We stopped to rest under a twisted tree. Correction, I stopped to rest. I was soaked with sweat. The raven and the monkey were still just sitting on my shoulders.
Okay, Lincoln and Mukki were also soaked with sweat. I discounted them the weight of animals on their shoulders, but still knew they must be as tired as I was. Maybe Lincoln less so, since he was an athlete. The two of them sat at the based of the twisted tree.
When I say the tree was twisted, I don’t mean Halloween twisted, like its roots might seize my legs and start dragging me into a thorny mouth. It was open and reaching, like an octopus gently and curiously tasting the atmosphere’s currents. A tree made for climbing. Kinsey took the cue and scrambled up into the branches.
“She won’t go far,” Sirhan assured me. “We’ve been friends for a while.”
We were on a narrow, forested shelf of stone above a gorge that looked like it was regularly scraped clean by floods. At the time, there was just a gentle ribbon of clear water at the bottom, ponds and tiny waterfalls scrambling seaward over jumbles of rock. It was gorgeous and wild.
Far from Yellowbeard’s crew, I felt free. Unconstrained. I stretched.
Lincoln took my cue and pulled a blunt from a bag on his waist. Mukki produced a match and lit it in Lincoln’s mouth. They glanced at me. I smiled an acknowledgement of their intimacy, hoping it sealed our alliance with an extra secret. Then, I felt dumb about that.
“The World Facing has some old-fashioned ideas,” Lincoln said.
“We’re newcomers,” I said. “We bring our own ideas.”
Mukki waved out the match and stuffed it into the dirt. “You’re the one bringing the ideas, Engineer John.” He smiled.
“Thanks for not saying Jack.”
“Thanks for making this a group effort,” Lincoln said. He took a deep drag on the blunt and held it out to me. I waved it off, and he handed it to Mukki. Lincoln breathed out a cloud of smoke and grinned. Then frowned.
“We aimed into the water.”
Mukki looked at his feet as he lifted the blunt to his lips. I nodded.
“Thanks for that, too,” I said. I hadn’t even considered their role in the slaughter of the starboard watch. But, I was glad they’d played no part in it.
“We haven’t seen any real action,” Mukki said around a cloud of smoke.
“No fighting,” Lincoln said. “No prizes since Yellowbeard picked us up. He was having some pretty bad luck before you showed up.”
Three newcomers in such a short time? That seemed like a weird coincidence. I felt my gears turning, and I kinda resented it. But, it was in motion.
“Why did Bob have you two, of all the port watch, assign me to my trick?”
Sirhan bobbed his head at the mention of Bob. Lincoln just shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe to make you feel comfortable?”
I nodded at that. It was a reasonable gambit.
“I hate to bring this up again,” I said. “But, Lincoln, you saw action in the World of Things.”
He sighed and leaned his head to the side. Mukki handed him the blunt.
“The bar fight was a mistake,” he said. “A guy was shoving another guy, and I thought it was my chance to be a role model. So I intervened. They started throwing punches, I caught a couple of them, then I started throwing punches.”
I suddenly wished I had read those news items about Lincoln’s death more closely. Mukki was looking at Lincoln with his mouth open.
“Anyway, I pulled some moves from the court, ducking and rolling, knocked them both out on the floor. But, one of their friends had a knife. And that was it.”
“Sorry, hon,” Mukki said. They hugged.
“So,” I stretched it out, then regretted that. “Your first action turned out bad. But…”
They looked at me. My body was tight. I tried to find some newcomer reference to get me back in.
“But,” I started singing Meatloaf, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
They laughed. Sirhan laughed. I let myself laugh, then scanned the trail for something else, anything else, to talk about. I looked down into the gorge.
Down in those stream-bathed rocks, there would be plenty of places for fish to hide from floods. I bet I could catch one with a swift hand. My hunger reminded me of Danny’s power bars in my bag. I pulled out the half-eaten one and took a huge bite.
