Posts Tagged short story
Once upon a time there was a princess with only one eye. Now, we need two eyes to see depth, so the one-eyed princess could only see people as they looked on the surface, and not how they were in their hearts. Such a handicap would make life difficult for a commoner, but a princess’s only job is to find a handsome prince to marry, and her one eye made her exceptionally good at determining handsomeness, so nobody worried.
The princess was kind-hearted, and she grew to be very kind and pleasant to anyone she thought good-looking enough to be a good person. She was less kind to the plainer-looking people who she assumed were not as good. Being a princess, she didn’t often have to be around people who looked bad. The ugliest people she saw were servants, whom she was allowed to treat poorly.
And so the time came when the princess was expected to marry. Princes voyaged from far and wide to meet the princess at a grand ball. The King and Queen were careful to only give invitations to the very handsomest of princes, lest the princess displease handsome princes by showing how badly she treated the less handsome ones.
The princess’s handmaidens worked tirelessly to prepare the princess to meet her suitors, and were only called names in return. One of them was losing her hair from worry, and the princess treated her all the worse for it. On the eve of the ball, the handmaiden could not bear to continue, and gave the princess a mirror, so that she may groom herself.
For the first time, the princess saw her reflection. She saw the smooth skin where her left eye should be, and how ugly that made her. She saw that she was even more worthless than the ugliest of her servants. She ran out into the rainforest by the castle, crying as much as her single eye could. She threw herself down by a pond, and saw her reflection in it, the smooth skin reddened and swollen with trapped tears. “No handsome prince will ever love someone as ugly as me!” she wailed.
Now, a chameleon walking nearby heard this, and being a smart chameleon, he knew that there were benefits to marrying even an ugly princess. So he changed himself to look like one of the handsome princes he had seen entering the castle.
“Oh!” said the princess as the prince appeared beside her. “You look like a mean old tax collector. Kindly give me my taxes or go away.” So the chameleon went away. The princess looked at her reflection again, and saw that she did not deserve the taxes.
The chameleon waited for a more handsome prince to arrive at the castle, and changed himself to look like him. When he approached the princess, she said, “Hello, there, Sir! You are surely a knight. Do you need a stable girl? For I am clearly not fit to be a princess.”
The chameleon said, “Sorry, Miss. I thought you were my horse,” and went away. The princess cried so much into the pond that the water, and her reflection, became clearer, and the ugly red bulge where her left eye ought to have been grew to the size of a plum. She saw it and knew that she did not deserve to live.
Just as the princess was about to throw herself into the water and drown, the chameleon came back, disguised as the handsomest prince he could find. He held the princess by the waist to keep her from falling in. “Oh, thank you, your Highness! You have saved me!” she said. “But I am not deserving of your kindness.”
“It was simply the right thing to do, ma’am; the pond does not deserve to be so sullied,” replied the chameleon.
The princess agreed. “You are right, of course, your Highness. But is there anything I can do to repay your good deed? Through some accident of birth, I am a princess, so I can give you anything you want.”
The chameleon replied, “As a handsome prince, I already have almost everything I could wish for. But I am a friend of the forest creatures, and my own kingdom does not have such vast rainforests as yours. So I ask that you marry me, and when the time comes for you to take the throne, let me rule as King in your stead.” And that’s exactly what she did. When the chameleon became King, he ordered the people to move to the outskirts of the kingdom, so that the rainforest could grow and give more room for his chameleon family.
The chameleon did not always treat the princess well, but as he was so handsome, she could tell he was a good person who was kinder to her than she deserved. As he had two eyes, the chameleon could tell that the princess was a good person who was kinder to him than he deserved, but he did not always treat her well. And so, they lived happily ever after.
Mildred Feldnether was on her way to take birth for the twenty-eighth time when she found the creature. She heard it first; a call that didn’t belong to any animal she’d heard in the forest before. The sound came from a bundle of clothes behind a tree just off the track. She squatted and gingerly pulled away some of the fabric to reveal a red, bloody thing. She didn’t immediately recognise it as a human baby; it had been more than a millennium since she’d seen one.
“Hello,” she said to it. “What’s your name?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, first in the most popular local language and then in several others she knew.
