BLOODBATH OR ANOTHER PATH
The company man was inanely average. His clothes were middle-of-the-road for the World Facing. A white calico jacket over a yellow cotton shirt. The jacket hid his belt, but the pants were eggshell linen with smart creases down the front of the legs. No socks, canvas deck shoes.
Okay, so perhaps his threads were a little too clean-cut for the World Facing.
His hair was close-cropped, more-on-top, like a Bachelor contestant. His face was tan, or just brown by nature. His eyes were also brown. His features looked like an amalgam of fit, handsome men from every race on Earth. He was unrealistically clean-shaven.
I was sharply reconsidering my opinion that he was middle-of-the-road. He was more an ideal version of a reborn soul.
Danny was crashed the fuck out. I could leap over the table and run off down the beach. Or, the company man could send me to snooze-land, too, and I would wake up God-knows-where. Literally.
I felt a knock on the door to my heart. It was panic. I kept the door closed. It didn’t help. I felt sweat turning my skin into a winterscape, in defiance of the sun’s heat. My engineer mind was urging me to stay calm and analyze the problem. What was the problem? I did not want to end my time in the World Facing without understanding what the fuck was going on. I needed information, pertinent information.
I decided to dive right in. “Can you be killed?”
He was amused. “You don’t waste time.”
“I wasted enough time to learn not to.”
He smiled and let his right pointer finger tap the banister next to Danny’s plate. “You have no idea how much we enjoy good banter. Language created all of this, you know.”
My face fell slack. It was becoming a habit. A bad one.
“No,” I said. “No. That can’t be. Language evolved. In the World of Things.”
“Your language evolved. There’s a deeper language.”
I was an engineer. I was certain I knew what that meant. “Mathematics.”
He grinned and shook his head. My banter was failing.
“Mathematics is the—” he nodded for a moment, looking for words. “Mathematics is the assembly language of Creation.”
He was talking computer programming. Assembly language was the liaison between the code that programmers used on the top side and the machine language that the hardware actually used to make things happen. Assembly language was like the World Facing, carrying messages up and down, between the World of Things and the World United.
“What’s the machine language?” I asked, hoping this would count as banter.
“Logic,” he said. “The Logos.”
“Logos,” I repeated like a parrot. A Greek term for the organizing force of the universe. Commandeered, I knew from the history of engineering, by the Jews of Alexandria—under Philo—and later by Christians. In both cases to refer to the entity through which all things were created. I had my guiding star and tried to find my bearing.
He picked at the remains of Danny’s skewers with his fingers, then lifted them to his mouth to lick off the sauce. “Math can be made to say lots of pretty things, but logic determines whether those things actually work.”
“Rules,” I said. I had already had this conversation, with Sirhan and Kinsey. They were my sextant, bless their reborn souls wherever they were. “Everything has to make sense. Be coherent.”
He put a hand on my shoulder, surprisingly unimposing, and gave me a warm smile. “This is why I like intercepting engineers. Better than mathematicians and physicists and political activists, who are always chasing unworkable beauty. You speak our language.”
“The language of the Logos.” He chuckled at that and removed his hand. I barely felt it. “So, my question.”
“Of course, we can be killed. We’re not omnipotent. Otherwise, what would be the point of the pirates fighting us?”
“Okay,” I said. “Second question. Do I get a second question?”
“Sure,” he said.
I glanced around. The balcony was empty.
“I did that,” he said.
“That seems fairly omnipotent.”
He frowned in a smile-like way. “I can only keep one of you down at a time. But, I can nudge others. With effort.”
His expression was easy, his skin sweatless.
“Of course. Okay. You said you can be killed.” I felt the weight of Bob’s vest, the busted pistols there. I couldn’t fire them, but I could crack him in the skull with the butt of one of them. “Can you lie?”
He laughed out loud and walked around sleeping Danny. To give us some distance? To give him some distance from me?