I felt Sirhan’s feet shuffling on my shoulder.
“You still hungry?”
“No,” he squawked. “I just wonder what that would have tasted like on my human tongue.”
“Wanna try?” I held the power bar up.
“Nah,” he said. “Meat tastes way better now, though.”
“Hmm.” I chewed and swallowed. I handed the rest to Lincoln. He took a bite and handed it to Mukki.
“So, Sirhan,” I said. “What were you there?”
“Just a nerd.” He fluttered in an oddly avian way that brought home how he and Kinsey and Hiral had faced even weirder transitions than I had.
“Nerd. So, fairly recent?”
“Yeah. A couple of years. I was just a kid at the time. About Kinsey’s age.” He stared up into the tree. Looking for the monkey? The forest here was thick, likely watered by the spray from the floods. There was only a thin coil of blue sky visible between the trees that reached up the walls of the gorge. It was like I could reach up and touch Heaven through that narrow gap, but only if I chose to.
Sirhan nodded on my shoulder. “I liked reading about science. I wanted to be a paleontologist. I wanted to build museum replicas.”
Now we were talking my language. Science. Engineering. Reason and rules. Reason to ferret out when the rules made no sense.
“Tell me, Sirhan.” Mukki handed me the power bar and I stuffed it into the bag. “Ever notice how after we started to suspect dinosaurs had feathers, we started finding lots and lots of them with feathers? But largely in China where we hadn’t been looking before?”
This incited a lot of shuffling and feather-ruffling from Sirhan. Perhaps because I was talking paleontology. Or about his raven body’s reincarnational ancestors?
“Are you saying they were put there?”
I chuckled. He had passed the test. He was indeed a good nerd. “I’m just saying, ever notice?”
“No,” he said. “But now, yeah. Weird.”
Lincoln and Mukki were passing the blunt back and forth with a look of stoner amusement.
“Hiral told me that the lands here didn’t start spreading apart until seafarers started coming in numbers. The world was adjusting to their expectations.”
There was a shaking above us. A leaf floated down at my feet. Kinsey hopped onto a nearby limb and took a bite of some kind of yellow berry.
“Yes,” Sirhan said. “Hiral is very old. Maybe not that old? But, I’ve heard that this island was once right beside the other one. There’s another old volcano, called the Left Breast, that they say used to be like just a short hop away.”
“Huh,” I said. “Another ancient shrine city there?”
“Yeah,” the raven said. “Now it’s another pirate port. But, rogues.”
Rogue pirates. “What’s it called?” I already knew the answer.
“Jissamán. Now it’s too far for me to fly. Three days by ship.”
That’s where Bluebeard and the other pirate renegades would be trading with the company men. I didn’t want to have that conversation just then, so I went back to the one we’d been having.
“I think the seas took over because sailing people expected there to be more sea.”
Lincoln coughed marijuana smoke. “Expected?”
“They say it was just a small sea once,” Kinsey sang. Her voice was so smooth and high-pitched compared to Sirhan’s gravelly squawks. They were like my Yin and Yang. “Lots of islands packed in between several, um…”
“Continents?” I prompted.
“Yeah! And then, they say, everything just moved off.”
I cleared my throat. Then, in the silence, I listened for voices down the trail. We had passed a couple of tributary gorges. I hoped any search party would take the wrong path, or at least split up. I heard nothing but the sound of the stream and the wind. And Mukki, making the blunt sizzle.
“On the Speedwell, on Yellowbeard’s ship, I did something dumb.” I felt my mouth getting tight. I glanced at Lincoln. “I told some of the men something that made them—”
I looked up at Kinsey, whose furry mouth was smeared in berry juice.
“Well, I told them something that changed the world for them, and it got them killed.”
Sirhan pushed off my shoulder and flapped his way to the limb beside Kinsey. Lincoln and Mukki were leaning in. I had an audience for my confession.
“The argument I made, the knowledge, changed things for those men.”
