As the ship collapsed, the broken pieces didn’t smash into the crew or hit us as we fell into the water. It was like sections of the boat were coming apart and returning to their previous incarnation, like a movie running backwards. It was a controlled implosion.
Hitting the water and sinking below the surface was less controlled, at least for me. I’m not a bad swimmer, I can keep my head above water (literally and figuratively) but the suddenness of my drop into the ocean caught me a little off guard, and I swallowed a lungful of water before I remembered I was an air-breathing mammal.
I managed to make my way back to the surface, to find myself surrounded by the rest of the crew of the Eternal Infinite splashing around. Captain Somya swam past me with his mother perched on his shoulders, followed by a flotilla of sailors. They were all heading in the same direction — the other ship.
It was hard to see anyone not directly in front of me, so I had no idea where Biadet or Laney were, but they were probably fine. Richina was also out of sight, which was a bit more worrying. She had been untied, so she should have been able to swim, unless she chose not to. There was no point worrying about it now, though.
My priority was to get out of the water. At least we had another vessel, and if the welcome wasn’t friendly, then I’d have to return to the island. The islanders would be delighted to see me, I was sure.
Captain Nokes’ crew were actually helping people out of the water. There may have been a maritime code that obliged you to help people in a shipwreck, or the Council ship may have been full of decent people being nice — this world was never short of something strange and unexpected to surprise me with. In any case, they lowered ropes and netting to aid our rescue, and we were soon standing on the deck, shivering wet.
A quick look around revealed Biadet and Laney over to one side, with Richina standing near them, bedraggled. From the looks of it, Laney had got them both out of the water, and probably quite a few others, too. I say that mainly because of the way she was strutting around like everyone owed her their lives, and the way everyone was avoiding looking at her like they resented her for being so smug about it.
Captain Nokes came down from the poop deck towards Captain Somya, who was taking care of his mother. Then he walked past Somya and stopped in front of me. I had more or less forgotten that I was supposed to be in charge, and I hadn’t really formulated how best to deal with matters. Act aggressive and shirty? Be conciliatory and friendly? It’s hard to know the best way to deal with tough guys when you aren’t one.
“The Council has ordered me to keep you here until they give further instructions,” he said.
“Where are they now?” I asked.
“You will remain in your quarters until then,” he said, ignoring me.
I wasn’t in the mood to be treated like his prisoner. Whatever had happened, I still intended to maintain control of my own movements, restricted as they might be. They would be a lot less restricted, though, if I had a ship of my own.
“Thank you for rescuing us, Captain,” I said. “I think it would be best if you took us back to Gorgoth. The Council can contact me there, if they feel like it. Don’t make me have to kill you and take your ship.”
I squeezed the water out of my shirt. I would have taken it off, but I felt a bit shy in front of so many people (most of whom had muscles and tattoos all over the place). I was willing to kill them all, but seeing their reactions when they saw the state of me undressed wasn’t something I was ready to face.
Captain Nokes looked like he was about to object, or laugh dismissively.
“That won’t be necessary,” said Commander Grayson, who had appeared behind Nokes. “We will do as you ask.” He placed a hand on Nokes’ shoulder.
It amazes me how men — and I mean real manly men — can interact so easily with each other, knowing where their boundaries are without having to have them pointed out. I couldn’t tell you even with an app. What kind of male to male relationship makes hugging a normal thing? When can you cry in front of each other? How do you go two up on a girl and not admit to it being super gay? The whole macho thing’s always been a mystery to me.
Nokes stepped away from Grayson. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I have my orders.”
And then there’s the next level. The willingness to fight, no hatred, no real animosity. Afterwards, shake hands and treat each other like brothers.
Until I came to this world, I’d never been in a physical fight. I did everything I could to avoid it, and succeeded very nicely. Even if I won (which I was sure wouldn’t happen), I’d have a great deal of pain and discomfort to deal with. And rather than a handshake and mutual respect, I’d have to watch out for the bitter loser jumping me from behind one night with a crowbar.
My goal in this world had always been to not fight unless absolutely necessary, and when that was the case, end it as quickly as possible. Which usually meant with a fatality.
I didn’t want to kill people, but I knew they would be more dangerous than before if they survived.
Why did I never get the respect others got? Why were my victories viewed as flukes or unfairly achieved? I’m not saying they weren’t, I’m saying every other person’s knockdown was achieved the same way. Fair fights are rare, they just get promoted that way. My problem, it seemed, was bad PR.