The baby continued to wail. Mildred’s foetus kicked her from the inside.
“Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you lost?”
At the last question, Mildred noticed that the baby didn’t seem to have a navigator. She took out hers and showed it to the baby, who stopped wailing and gurgled at it.
Mildred sighed with relief. It was just lost. Soon it would get on its way. She said goodbye and continued walking to the extraction clinic.
It wailed again.
Mildred turned back towards it. “What do you want?” It seemed so upset. Most of it was still wrapped in a sweater, and Mildred suddenly wondered whether babies even had arms and legs like normal people.
Her sister had had a baby once. Or maybe her sister had been a baby. Or had she just heard a legend about a baby? It was so long ago.
She sat next to the baby and tried to remember other languages to speak to it in. She remembered how frustrating it had been when when she was just a few centuries old, and only knew a few languages. She could imagine wanting to wail when she couldn’t express herself. She was frustrated just trying to remember what the thing was called. Baby. Baby. Like in the old fairy tales. She looked it up in the encyclopaedia:
A baby is a juvenile form of human, commonly created in the pre-extraction era as a means to perpetuate the human species when it was possible that existing individuals may succumb to death (q.v.) In modern times, a baby may develop from a foetus whose life is not fully extracted after removal. This is effectively remedied by further extraction.
From a foetus? Mildred burst out laughing. Foetuses grew inside people. This thing was outside and it looked like a little human that could only speak wail. Somebody must have vandalised the entry. The baby ceased crying and seemed to look at Mildred. Mildred watched it, enchanted. It was hard to believe it really existed.
The forest they were in was even older than Mildred, and offered a secluded path to the clinic, where those unable to carry foetuses wouldn’t plead with the pregnant women for a share of the life within them. They weren’t needy, just lazy; less than a year’s work as a manservant protecting a pregnant woman and they’d have decades more life. Mildred had already made a contract with her friend and three-time manservant James, who had made sure she stayed safe and healthy and didn’t need any infusions of life which could delay or destroy the pregnancy. Four decades for her, four for him, and the rest to the clinic for miscellaneous healing. She always preferred to make the last walk to the clinic alone though, so that she wouldn’t have to explain the knot in her throat that she didn’t understand herself. Most women were excited at the prospect of becoming four decades younger. Mildred was nervous. With the crying baby tugging at it, the knot in her throat unraveled into tears.
Just then, James called her. “We’re waiting for you at the clinic. Are you on your way? Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“I’m fine, I just… I found something. But I’ll be right there.”
The baby started to wail again. “Right,” she said to it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you’re sick maybe half a decade could fix you. Unless you’re already too young for that. Well, the clinicians should know the right dosage.” By this time she was almost certain the baby could not understand her, but it was hard to get used to.
The baby had freed a hand from its cocoon, so Mildred took it to lead it to the clinic. The baby gripped her finger, but didn’t get up. Mildred looked at its face for a second. So tiny. So new. Too new even to walk?
Mildred felt uncomfortable carrying someone she barely knew, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. She picked up the baby, finding the underside of its wrap to be soaked with dew, and tried to find a way to hold it that was comfortable for both of them. The baby did not stop crying for the rest of the way to the clinic.
“Oh dear,” said the clinician. “A baby?” The other clinicians gathered around to look at the specimen. “Oh, that must have been a disturbing thing to find. Don’t worry, we’ll do the extraction for you. It doesn’t look like you need any decades yourself,” she looked down at Mildred’s pregnant belly, “but if you’d like to donate them to the sick or less fertile, we’ll make sure you get something nice as a thank-you.”
“I’ll take them if you like!” grinned James.
“But… isn’t it like a person? I mean… can you really extract… It’s crying. I think it needs to be healed.”
“We’ll take care of that. It’s just crying because it’s not supposed to be outside the womb.”
Mildred felt a bit like crying again herself. “But is a baby a person?”
“Oh, no. I’m not a specialist in antiquities, but from what I’ve heard it takes decades of round-the-clock treatment before a baby can turn into anything like a normal person, and even then it would be centuries behind in general knowledge; it would be a complete stranger in society.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then they both started talking at once.
