NINE


And so, I became a pirate.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've had a pretty bad track record with employment. My first job was as a paperboy, which I lost after a week. I had a tendency to get bored, smear the newsprint stains from my hands all over my face and start singing Al Jolson songs on top of cars, and that rather rubbed up the denizens of upper middle class suburbs the wrong way. My second job was at an electrical retailer. I lost that the same day I started. Again while bored, I had shrink-wrapped my knob and attached an 'if not satisfied return within ten days for full refund' sticker, and the female employee I had been trying to impress turned out to live in an upper middle class suburb. Then there was the brief period I worked as an apprentice demon hunter, which had been fun for a time, but then there was a zombie invasion in an upper middle class suburb and the residents sent a record number of complaints to the agency for the manner in which I used the entrails of zombies to put on a puppet show for the local children. And of course the less said about Accountancy Island the better.

But piracy turned out to be a surprisingly fulfilling and enjoyable career, and I found myself wearing my eyepatch and bandanna with more pride than I had felt wearing any other uniform. We were literally thousands of miles away from the nearest upper middle class suburb, and the things I did while bored would usually be met, not with complaints or derision, but with a round of applause followed by a round of drinks. I experimented with this phenomenon in my first week, and not even shrink-wrapping my knob offended any of my new workmates, especially since Incorrigible Simon used his for a multitude of everyday tasks.

Let me say this right now - I don't care if your party takes place ankle-deep in cocaine in a brothel on the moon, it couldn't possibly have been one tenth as fun as a pirate party. And pirates really love their parties. 'Parties', of course, is an anagram of 'pirates', but you probably shouldn't read much into that. Any occasion warranted a party. Birthdays, retirements, a really decent plunder, the monthly wage payment, or, if all else failed, the sun setting in the evening. Even being unable to get drunk didn't bother me, because the pirates had all become really keen on chew bars. We made a point of plundering chew bar cargo ships whenever we saw one, and there was always a pile of Stingers to chew on at the parties.

But it wasn't all good times and grog on the good ship Black Pudding, as she was named. There was work to be done as well. Whenever we saw a commercial vessel like a cargo freighter or a cruise ship we'd always have to plunder it. Sometimes we didn't even want to plunder it. Maybe our cargo decks were already full of booty or we had pressing engagements elsewhere. But when we see a civilian vessel, and they start trying to flee from us, and you can just imagine how terrified the crew are, it almost feels discourteous not to give them the chase they expect. And then of course it's down with the boarding planks and over on the swingy ropes to start waving cutlasses threateningly and going 'aharr'.

And then there was the curious ritual that took place when we crossed paths with another pirate ship. Both ships would instantly raise their red flags and a short, somewhat half-hearted cannon battle would take place. Then the ships would get in close to each other, mutually latch on like seaborne lovers, and both crews would swarm all over each other's ships carefully pretending to stab everyone with cutlasses. If you got stabbed through the armpit you were then expected to lie down and spectate, and the losing crew was whichever crew's captain got pretend-stabbed first. Then everyone would get back up and we'd party all night. These events became more common when the Black Pudding started gaining a reputation around the south Pacific as 'that ship where they have all the chew bars'. In the captain's words, it was rather flattering to be the designated tuck shop of the pirating world.

After I had decided on my pirate outfit, coating my left leg in varnish to simulate a wooden prosthesis, my official pirate christening came when I was given an adjective. As you may have already grasped, a pirate name is always the pirate's real first name preceded by an adjective. At first, after the performance at the drinking contest, I was renowned as Iron-Bladdered Jim, but after I complained that this was an awkward name, they started calling me Dissatisfied Jim. Then I was in something of a bind, because if I complained about that then it would only become more fitting.

Penfold, to my eternal surprise, seemed to be fitting in quite well. When the pirates realised how much easier and less violent the divvying up of booty became with an accountant on board, his execution was postponed for increasingly lengthy amounts of time before it was generally accepted to have been cancelled altogether. While he felt awkward socialising with the pirates, and preferred the company of the account logs deep in the ship's darkest storage holds, the crew did seem to like having him around, and spoke proudly to other pirate crews of their pet accountant. They gave him a nip of grog once, and he spent the rest of the evening bent over the side.

I was also surprised at how well the pirates accepted Rose. She had apparently committed some amazing feat of pirate derring-do while under the influence of Fog Juice, and now they held total respect for her. Of course, she had absolutely no memory of what that feat was, but had decided not to ask on the basis that some things are best left unknown.

I was all set to get on with the whole relationship thing, and muse together on what an old romantic Fate must be to have us run into each other again, but she seemed to blame me irrationally for us being trapped on the far side of the world and wasn't having any of it. Besides, she was becoming obsessed with the task of banishing Bulstrode's evil astral form from Fogworld, and spoke of little else.