“We cannot,” he said. “We’re bound by the same rules of consistency that the worlds are. My word is an oath. My yes means yes, and my no means no.”
That fricative sound again. I was getting good at it. “Can you lie about that?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Okay,” I said. I lifted my mug and took a sip. It tasted stale. “The Rule of Three. What do you want with me?”
“All we want,” he said, looking out over the bay, “is to know that your heart is in the right place.”
Fuck. He wanted to weigh my heart against a feather? “I don’t know where my heart is. I’ve done shitty things here. I would like to tell myself they were for the right reasons. But, who am I to make that call?”
He just stared out over the beach, at the sand and the sea and the palms and the boats.
“That,” he said without turning, “is exactly the right answer.”
He spun on his deck shoes and headed for the tavern.
“Is that it?”
He stopped and looked at me over his shoulder.
“You still have friends,” he said. “They’re still looking out for you. That’s also exactly the right thing.”
Sirhan and Kinsey? What were they up to?
He looked in my eyes over his shoulder. They were black pits reaching into nowhere.
“But, if you take a wrong step, we shall make things right again.”
With that, he disappeared into the building, into a crowd of reborn souls singing Sign o’ the Times.
Danny’s nap lasted until after the balcony had filled again.
I had been mingling with the diners, introducing myself as Sammy Buff of course. I told them I admired Bob and Yellowbeard had given me his vest because I was “a lively sort.” That really made no sense, but people seemed to accept it. I enjoyed the farce. I told them I had been a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk in the World Facing, which made the conversations easier. Everyone had an opinion, and all I had to do was apologize with a sheepish grin.
I was in extrovert heaven. Friendly dudes laughed and patted me on the shoulder. One of Redbeard’s men called me a “tough little rogue” for putting up with Yellowbeard. Older folks, still looking like younger folks, plied me for news. Was Madonna still alive? Did we have flying cars yet? How was the Catholic Church doing?
And, the ladies. They were all paired up, just my luck, but even their mitigated attention was still a little chunk of paradise. They stroked my gun vest, and seemed impressed that all of my pistols had been busted in the fight at the monastery. Total bullshit, but it was bullshit I had engineered. I took the win.
Then, as I noticed Danny stirring, I decided to do some further engineering.
I started spreading a rumor that Yellowbeard’s crew were a little anxious about the killing of John Randolph. That the octopus had wanted him alive and taken to Avamarquía. And that the Great Octopus was coming. That name just popped into my head when someone asked me if I was being “sincere.” I flashed back to my childhood, to the Peanuts’ Halloween special I watched faithfully every year. The Great Pumpkin, who rewards the most sincere. What better rumor to spread than of the coming of the Great Pulpo?
Oh, yes, he was real. And he was angry. And, he wanted Yellowbeard. I spoke the rumor with a sly smile to everyone who would listen. But also, in the captain’s public address style, I spoke to the World Facing. Sincerely.
“What the fuck,” Danny mumbled, shaking his head.
“I think someone drugged your drink. I was worried you’d been assassinated.”
He shoved off the banister and grabbed the handle of his pistol.
“Now, Danny,” I said. “I’ve already thought it through.”
He was panting, furious, glaring at me.
“Nobody at the Cat Caller would’ve done it. They’d be too easy to ferret out.”
“You did it,” he said.
I fricatived at him and shook my head. “If I did it, I’d be gone. And, I’d have your pistol.”
He breathed a couple of times, glanced down at his gun, and nodded.
“I figure one of Bluebeard’s men tried to kill you, or tried to kill me, slipped something into one of our mugs as they were waiting on the bar. Only, they fucked up and didn’t put enough in it.”
“Why didn’t you call for a medic?”
“I did!” I held my palms out. “I sent some steampunk kid to go fetch a medic and I stayed to keep a watch over you so nobody finished the job.”
He nodded and sat back down in his chair.
“Motherfucker probably won’t come back.”