Having Grayson on my side was nice, but if it turned into a full-on mutiny, it would get messy. Nokes’ men outnumbered us, but we had the advantage of a few ringers. That was if the Council hadn’t left him with some arcane device that made us all fall to the ground writhing in agony. I was English; we don’t do writhing, whether it’s pleasure or pain.
“Captain,” I said, “I’d rather not make this into an altercation. I’m happy to leave the ship in your command and to do as the Council wish.”
Mr Cooperative, that’s me. Why fight over nothing when we can help each other out and be friends, right? Look at how well the hippies did. They changed the world with peace and love. And then, when everyone was digging the chill vibes, they fucked each other over as hard as they could. The 80s weren’t the decade of greed and corporate ascendancy by accident. The hippies had just been waiting to attack, fucking animals.
I got close enough to Captain Nokes to touch him. He didn’t look too concerned. He was a big man, towering over me. His body was fat, but in the way Russell Crowe looks a bit fat, like he could use that fat to beat you senseless with.
“I will make my personal cabin available to you.” He was simply doing his job, like a professional.
“Thank you,” I said, and I slipped out of my body.
There were many things I could do in this form — probably a lot more I hadn’t even discovered yet — but I always seemed to end up doing weird shit that didn’t seem quite right. My whole experience with my ability felt like a guy trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver. You can bang that sucker in using the handle, but it didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. I think what I was missing was the feeling that I too was acting in a professional manner. First, though, I’d have to figure out what my profession was.
This time around, I spent what must have been half an hour connecting my fingertips to the hairs growing out of Captain Nokes’ face. He had large mutton chops that gave him a wonderful naval quality. A whole life spent on the waves, men under his command, all encapsulated in that facial hair, every follicle dipped in brine.
I returned to my body and lowered my hand. With a snap, followed by a rather unmanly scream, his sideburns on one side peeled off his face and landed in my palm.
Not necessarily the classiest move, but I needed a sample and I couldn’t be bothered to come up with a subtle way of getting it. Saliva from the rim of a glass he’d taken a sip from? Get the fuck out of here.
The direct route was the only way to get this over with as quickly as I could. My aim was to be done, not to win plaudits for subtlety.
Nokes’ face on one side was inflamed red. The hairs had come out rather unevenly, leaving it looking like he’d tried to shave with sandpaper. If I ever gave someone a bikini wax, this wasn’t the way to do it. Unless that person was a hated enemy; but then why would you give your enemy a bikini wax?
“I have decided to make you suffer, Mr Bond. Oddjob, I have an extremely odd job for you.”
It wasn’t like Nokes was bleeding, not really. The salt air probably stung a little, but he was a man. A real man — you could tell by the way his eyes watered without actually letting the tears leave him.
I turned around and gave the handful of hair to Mrs Somya. Everyone else was just staring at me. This was what I meant by bad PR. No one had a fucking clue what I had just done, or why. You really can’t impress people if they don’t know the point of your actions. But at the same time, an impressionist who has to start each impression by naming who he’s doing defeats the whole object.
Captain Nokes managed to regain some of his composure and the power of speech. His voice was a bit higher-pitched and had a warble to it that wasn’t present before, but he was able to express himself once again.
“What did you just do?” he bellowed at me. “What kind of monster are you?”
This was a common response to my behaviour, like I was the one out of order for not following some unwritten rulebook. The way I see it, any rules that are designed to make sure you lose don’t have to be obeyed. Once I’ve won, feel free to appeal to the referee. Oh, there isn’t one? Then let me be the first to offer my condolences, you fucking loser.
“This feels disgusting,” said Mrs Somya, scrunching up the handful of hair I’d just given her. “What is it?”
“You said you needed a sample from the captain for the doll.”
She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. My unusual form of combat would be even more inexplicable if there turned out to be no reason for it. I’d have to pretend I was insane and do a bunch of random things to seal the deal. It wasn’t actually a bad backup plan. Maybe they’d drop me off on an island for lunatics (so any land mass, really).
Mrs Somya’s milky white eyes stared at me, unseeing yet penetrating, and then she burst into a maniacal laugh. “I had you there, didn’t I?” She pulled out a doll of Captain Nokes and stuffed the bloody hairs inside it.
Captain Nokes, the full-sized version, had a bit of fit, or maybe it was a sailor’s jig, and then he straightened up and looked at Mrs Somya with a blank expression, which was still filled with more respect and admiration than he’d ever shown me.
