The sea was like a poorly maintained road. Troughs were like potholes, dumping the ship into a gap to slam with a shudder against the far crest. Much like … well … like a poorly maintained road. Only, the sea’s flaws were more regular and therefore, somehow, more annoying.
I had never been on a cruise, so I wasn’t prepared for the rhythm. Knowing we were setting sail, I had avoided breakfast. I didn’t want to reveal my lack of sea legs (which is an odd term for a weak stomach) if I could avoid it.
I leaned on the gunwale, just in case, but tried to look the stolid sailor. The sun above beat down on my head. There were no clouds, just a clean stretch of blue from horizon to horizon to … horizon. However you count round edges in two dimensions. I thought about it to keep my mind off the swell. There’s only one horizon, and we imagine multiple horizons due to our limited field of vision. Yup, that was the answer.
High in the sky was the crescent of the third moon, the first one I had seen on the beach. The one for which I had no name. One of the two that apparently did not drive the tides. Too small perhaps. Not massive enough, and thus on closer orbits. I expected them to occult the familiar moon in a superior position, in full view passing across the disc of ancient Luna.
“It gets you in the gut the first time.” I turned to see a bushy haired sailor grinning an absurdly positive smile at me through a braided beard. Did none of these men ever visit a barber? “The second time, it’s mostly in your head. Which is worse.”
I tried to be funny. “And the third time?”
He enjoyed my forced humor. He wasn’t working, and he wasn’t sleeping, which meant he wasn’t on a watch. An idler like me. A day man, to rehearse the lingo.
He thrust a dirty hand toward my chest. “I am Robert McCorran! I found you!”
“You did indeed find me.”
“I mean, on the beach.” His eyebrows kissed each other. “When you arrived.”
I took his hand but he did most of the shaking. “You’re Bob the Hippie.”
He grimaced with resigned amusement. “Ah, they call me that. Maybe it was fitting when I first got here.”
I spoke, partly to still my stomach. “And now?”
“I’ve learned to lean a bit more right in the interim.” He smiled, and it was all happy hippie. His powder blue eyes were manic. “Non-violent resistance takes on a different shadow when you’ve already been shot in the face and lived.”
It took me longer than it should have to make sense of that. “Who killed you?”
“Some poor National Guardsman who was no more comfortable holding a rifle than you are standing on the deck of a brig.”
I look back at the ship, its decks, its curves, its sails. “A brig? Is that what this is?”
“It’s the sail plain,” Bob said. “The mainmast, there.” He pointed. “It has a gaff-rigged sail for maneuverability.”
“How did you learn about it?”
“The sail plan?”
I was breathing a little hard, and not from the sea. “How did you learn about your killer?”
“Oh. He turned the same rifle on himself a few days later. Poor fellow. A solid hawk, until he actually drew blood. We sailed together, here in the World Facing, through the 1970s. I learned a lot about the other side from him, and he from me. My best friend here until Redbeard’s crew got hold of him.”
That’s a hell of a coincidence. There must be millions of new arrivals every year, and these two found each other? Maybe my old starboard watch shipmates locating Prince wasn’t such a long shot after all.
But something else, too. “You said he shot you, and himself, with a rifle?”
“Yup. Basic military issue—”
“So, you know about rifling?” I shook off the seasickness. I was suddenly angry again. My fingers closed tight on the gunwale. “Others have known about rifling. Why has no one brought it up?”
“What?” Bob looked genuinely confused. “Rifles?”
“In centuries, why has no newly arriving soul brought knowledge of rifling here?”
His face maintained its sympathetic positivity, the smile framed by that braided beard still smiling, but there was a hint of remorse in it. “Knowing about something and being able to do something. Different things, eh?”
I took this in. Fought seasickness to process it.
“You know about sculpture?” He smiled that stoner, peacenik smile. “But can you sculpt?”
“No, but I can probably rifle guns. Millions of engineers, thousands who actually rifled guns as a living, must have come through here.”
“Oh yeah,” he giggled. “But most of the newly arriving souls don’t last a day.”
“The captain told me they get killed or take their own lives.”
Bob nodded sideways. “Plenty of them. Most of ’em drop into the sea.”
Yellowbeard had lied to me again. “Drop into the sea? What? At random?”
“Seems so. Who’s lucky enough show up on land are trick of fate, I guess.”
I stared down into the ship’s wake. My head was shaking. Was I a trick of fate? Might I just as readily, or even far more likely, have fallen from some car’s brutal bumper into an unexpected ocean to slowly weaken and drown in the rhythm of the waves as I freaked the fuck out about what was happening? Why? Is that the fate of most people who died in the World of Things? Why? What would be the point?
I looked out over a broad field of salty potholes that had almost been a confusing, watery interim between my unexpected demise at the hands of some poor urban motorist and my final reward. I was sick, but not in my stomach. And not in my head. Somewhere deeper.
“But, Bob. You met your own killer.”
“That’s got to be,” I made an exhaling, fricative sound in my throat for which there is no descriptive term in English. “Ridiculously improbable.”
“It is, I suppose.”