I wish I could say we were making any headway in that regard, but our efforts were in vain. Every night the two of us would enter Fogworld, and every night Bulstrode would dive into the safety of his repellent sphere the instant he saw us. We tried summoning astral harpoons and astral Kalashnikovs, but he just developed an astral suit of armour. Meanwhile more and more of humanity's white realms were becoming greyed with each night, and our efforts were doing nothing more than slowing Bulstrode's eventual takeover.

"What worries me," said Rose to me over breakfast in the galley one morning, "is what kind of havoc all those grey realms are causing in the real world."

"Mm, these eggs are nice, aren't they," said Penfold, next to me, who always felt left out when we started talking about this.

"I haven't noticed any changes," I pointed out.

"Of course not. On this ship we're completely isolated from the rest of the Earth. For all we know Bulstrode's turned the entire land-based population into his mindless slaves."

"I've never been able to make eggs as nice as this," said Penfold, buttering toasty soldiers. "I must have a word with the cook."

"You're over-reacting," I said, taking a bite of Stinger. "He can only take over one realm at a time. The people he's tainted are probably scattered uselessly all over the world."

"You could try and be a bit less blasť about the whole thing," huffed Rose huffily. "It is entirely your fault that Bulstrode is loose in Fogworld."

"Look, the yolk's all runny but a bit solid as well, I like that."

"Hey. At the time I didn't think the loss of my balls was worth the price. I did all I could. I tried to fob him off once with Orange Julius and he wouldn't have fallen for it the second time."

"I like Orange Julius," muttered Penfold.

"Well, no sense arguing about that now," conceded Rose. "It's obvious we're making no headway with the current arrangement. I think we should be trying to do what our spirit guides were telling us to do. We have to find the Warrior and the Water-bearer. And whatever your one was."

"The Gatekeeper."

"The Gatekeeper, yes."

"I could really go for some Orange Julius now, actually."

"But we haven't the slightest idea what they are," I said. "They could be people, or places, or mangoes for all we know."

Rose drummed her fingers impatiently on the tabletop. "Maybe we could ask the captain. He's been keeping an eye out for an adventure to go on. He might be into going on a quest."

"Worth a try, I suppose."

"I think I'll just go and ask the cook if he could make me some Orange Julius."

So, after breakfast Rose and I went to the captain's quarters just off the main deck, and since we were now tough, grizzled pirates who didn't care about the morality of everyday society, we let ourselves in without knocking.

The captain's quarters and attached office looked exactly like what an office would look like if it were owned by a pirate captain who only knew what offices were supposed to look like from the occasional snippet of information from civilian office workers on cruise ships given to him in the short period before he stabbed them. He had an MFI self-assembly desk up against the wall that wobbled when you leant on it, on which sat a little pen holder full of big feather quills. In a nearby bookcase there were several cardboard filing boxes full of yellowing parchments and treasure maps.

"Arr, if it isn't the hard drinker," said the captain, whose name, incidentally, was Bancroft. "And the lady who committed the amazin' feat of pirate derrin'-do that we never talk about. What can I do for ye two this mornin'?"

"Captain Bancroft," said Rose. "We have a proposal for you."

"Very flattered, but I'm married to the sea -"

"There is a world outside of our own," she continued. "It lies a thousand miles and yet also the thickness of a shadow away. An astral realm of human consciousness -"

"Is there a short version?" interrupted the captain.

"Basically, we're sort of in the middle of this quest to stop the total enslavement of our subconscious minds," I said, because Rose appeared to be sulking. "Long story short, we have to find these three things called the Gatekeeper, the Warrior and the Water-bearer, and we figured since you're looking for a quest to go on we could, you know, go on this one, as a crew."

He stroked his beard. "Interestin'. These three thin's, this Gatekeeper, Warrior and the other one. 'Ow much do you estimate they'd be worth?"

"Well... we don't know. We don't even know what they are."

He didn't look convinced. "Hm. D'ye think there'd be any opportunity to plunder some thin's on the way?"

"Oh yes," said Rose, who understood her captain. "Definitely."

"Hm. Alright. I presume ye have a treasure map?"

"Er, no."

"Directions given to ye by a mysterious old man in a bar just before 'e died?"

"No."

"Any rough idea at all of their locations?"

"No," said Rose testily. "But if we don't find them, then humanity will be subjugated."

"Well, try and see thin's from my point of view, boys and girls," said Bancroft, leaning back and interlacing his hands behind his head. "If I agree to all this then I have to go out there to the crew and say 'Ahoy thar lads, Rosie and Jim 'ave this great idea to go questing for these three thingies of indeterminate value they have 'eard vague thin's about. We've absolutely no idea where or even what they are, but if we find them then we'll succeed in saving humanity from a thick shadow or somethin' like that'. They're not goin' to be oozin' with confidence in my decision-makin' abilities. I 'ave a ship to run."