“Let’s get that…” began the clinician.
“Did you have a baby? In the beginning… when you were new?”
“Yes I… think I did. This is my daughter,” she gestured to one of the other clinicians.
“What was it like?”
The clinician’s eyes glazed over for a second. “It was… centuries ago. I don’t know if the things I remember about it are even real. Now let’s get these extractions underway.”
“If you… this sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you… if you removed my foetus without extracting its life, would it be a baby?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we won’t let that happen. We have strict quality standards here.”
“So babies do come from foetuses? And people come from babies?” Mildred felt a little lightheaded.
The clinician shook her head slowly, as if Mildred were a few decades too senile. “And people need life, and life comes from foetuses, and babies are just primitive remnants from a millennium ago. Don’t you worry about it, love. You’ve found yourself some free decades!”
The baby cried even louder, and Mildred almost wanted the clinician to make it quiet. It was driving her crazy. Crazy enough that in an instant she was running out of the clinic and screaming over the noise, “I found myself a free person!”
“You can’t make a new person!” the clinician shouted after her. “They’ll have no records! They won’t know anyone! There won’t be enough food for them! It probably doesn’t even speak!”
She ran without thinking, without being aware of anything except the wailing coming from the thing in her arms. She only realised what she had done when she found herself twisted on the ground, having turned to protect the baby and her belly when she tripped. Her back hurt and her eyes were wet and the baby’s wrap was still soaked and the baby was still screaming and her mind was a cacophony of new information clanging into memories. Twenty-seven extractions, more than two millennia for her and her manservants, not a year for twenty-seven potential people. But wasn’t it just like eating meat? Some creatures give life to others. Twenty-seven more people would mean less meat for others and less space for the forests and fauna that kept humanity and the rest of the biosphere alive and prosperous. Twenty-seven stunted proto-people who knew nothing and nobody, taking life when they should be giving it. As Mildred’s head started to clear, she began thinking about how to apologise when she went back to the clinic.
As Mildred’s eyes started to dry, she realised a woman was leaning over her. What was her name? Sandra? They’d been good friends a century or so ago, and lost touch. “Milly, are you okay?” Sandra asked.
“Sandy, what are you doing here?”
“Milly, are you okay?” panted James as he arrived. He was getting old, and could do with those decades she owed him. “Sandy?! What are you doing here?”
Just as Mildred realised the wailing had stopped, it started again.
“That’s my sweater! Is that…” Sandra went white. “Is that m…mm” she stopped speaking seemed to be concentrating on not crying. Mildred stroked the baby’s face, momentarily forgetting she was caressing a complete stranger.
“It’s okay, Sandy. Take your time. What happened?”
Sandra took her time. Finally, she managed to cry, “My foetus came out! It was horrible; it hurt so much! It came out by itself, out my vagina; there must be something wrong with me. It hurt so much. I never want to take birth again; I’ll just take a manservant contract whenever I need more life.”
“That’s your baby?” said James. Sandra didn’t hear.
“I wasn’t due for extraction yet but I was feeling sore and my manservant’s run off to do some kind of crazy botanical research so I started going to the clinic but then…” She broke into sobs as the baby screamed. “Is it… is it the foetus? How come it’s alive? It wasn’t… I mean I don’t think it… It didn’t move. I thought it was just a foetus. It was horrible and bloody and blue and it had almost like a face on it. I covered it up so nobody would find it.”
“It’s a baby,” sniffed Mildred. “A… a juvenile form of human, often created in pre-extraction times as a means to perpetuate the human species… at the clinic they said it can turn into a person with a few decades of round-the-clock treatment. But it’s a foetus. They can still extract. They want to and it’s kind of… kind of like eating meat…” In the face of Sandra’s tears, Mildred’s own conclusion seemed silly again. How could they extract life from a thing that could become a person?
They were silent for a while. Even the baby quieted down. James leaned against a tree for support and flexed his creaking knees.
“Can I hold it? Does it mind?”
“I don’t know. It seems to mind everything.” Mildred passed the baby to Sandra.
“Milly, I think I’m really sick,” she confided. “First my foetus came out and now there’s yellow stuff coming out of my nipples. Can you take me to the clinic? I know they expect me to give them some life rather than take it, but maybe I could use some from your foetus.”
