog Juice hallucination, such as clouds shaped like naughty bits or floor made of pudding, but it seemed I was still in reality, and I really had just bargained for my life and tempted booty-mad pirates with the promise of a single tangy chew bar.
"At the bottom of the ocean, ye said?" the pirate leader asked me.
I nodded. "In my trousers."
"Right then. All in favour of plunderin' this little twat's trousers for chewy treasure?"
"YARR," went everyone.
"YARR," went everyone again.
"Right, motion carried." He cast a look around at the darkening sky. "Everyone go to bed for the night, we'll start the treasure 'unt first thin' in the mornin'."
Then the pirates were moving around in a talkative bustle, like schoolchildren breaking up for the day, excited about the coming prospect of slightly soggy chew bars in colourful wrappers. I allowed myself a measure of relief and relaxed somewhat, until I remembered that I was still roped to the mast. "Hey!" I called out.
One of the pirates - most of them looked so alike it was difficult to tell which was which - glanced at me on his way below decks. "What?"
"Aren't you going to untie me?"
This seemed to confuse him. "Why would we do that?"
I had the words 'because it would be polite' prepared but I bit them off quickly, perhaps realising in a flash of inspiration that my current position was by no means the least comfortable place on the ship and I was sure the pirates would have been extremely imaginative in finding alternative accommodation. "Never mind."
Then I heard the hatch to below decks slam shut, and all was lonely and silent on the deck of the pirate ship, but for the distant sound of kegs being opened and colossal drunken roars. I experimented with rubbing the ropes up and down the mast, but the wood had been lovingly varnished and there was no friction to fray the hemp. I remembered hearing how escapologists can pop their shoulders from their sockets in a manner that was somehow helpful, but after a few minutes of experimentation I decided that this was a talent you probably had to be born with and my entire upper torso hurt like buggery.
But even if I could escape, what then? Jump overboard and get on with that drowning business? Crash the pirate's drinking party and hope to earn their respect on the karaoke machine? No, the best I could do was sit and wait for their return. I relaxed my muscles as best I could and watched the sun go down, trying to appreciate the sky slowly shifting from peach-pink to star-pocked jet black without feeling like too much of a hippy. I tried to fall asleep, but at that time I wasn't tired enough for exhaustion to trump discomfort. The rope was really chafing and there was a splinter sticking into my back. I heard a soft moan escape the lips of Penfold behind me, and decided that he could jolly well share my problems. "Hey," I hissed. "Wake up."
"No mum I'm just reading I promise..."
"I'm awake! I'm awake!" I felt the ropes tighten and slacken as Penfold made some panicky waking up movements. "Where am I?"
"We're on the pirate ship," I informed him. "Lucky for you I was able to talk my way onboard while you were messing around being passed out."
"Oh god," he moaned. "You're still alive."
"What was that?"
"I said, oh good, you're still alive."
"Yeah, well," I said modestly. "It's all about having the will to go on, you know."
We fell into silence after that. Well, there wasn't much that could be said. "What's going to happen to us?" he mumbled eventually.
"Don't worry. I bought our freedom," I assured him. "I sold them the location of my last chew bar."
"And what're they going to do once they find the chew bar?"
This thought sank into the pit of my stomach. "Tell you what, let's cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now we're not getting killed straight away and that's a plus in my book." Inwardly, though, it was a thought that troubled me. What would they do once they found the chew bar? Well, eat it, obviously, but what about in the long term? I doubted they would keep me alive as some kind of oracle for locations of sunken chew bar treasure.
"Hey," said Penfold after a miserable few minutes. "I can see someone moving around on deck."
I craned my neck, but it was hopeless with the mast in the way. "What do they look like?"
"Small," he concluded. "Can't see too well, it's all dark. Oh god."
"I think they're coming this way."
"Pretend to be asleep!"
Immediately we both hung our heads and erupted into a chorus of somewhat overdone snoring. I heard light footsteps becoming closer and closer, so I snored with increasing volume and desperation.
"Stop it," hissed a voice right by my ear. I stopped it. "Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once." The voice was speaking in a disguised whisper, so it was impossible to determine anything about the owner.
"O-okay," I whispered back.
"You do want to live, right?"
"The pirates won't need you around anymore after they find the chew bar. They'll probably let you decide how you want to be executed, so when they ask, tell them you want to join the crew. Hopefully the captain'll be agreeable, we lost some crew recently to a ninja attack so we've been looking for new blood. Got that?"
"I've got one little problem with the plan."
"I don't really want to be a pirate."
A heavy sigh filled my ear. It was rather warm and pleasant. "There's only two ways you're getting out of those ropes alive," said the voice patiently. "One is as a member of the crew. The second is for the short couple of minutes that will take for you to walk a plank. Pirates look after their own. Trust me."
"Fair enough. And you are?"
A telling pause. "You'll find out, Jim."
And then they were gone, leaving more questions than answers. I would have spent some time ruminating over them, but frankly I was too tired so I had a sleep.
The sight that I saw after falling out of the bottom of my subconscious world is difficult to describe in mere words. I could try to paint a picture, but frankly my artistic ability leaves a lot to be desired and it would look only slightly better than the result of a five year old spilling his used paint water on a piece of bog paper. For the sake of the reader, and more importantly my word count, I'll just try to describe what you can do to make something that looks vaguely similar.
First of all, you'll need to get hold of a string of white pearls, then put it under an expanding ray until each pearl is about the size of a car. I didn't say this was going to be easy. If you can't find an expanding ray, just hold the string of pearls really, really close to your eyes so that they look really huge. Secondly, paint all the pearls with incandescent paint, so that each pearl is itself a source of light, and that no shadows fall upon them. If possible see if you can find a paint that makes the whiteness of the pearl look like so much more than just being white in hue. It should be a whiteness so complete that conventional white looks more like a dirty beige. It was like every sphere was like some kind of open gateway to a dimension of eternal, absolute white.
Once you have your string of pearls, acquire as many identical strings of pearls as possible, preferably an infinite amount, or so many that they look like an infinite amount at first glance. Then, fill a swimming pool with water and empty several pots of multicoloured ink into it, so that clouds of red, blue and green swirl luxuriously throughout the fluid. You might also want to arrange some waterproof Christmas lights around. Once your pool is ready, dive in, maintain your position a few feet below the surface and arrange your pearls so that they all float around above and below you in tangles and knots. That'll give you some idea of what I found myself looking at. This was my first glimpse of Fogworld, and I'm not too proud to say I was quite stunned by the sheer unrelenting beauty of it all, as I clung like a monkey to the underside of the sphere from which I had emerged.
But soon enough I saw what I think the tentacled king had been referring to, the thing he wanted me to see. Far above, and far below, I could see the clusters of pearls that stretched away infinitely into the distance, presumably the pearls that existed for every human being that has lived, has ever lived and will ever come to live. And there was a dark figure up there, leaping from sphere to sphere, who looked extremely out of place in this realm of perfect serenity. Whenever it touched a sphere, that sphere darkened into greyness, losing some of its glorious shine. Instantly I knew that that dark figure was some kind of corrupting influence, and that no right-thinking person (like say for instance me) could tolerate it to exist any longer. I swung myself up onto the top of my personal realm, and a twisting, curving path of spheres stretched away before me and behind me like a spiral staircase. I began to follow the path upwards towards my enemy, taking one last mournful look back at my own sphere.
It was then I realised that my pearl looked markedly different to the ones around it. It was not the bright whiteness that most of them had, nor the dirty grey of the tainted ones, but a glorious shining gold, and a big neon sign bearing my full name flashed on and off just to the side. I wondered why this was so.
Then I woke up.