"But this is really important," protested Rose.

"I'm sure ye think so, but my position is clear. If ye do find a treasure map or directions or a map reference or anythin' like that then come right back and I'd be 'appy to set us going, but in the meantime we'll just get on with trying to fill our plunderin' quota for the week." Then he ushered us out, and we were back on deck.

Lost in thought, Rose trudged over to the mizzenmast, the one I had so recently been lashed to wearing nothing but pants, and leaned against it, trying to think. I dutifully took up position next to her. "Nice day," I commented.

"Okay," she said. "So what now? He was right, we don't know enough to go questing for them. Maybe we should ask our spirit guides for more information."

"Oh, you know what spirit guides are like, they'll just make up some cosmic riddle crap. I think you're getting obsessed with this whole Fogworld thing. It's a nice day. Let's do some fishing."

She didn't even respond to that, so I just sighed and watched the activity on the main deck. The pirates, unaware of the threat of Bulstrode that hung right over their bandannas, went about their daily business. There were pirates rolling drums of grog into storage. There were pirates manning the sails and the steering wheel. There were pirates clinging to the rigging waving their cutlasses going 'aharr'. And then there was...

Then there was Irritable Pete, who was standing around on deck apparently not doing anything. He stood stiffly, arms hanging loosely by his sides, staring... directly at me. He wasn't the biggest pirate onboard, and his grog-gut was only getting bigger, but he was making me feel very uncomfortable. He began to walk towards me, in the kind of slow, deliberate plod familiar to patrons of Friday the 13th films, and as he drew nearer I perceived that his face was twisted into a look of placid but obvious hatred.

"Er," I erred when he was mere feet away, and some kind of greeting was obviously expected. "Morning, Pete?"

He kept on walking, and for a moment I thought he was going to attempt to walk straight through me like a ghost until he stopped dead with his face inches away from mine. He was a little bit shorter than me, but I can't remember anyone making me feel more intimidated than I did just then. His cruel mouth pinned open in a sneer.

"Bulstrode sends his regards," he said.

Then he started strangling me.

Not the kind of jokey strangling my mother did to me when she was whimsically annoyed. This was the kind of very professional strangling that was very much intended to do someone serious damage, the sort my mum did to me most of the rest of the time. A leathery thumb was digging into my windpipe and my vision was darkening. And no matter how many times I kicked Pete in the goolies, or how many times Rose smashed bottles over Pete's head and screamed in his ear, he didn't let go. He didn't even seem to notice, not even when I distinctly felt something rupture between his legs.

"Pete, stop!" I tried to say, but it came out sounding more like "glurrraaaaagh". Some other pirates had noticed the situation, now, and were debating whether to intervene or clap along with the rhythm of the fight. The world was now beginning to shift as my eyes started rotating backwards into my skull. It was clear that no-one was coming to my rescue anytime soon, and so it was up to me to neutralise Pete's hitherto unknown murderous tendencies. I reached behind me and grabbed the mast against which I was pinned, then brought up my legs and drove both feet into Pete's torso as hard as I could. He fell back, releasing his grip, and oxygen flooded gratefully into my body once again.

He was already getting up to continue his assault. The important thing was to react, not think, because each second spent thinking is a second that could have been spent putting the boot in. I stamped on his solar plexus, winding him, then ran across the deck and grabbed a three-legged stool just before he got up and resumed his murder. Now armed, I was able to keep him at bay, hatefully spitting and growling on the end of the chair like an angry lion, until someone fetched the captain.

"What's all this then?" he demanded. "What did ye do to Pete?"

"Nothing!" I said, trying with difficulty to keep Pete at bay while staying out of range of his spraying drool. "I didn't do anything, he just came at me!"

This was swiftly confirmed by Rose and a few other nearby witnesses. "Get 'im down to the brig," ordered the captain. It took five burly pirates to restrain Pete to the point where he could be dragged off, and all the way to the hatch he was struggling to get at me, clawing with his hands, gibbering incoherently through a pile of foam where his mouth should have been.

"'Ow odd," said the captain. "I've never seen Irritable Pete get so angry over nothin'. Except when 'e's drunk."

"Or sober," said someone else.

"Or bored," said another someone else.

"Jim," said Rose, getting my attention with a touch on the shoulder. "It was Bulstrode. He took over Pete's mind in Fogworld."

"Yeah," I said. "I figured that out, like, ages ago."

"There's going to be more like this. We have to find a way to stop him."

"Yeah, that's what I'm thinking."

On the opposite side of the deck, a figure in black stood watching for a second, then disappeared, unnoticed by me or the pirates. I would explain how I knew he was there, then, if I didn't notice him at the time, but I am disinclined to.