“Why?!” My hand swung out, as if to strike at someone. Bob stepped back, grinning at me like I was having a bad trip. The men on the deck stopped moving. They stared at me, holding ropes and bags and struggling goats.
Juan de la Hoz shook his mustache at me, his arms full of goat. “Jack! The captain, he is sleeping. Don’t wake him.”
I scanned the rest of the starboard watch and nodded apologetically. Juan laughed, then sneezed.
“Goats!” he chuckled. “Now, I am allergic to goats!”
“The smith will need assistants. Maybe five.” I tried to pick at my goat meat frugally.
“You’re bartering,” the captain laughed. “Over goat. How very Turkish of you.”
I was confused about that until I remembered the age he’d come from.
“I’m just engineering. I’d like to start rifling all five sets of guns at once.”
“You talked to our quartermaster today? Bob.”
He shoved a bottle across the table. I took it and sipped. Rum this time. “I did. Talked to him about rifling.”
“I took you for an engineer.” His dirty face was disappointed. He waved his hand and slapped it on the arm of the chair. “Why must you act like a philosopher? Why must you dig?”
I took a deeper swig and slid the bottle back across the table. “You lied to me.”
Yellowbeard shook his yellow beard and stood out of his chair. He leaned to look out the window and stare out into the night sky behind the ship. The brig. Whatever the fuck it was. The Dirty Lantern was a bit more high in the sky than last time.
“For Saint Peter’s Sake, you sorry piece of shit.” He snatched the cocked hat from his head and threw it to the floor. “Can’t you just be my engineer?”
I rubbed one of the table’s badly designed braces with my bare toe. “I am being an engineer. I’m taking apart the machine.”
He ground his white teeth together. “Some machines explode when you take them apart.”
“You lied to me about why there are so few—” I found myself at a loss for terms.
He sighed and turned back to the sea. He leaned heavy on both hands and shook his filthy blond curls. “Yes, Bob told me all about it. So most of those who die there end up in the drink here. They drown unless a ship comes by to snatch them out of the sea.”
I shook my head. “But, why?”
He turned his dirty face toward me. “Why do you fucking care so fucking much?”
I leaned forward to scoop up a bit of goat and took a bite.
“You invited me into a conversation about how this world doesn’t make sense.”
He huffed a single laugh at that. Boots clomped, heel to toe, as he made his way dramatically back to his chair. He sat in it.
“You prodded me into that conversation. I merely accepted your invitation.”
I swallowed the meat. “Fair enough. But the conversation is started, nonetheless.”
He set a hand on the table, as if to steady himself. But he was surely a veteran of the ship’s rocking in the waves. He was settling himself against the conversation.
“You offered something,” he said. There was resignation in the words. I figured that into my calculations.
“I offered rifling.”
He nodded, the dirty yellow curls scraping against red calico. “You said you were an engineer. I knew about rifling. I’d known for centuries. I hungered for it, lusted for it. Knew the other pirate lords must know about it as well. I played dumb. I wanted to make sure that you knew about it. Really knew about it. I wanted to make sure you knew how to do it.”
“A trick of fate,” I said.
He nodded again. “Yes. This place is full of tricks.”
Yellowbeard was full of tricks. But, he was also the shrewdest man I knew in this world. Juan was jolly but simple. Same for the rest of my starboard watch shipmates. Bob was still just a happy hippie, I was sure, despite his Road to Damascus conversion narrative. If I wanted to understand the World Facing, Yellowbeard was my best partner. And, he was apparently one of the six most powerful men on those potholed seas.
“It’s not random,” I said. “The souls that are retrieved. The souls that survive, that meet. There’s got to be a pattern.”
He laughed morbidly. “A pattern. More like a puzzle. A lock with a poisoned pin.”
“Bob meets his killer. They work things out.”
Yellowbeard sighed and nodded. “Before poor Jim gets tortured by Redbeard’s men.”
“Tortured?” That’s a new spin on the data.
“Jack, you knew it.”
He pursed his chapped lips. “John. You knew there was more to that story. If you want to know why Bob met his killer, why wouldn’t others want to know?”
“Redbeard wanted to know.” I leaned over to drag the bottle back across the table. “We’re all being tested here.”
He laughed and grabbed at a hunk of goat. It fell apart in his fingers. He brought a strip of it to his mouth. “That’s a kind word for it.”
“What the hell is this place about?”
He swallowed and looked sad. He seemed to be resigned to our uneasy philosophical alliance. “I don’t know.”
I lifted the bottle and took a swig.
“You’ve got a nice beard growing in,” he said.
“We haven’t seen a barber.” I hiccuped. “From the state of your crew, I suppose they’ve all drowned.”
“You could take Blackbeard’s place,” he said. “Or Bluebeard’s. Greybeard’s if you last long enough.”
I sighed. Another of his lies. “So, we do age here.”
He blinked and nodded sideways. “Not from time. From tedium.”
I made that same fricative sound from before. “That’s reassuring.”
“You should try talking to Whitebeard.” He giggled like a little boy who had been hidden away in a nursery for centuries. “He’s the most tedious man you’ll ever meet, in any world.”