“Hey, you know half of that foetus is for me, right?” said James. “Nah, you can have a some of my share. Anything to help a fetching fertile lady.”
The foetus kicked, and she realised that the word was not metaphorical; it was kicking with actual legs. “I don’t know if I want it to be extracted today.” Mildred said quietly.
Sandra reached out and held her hand. They were silent, except for the baby.
Suddenly, Mildred thought of something. “What if it’s hungry?”
“I have some bacon sushi,” said James. The soon learnt that the baby could not use chopsticks.
Once again, Mildred checked the encyclopedia for information on babies. “You’re not going to believe what it says about feeding them…”
Over the next week, while Sandra and James tried to figure out how and whether to keep the baby alive, and how to keep it quiet, Mildred researched the early history of extraction. Of course there was the ugly time they all commemorated each decade on Death Day, the time when people would kidnap and extract the remaining life out of strangers. It must have been horrible to live in fear of dying. Nine out of ten of them did die. Nine out of ten adults died so that the rest could live longer.
Then perinatal extraction, called today simply extraction, solved everything. More life with no killing, and no fear of accidental breeding creating an infinite number of hungry immortals. The inventor shared the technique with the oldest and newest people he knew, the ones who hadn’t stolen anyone else’s life. They won round extractors with their ethically-sourced life, and soon nobody would extract from an adult, and nobody would give life to those known to have done so. Over the next century, the life thieves died of old age and the rest bred up to the capacity they knew they could sustain without competition for resources, and then ceased with the bother of people-making. Most of this was familiar to Mildred; the well-known story told each decade on Life Day. She’d even seen the inventor of perinatal extraction telling the story in person. Though she’d all but forgotten the meaning of the archaic words such as ‘perinatal’ and ‘breeding’.
It wasn’t quite so pretty, though. As she read older and older memoirs, Mildred discovered that many people had actually protested, saying foetuses were people; some even thought that embryos were people. And some even thought that animals should not be eaten; not just because of the unsustainable farming practices back then, but because animals were also a sort of people. Mildred wondered why nobody thought of things like that any more.
Further into her research, she came across an old journal entry which struck her:
I took my first birth today. I know it isn’t right, but I was getting old, almost too old to be coaxed into fertility, and if I die the foetuses will have nobody to fight for them. Thirty more years should give me the time to fix things. I need to find a way to prevent both death and overpopulation without sacrificing living humans.
That’s what happened to people who thought foetuses were people. They either took life anyway, or they died. She checked the author to see which group this one had ended up in.
Mildred felt lightheaded at the sight of her own name, and saw the edges of her vision prickle black. Her foetus turned, and so did her stomach. She fought to stay conscious for fear of what people might do to help her.
She’d been one of the people who’d fought to stop perinatal extraction. She’d been one of the people who’d let her survival instinct change her mind. On the backs of those she’d claimed to want to save, she’d lived long enough to forget they existed. And she would forget again.
Unless she fixed things soon.
Mildred switched her attention to learning all she could about the science of life extraction. It came to her easily at first, as if she’d learnt it all before, which she probably had. She felt less familiar with the breakthroughs that led to increased efficiency in more recent centuries. She enrolled in some classes and followed the century-old standard practical experiments involving extraction and infusion in small plants.
One night she was idly dissecting a piece of sushi, picking out the individual grains of rice and twirling the meat between her chopsticks. That meat had been in a pig once. Pigs were probably smarter than babies. She put it aside and ate the rice and seaweed thoughtfully. Just like eating meat…
She jumped up and ran to the bedroom. “Sandy!” she called out loudly before realising that it was past midnight. “Sandy, come here,” she whispered, but the baby was already gearing up to surpass her careless loudness.
“What is it?” Sandra asked groggily, before gasping in horror, “is yours coming out too?”
“No, no, it’s not that! What did you say your manservant went to do?”
“Botany. Some nutso alternative healing thing.”
“Listen, I think he might be onto something. I was thinking, we can live without meat, right? So we can live without foetuses! It’s so obvious!”