“The parrots told me,” Sirhan croaked, “that the octopus were worried you’d change things.”
“They’re very smart,” Kinsey said.
“Yeah,” said the raven. “Only the smartest get to be an octopus.”
I could see how that might be a painful confession for a nerd who had been reborn as a non-octopus. Okay, time to get to my point.
“What if,” I said. I wanted to be cautious, air my thoughts without leaving any destruction in their wake. I needed to choose the words carefully. “What if God’s making it up as he goes along? He only creates the rules that are necessary. And we make more rules necessary by finding the flaws in the old ones.”
Lincoln laughed. “Flaws?”
“Well, maybe not flaws. Inconsistencies. So, the only real rule is consistency.”
“Ha,” barked the raven. “That’s the only rule that has to be a rule! Because it’s a rule about rules.”
I was suddenly happy to have a fellow nerd with whom to trade logic. But then I felt a stab in my gut. A rule that spawned more rules was a growing threat to freedom. It spawned walls. It was a rule that forced the submission of liberty to rules.
“So,” Sirhan said. “Before dinosaurs had feathers, what? They just didn’t?”
I huffed out a sigh. “I don’t even know if there ever were any dinosaurs. Or Neanderthals. Or exoplanets. Maybe it all just got made up because we kept finding holes in the narrative.”
“Forced retcon,” Sirhan said. I laughed. He laughed.
Kinsey squeaked. “Forced what?”
“Retroactive continuity,” I said. Lincoln and Mukki nodded. “It’s a thing in television shows and book series, where a new element in the story changes all the previous episodes.”
“Like,” Sirhan said, “if they reveal a character is allergic to peanuts, but then someone says, ‘But, he ate peanut butter in episode whatever, so why didn’t he die then?’ The writers have to explain that away. Like, they say it wasn’t really peanut butter, he just thought it was. But it wasn’t.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Maybe God just keeps retconning us. Because he has to.”
Kinsey’s furry eyebrows lowered. “We make God do it?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“So,” Kinsey sat on the branch and wrapped her arms around her knees. “Maybe, there were no dinosaurs?”
I made that fricative sound in my throat and threw my hands in the air.
“Maybe! Maybe? Maybe all that shit in the Bible could be completely true. And maybe all of the holy books. All of it. I mean, like, it really happened just like that. But then we picked it apart and God has to change stuff so we didn’t lose our minds. Or so the universe didn’t collapse from the inconsistencies.”
Sirhan ruffled his feathers like he wanted to add something, but I was on a roll.
“And that’s why it’s been such a fucking mess between the Bible and science, because science threatened the consistency of the whole universe. It threatened the rule about rules. God has just been answering science like a confounded parent stammering to come up with answers to our incessant childish questions and curiosity.”
Everyone was quiet. I had nothing to do but keep ranting.
“Why is the sky blue, daddy? Why does light scatter? Why does air do that? Retcon.”
“Bro,” Sirhan croaked, “that’s really fucked up.”
After a breath, we all started laughing.
“But,” Kinsey said, “doesn’t that just apply to the World Facing? The islands moving apart and nobody remembering how to make better guns?”
The raven cocked his eye at the monkey, looking jealous that she had asked the critical question. I was suddenly happy to have both of them.
“That’s what I thought. At first. But now, I don’t know.”
We moved on up the trail, Sirhan and Kinsey sitting on my shoulders again. A free ride, but they were hardly a heavy burden. The rocky shelf was surprisingly persistent and the slope gentle, only requiring stairs here and there to climb higher up the mountain. We passed a couple of small side gorges on the left where someone had set up statues, worn stone figures with skull and cat and lizard faces, little woven baskets at their feet filled with dried fruits and flowers.
Kinsey suddenly leapt from my shoulder into the branches of a tree. I stopped in my tracks. Sirhan and I watched her climb, up and up, toward the trees growing from a steep pyramid of black, volcanic rock.
“Where,” Mukki said.