I shook my head. “Probably not.” The sun was leaning low over the sea. I suddenly realized I needed to get away from the crowd on the balcony, in case anyone walked up to talk about the Great Octopus. Hopefully, by the time the rumor circulated throughout New Nassau, my name would be far down the list of tellers. “Let’s go inside and catch a couple of tunes before we head over to the Down Payment.”
He snatched up a skewer, peeled away three or four pieces, and turned to head inside.
The room was mostly real folks when Danny and I walked in. The steampunkers and Tolkien freaks had moved on. The pirates, mostly old timers I suppose, were shouting the names of shanties and folks songs at the guitarist, who sat on the stage shrugging nervously and shaking his head.
One of the recent arrivals on the balcony had told me Soundgarden front-man Chris Cornell was dead. I couldn’t be too sad about that, since I knew he was either with us in the World Facing or on to his reward. But, I was inspired by it.
I waved Danny to a free table and walked in front of the stage. The room had already started to grow quiet, maybe at the site of my gunbelt, before I raised my hands.
“Who the fuck are you?” growled a six-foot tall woman with a deep scar just under her blonde hairline. She only had three fewer pistols than me on her belt, and I guessed that hers weren’t busted.
“My name,” I cleared my throat, “is Samuel Buff. I’m on Yellowbeard’s crew.”
A table near the front door burst into laughter. A man built like a gorilla shoved a finger at me.
“You’re all about to get your asses handed to you. Your captain killed the engineer everyone came here to meet.”
“Maybe. But right now we’re just drinking and listening to music.” I turned to the dreadlocked Hoosier. “Do you know Fell On Black Days? Soundgarden?”
His eyes were wide and glancing around the room. He nodded at me, then looked down at his guitar. As he started strumming, I walked across the floor to take a seat next to Danny.
“Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life,” the Hoosier crooned.
“We’re fucked,” Danny whispered. He was glancing at Bluebeard’s men. I lifted two fingers to the guy behind the bar. He nodded back at me.
“Like you said, we’re all going to die.”
He grinned at that. “I did. Maybe sooner than I thought. Yellowbeard’s story is gonna get us all killed.” He descended back into his funk.
My death, as fictional as it was, meant something.
“I’m only faking when I get it right,” the guitarist sang. The pirates seemed to dig it. The song was dark and sad and rolled like the sea.
I put my hand on Danny’s forearm. “Yellowbeard’s a fuck. When the shit hits the fan, we’re going to have to choose his bloodbath or—” I ran out of words.
“Or what?” Danny said. A woman in a thin green summer dress set two mugs of ale on our table.
“So what you wanted to see good has made you blind,” the guitarist sang. “And what you wanted to be yours has made it mine.” A few pirates shouted aye at that.
“Bloodbath or another path,” I said, weirdly proud of the rhyme. Some part of me hoped Danny would remember that line.
He lifted his mug toward his mouth, then paused, staring into it. He reached it across the table. I lifted mine and clinked his.
“A little red corvette?” He gave me a pale smile.
“Maybe,” I said, giving him a look like it was still a joke.
“You’re alright, engineer.”
I glanced around. “Keep that shit down.”
He closed his eyes and nodded. He took a long swig from his mug. I thought he was going to down it, but he stopped halfway.
“Várion likes you,” he said. “He tries not to show it, but I see it. He’s old as the hills. That’s gotta count for something.”
I couldn’t swallow. Danny was putting his trust in me. Even though I betrayed him the last time we were in New Nassau. Now, I guess, he thinks I saved his life from a poisoner. Total bullshit. He was putting his trust in me. Like Amy and the girls had. Like Sirhan and Kinsey had. Like Karím and Ahmad had.
“Look, Danny.” I spun my mug on the table by its handle. Left, then right. “I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing.”
Danny chuckled weakly. “You’re sittin’ here, alive, wearing Hippie Bob’s vest, with the whole town pissed off about you.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “All of those things are why we’re fucked.”