“Hey, you didn’t get me out of bed to tell me you’ve gone as crazy as Jezdimir, did you?”
James wandered in holding the screaming baby.
“Look, there are trees out there that’ve lived longer than us, right? What if we could extract life from them? I mean their seedlings? There’d be millennia! They’ve made a lot of improvements in extraction lately. Did you know that even plant extraction was not possible a few centuries ago, and now they teach it in introductory classes? All we’d need to do is figure out how to convert their life to ours, and no more foetus-killing!”
James squinted his reddened eyes and looked down at the noise-maker in his arms. “Are you sure you want more of these around?”
“No, you see that’s the other thing. If anyone gets pregnant by mistake, which, let’s face it, hardly ever happens, they can take enough life, plant life, to make the embryo regress back into nothing. Or wait, maybe that’s bad too, I don’t know. But some of them could make babies. Did you know that fish are edible; they were just banned back when there weren’t enough of them? And that there’s way more of everything now than back at the beginning of extraction? And that you can feed way more people with plants than with meat? The population limits they set back then are way lower than they need to be now. We could have new people!”
“Hey hold on there… is that even possible? What about the new people? They’re not going to know anything,” said James.
“But even at our ages, everyone knows different things,” answered Sandra before Mildred could think of an answer. She pointed at the baby. “He’s the only one who knows what it is to be new in an old world. That’s worth knowing.”
“So we need to contact this, what was his name? Jezdimir? Your manservant, and see if they can help us. I reckon we’re only a few decades away from converting plant life into…”
Mildred stopped and winced as a pain surged through her belly. Sandra stared at her with a terrified look in her eyes. Mildred regained her composure in order not to upset Sandra. “…converting plant life into human. I’ll never have to have another extraction.”
Then she collapsed in agony. James and Sandra practically carried her to the clinic, Sandra holding the baby in her free arm, and James clutching at trees with his.
“Are you back for your extraction, finally? It’s about time,” said the clinician.
“Noo…” moaned Mildred. The clinician laid her on the bed.
“What do you mean no? You clearly need the life,” said James. “I hate to see you like this.”
“No,” said Sandra. “She doesn’t want any more extractions. You’re going to take this foetus out of her and let it become a baby.”
“But she said she didn’t want another extraction. She meant after this one. I’m sure!”
Mildred filled her lungs to protest but the breath hurt so much that she let it out in a moan. Her head felt as bad as the rest of her. For a moment she thought she remembered being a child, watching her mother cry over her brother. But she had no brother.
“No, no, she doesn’t want to take any life! Haven’t you seen her? She’s been obsessed with this idea of foetuses being people.” The baby screamed louder as if to affirm its personhood.
“Well no, I haven’t seen her, because I’ve been trying to keep this thing alive! She doesn’t want one of these!”
“She does. She does. She wants the baby to live.”
“It’s not a baby! Look, she owes me four decades. She owes herself four decades. How could she just let herself die in this day and age? I’d miss her! We all would! And she needs time to finish that plant thing.”
“Sure, but the baby…”
“…doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
“But you can’t privilege this useless little thing that can’t even eat or speak over someone with a millennium of knowledge and skills and hundreds of people who love her! I know your baby is cute and it brings a fresh perspective and blah blah blah but you can’t have both, and I’m choosing Milly.”
“I love her too! But she doesn’t want to kill babies any more and we have to respect…”
“For goodness’ sake, you’re not killing anything! You’re just extracting the life out of something that isn’t alive yet to begin with!”
“Extracting the what? If it’s not alive, then…”
“Look, your friend’s not doing well. I’m going to need a decision,” urged the clinician, as Mildred slipped into unconsciousness.
Jim was a respectable middle-aged man who suddenly became a pirate. He didn’t just start downloading art in ways contrary to the artists’ wishes. He actually became a pirate. One minute he was looking at cat pictures on the internet at work, the next he was standing on an enemy ship, with a cutlass in one hand and a hook on the other, sporting a peg leg and eyepatch, and plundering the booty of the crew he’d just murdered.
“What on Earth is going on?” he said. What came out was, “Shiver me timbers, I’ve lost me bearings!”