“Oh, wow!” Kinsey squeaked from somewhere high above.
Sirhan pushed off and flew up to join her. A single black feather floated in front of my face.
“Oh, wow!” he squawked. I couldn’t see either of them beyond the trees and bushes.
I sighed, then listened for noise from the trail behind us. Lincoln and Mukki were glancing all around. The forest gorge was quiet except for the breeze and the calls of insects and birds and other creatures I couldn’t identify. I started climbing up the rocks to join the animals. I heard Lincoln and Mukki behind me.
When we finally reached the top of the cone of frozen lava, Sirhan and Kinsey were sitting side-by-side on the branch of a nearby bush, looking out over a broad, sloping plain. There was a bright, white plantation house standing like a Monopoly hotel in a dark clump of trees, field houses and green-yellow polygons of crop spreading out toward the angled horizon.
I looked up the slope to the steeper, forested rise that disappeared in a layer of white cloud. The Right Breast. I had seen the dark, rocky peak earlier, but it was hidden now behind a pool of rippling milk. The fan of wooded gorges caressed the mountain’s base like a lover’s fingers, the brown stone roofs of monasteries peeking above the trees here and there like octopus peeking their eyes out of coral dens.
“Oh, wow,” I said. Sirhan fluttered his feathers and Kinsey swung her furry tail back and forth.
“That’s a big farm,” said Mukki.
I turned to look across the fan of gorges. Over the tops of the highest trees, I could see another broad plain, yellow-green with some crop I couldn’t identify at this distance. But, I could see the plantation house, a little white square on the horizon and near the edge of the sea cliffs.
We had taken every left tributary, staying near the north edge of the gorges. I had hoped it would give us options. Monasteries or plantations. Looking back over the wide open fields separating us from the nearest plantation house, I felt safer sticking to the wooded cover of the gorges.
I pointed uphill to the roof of the leftmost monastery, a peak of brown stone with something planted squarely on top. Not a cross, maybe a statue. I pointed and my two animal companions followed it with their eyes.
“We’re close. We should make for that one.”
The monastery sat on a wide terrace, a steep rocky slope to the left and a sharp drop on the right. Tall, twisted trees shadowed its lower floors, which were lined in ornate stone platforms and statues. Some of these statues looked fully human, others capped with skulls or animal heads. High above, the monastery’s towering upper levels reached into the sun like an ancient Mayan temple, its brown stone bleached by light into a bright buff against the blue.
Sirhan and Kinsey leaped from my shoulders, taking flight into the forest. Lincoln and Mukki ducked.
I was panting suddenly, and cold. Something was wrong. The forest was weirdly silent. No animals sounds. Even the breeze had gone dead.
On the flat ground in front of the monastery, corpses lie here and there among the rocks and low grasses and scattered patches of sunlight. Hangers and pistols were strewn about, some still gripped in the blue fingers of dead men. Cocked hats, too. Some spattered with blood. A slaughter of sailors. Of pirates.
I waved Lincoln and Mukki back. They took the hint and disappeared from my peripheral vision.
A man stepped out of the shadows of the monastery’s base, hands tucked into his belt. A cutlass hung there. An array of six pistols were strapped to his torso. He had a bushy head of hair and a bushy braided beard. And a cocky walk. He stopped and wagged a dirty finger at me.
“I get delirious,” Bob sang, grinning insanely. “Whenever you’re near.”
My eyes darted around me, looking for an exit. The gorge below to my right was a dark chasm, a steep drop to broken legs. The gorge above to my left was a sheer wall of stone and loose grass.
“I lose all self-control.” The cutlass slid from his belt, waggled toward me in a confident hand. The first of six pistols slid from his chest. “I just can’t steer.”
“Bob,” I said. “Yellowbeard sent us to bring you back. We found a smith.”
He shook his head incredulously, grin showing his teeth. He started moving toward me again.
“The wheel gets locked in place,” he sang. “A stupid look on your face.”