“Right,” I said to the waiting throng (waiting to rip my head off, most likely). “We’re going back to Gorgoth. Anyone who wants to stay here, jump overboard now or forever hold your peace. I’m off to the captain’s cabin to hold mine.”
I gave Captain Somya a nod, gave Grayson a pat on the arm, and set off like I knew where the fucking captain’s cabin was.
It’s not easy being in charge, especially in this crazy world. The pressure, the hard choices, the lack of good wifi, it tipped every conflict into unpleasant territory. Like the English premier league, there were no easy wins. Apart from Crystal Palace, obviously.
The captain’s cabin was pointed out to me by a helpful sailor who recognised me for what I truly was, a sad fuck in desperate need of a lie down. There is basic decency in all people, I think, you just have to be in a terrible condition to bring it out of them. Starving child covered in flies? Oh, now we’ll help.
Once I closed the cabin door, I sat on the small bed that barely looked big enough to contain Nokes, but was nice and roomy for me. I stared at the opposite, unable to function. People don’t really understand until they experience it themselves, but when you’re under immense mental pressure, even if it’s fairly mundane in nature — looking after a baby, dealing with an invalid parent, supporting Crystal Palace — those times you get to be on your own, away from your responsibilities, don’t offer much in the way of respite. You stare at the wall, because walls don’t make demands.
The ship began to move. Shouts and yells drifted down to me, letting me know the journey back was underway. The Council wouldn’t be happy I’d overridden their orders, but what were they going to do? Demote me to Billy-no-mates? The fact I was still here was remarkable enough, every extra moment was mine to do with as I pleased.
Something was poking me. I put my hand in one of my pockets and took out a pair of glasses. He had got these that first day in Probet. He could have got a better pair made, probably, but he never did.
My cheeks were hot. Red with anger? Shame? Guilt? I couldn’t name the emotion, I’d never experienced it before. Maybe I’d discovered it and it didn’t have a name, pioneer that I was. There was a burning sensation, like an STD of the face. Maybe I was just pissed.
What was I even doing going back to Gorgoth? If Peter and Arthur wanted to have it out via their proxies, who was I to interfere? Claire had come and gone without even saying hello, like I wasn’t even part of it. It was my unearned arrogance that made me think this was all about me. Claire had come for something, and she probably got it. I was just someone on the sidelines. Not even Maurice’s death was enough to make her take a detour, which I guess meant it was all very important, whatever ‘it’ was.
“You’re feeling sorry for yourself,” said Wesley, inside my head.
“Yes,” I said. “Who knows when I’ll get another chance?”
“It won’t solve anything,” she said.
“Yeah, it will. Dwelling on the bad things that happened to me in the past stops me thinking about the bad things that are going to happen in the future.”
“Now, you’re being maudlin.” Then she slapped me in the face, from the inside.
I don’t know how she did it, but it fucking hurt. It was so unexpected, I burst out laughing, and then I started crying, and then I felt a lot better.
The door opened and Biadet came in. She didn’t knock, which was like her, but she had used the door to enter, which wasn’t. She looked terrible, dark rings around her eyes, grey around the gills (she probably did have gills, just not where I could see them). She ignored me and flopped onto the bed face-first and just lay there.
“I could heal you, you know?”
“That wouldn’t be good,” she said into the sheets, “for you.”
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me what Peter’s really after, or what the secret plan is, do you?”
“I can’t.” I wasn’t sure if she meant she wasn’t allowed, or she didn’t know, or if she was about to throw up. In any case, she remained lying face down. My WMD, sick as a dog. “Do you know your problem?”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” I said. “I have 99 problems and a....” I realised I was about to make an inaccurate statement, and we all know how much Jay Z hates that. “I have one hundred problems, Biadet. Which one are you referring to?”
“You think too much.”
She was right, but what could I do? I’d have to think about it.
The door opened again and Damicar entered carrying a tray of food. “I thought you might be peckish, so I whipped up a few nibbles. Nothing fancy.”
It smelled great. Even Biadet perked up. Well, she tilted her head and sniffed. I was busy stuffing my face with whatever it was he’d made (pastry was involved) when the door opened once more.
“Why are you all in here?” demanded Laney. “Why wasn’t I told we were having a meeting? What is the next stage of the plan? I believe our strategy should be to prepare for war.”
The next stage? It was endearing that she thought there had been a previous stage. Or that there was a plan at all.
“Okay, I guess this is the team, just the five of us. Here’s how we’re going to win against all these fucks.” I put Maurice’s glasses back in my pocket.