The parrot on his shoulder mocked him with echoes of “I’ve lost me bearings! I’ve lost me bearings!” The dead bodies surrounding him did not respond.
Jim figured he may as well get back to business. He staggered around the ship, swearing like a sailor at the lack of peg-leg-accessible spaces.
In one of the berths was a naked dead man. Jim was about to congratulate himself for having been so thorough at the crew-murdering when a sneeze came from the top bunk.
“P… pl… please don’t kill me!” pled the young, fully-dressed and clean-shaven pirate on the top bunk.
Jim instinctively waved his cutlass at him. “Who are you, ye lily-livered mast mugger?” he growled, putting far more emphasis on the ‘arrrre’ than he had intended.
“I’m…, I be uhh… bl… yarr, I be Cap’n Toothbeard. If ye spare me I’ll be swabbin’ yer decks twice a day ‘n’ barely touchin’ yer wenches.”
Jim let out a pensive arrr. He wasn’t sure how many of his crew had been lost in the battle, nor whether he had any wenches. But without remembering any specifics, he felt as though he’d already killed and swabbed enough for the day.
“Arrright, matey. But if I catch ye in any monkey business, ye’ll be keelhauled.” He extended his right arm to shake on it. Toothbeard cowered from the sharp hook.
Jim contented himself with touching elbows with his new crew member. “I’m Jim.” He suddenly panicked at having revealed such an un-piratey name as ‘Jim’, until he realised that the name that actually came out of his mouth was ‘Cap’n Stede Bonnet’. A pretty funny-sounding name, in Jim’s opinion, but convincing enough. So that was his name then.
What with the missing hand, leg and eye, and the lack of any real knowledge of how to be a pirate, ‘Stede’ was glad to have help. The two of them gathered up all the gold from the vessel and swung from a stray rope onto Stede’s ship. There were no wenches, no surviving crew, no food, and a mess of spilt blood, grog and urine under the tattered threads of a Jolly Roger. They swung back to grab some more useful supplies.
Toothbeard was true to his word. Before long, the decks, walls and cannons gleamed, the meticulously-restitched Jolly Roger flapped proudly in the wind, and colourful semaphore flags spelling out motivational messages complemented the tasteful off-white of the sails. Stede and Toothbeard got along fabulously.
Piracy was difficult with only two crew, but Toothbeard turned out to be excellent at sneaking around disabling cannons and stealing treasure while Stede parleyed with a rival captain. Once or twice the friendly chat didn’t go so well and he had to slice someone open and swing back to his own ship before the rest of the crew retaliated. If anyone invaded their ship, Toothbeard would make sure the flags were rearranged to balance out any browning blood patches.
Without the aid of a GPS, Stede steered the ship mainly on instinct, until the day they arrived at a tiny deserted island with a single coconut palm growing out of a mound of white sand. Toothbeard wasted no time in suspending a large, sparkly red hammock between the ship and the palm and relaxing in it with a tot of rum, while Stede dug idly into the sand.
“Well, blow me down!” Stede exclaimed when his shovel hit something hard.
“That I will!” boomed a voice from above. No actual blowing occurred, but Stede was so shocked by the sight of a woman in a bright olive leotard and sparkly red cape hovering in the sky that he fell backwards anyway. His parrot flew from his shoulder screeching “Pretty birdy! Pretty birdy!” at the lady.
Jim was quite used to being Stede Bonnet the pirate by this time, but it was moments like this that reminded him how very strange it was. “Ahoy thar!” he called. “Thar be no flyin’ wenches on my ship! Against the pirate code, it is!”
“May I remind you, sir, that you are on land, and the law of the land says no piracy is allowed, and the stolen gold and love letters in that chest you’re digging up belong to me and my partner Agent Chlorine,” said the woman, with a stern look.
Love letters? Agent Chlorine? In all his time pretending to really be Stede Bonnet, Jim had never been at this much of a loss before. But there was gold, so the obvious thing to do was keep digging.
The flying woman’s booming voice had woken up Toothbeard, who had spilled rum on his chest in his sleep. He ran to Stede and stared bewildered at the flyer. After a few moments he seemed to recognise her, and started to go pale.
“Thank you for your service, Agent Chlorine,” said the woman.
“Y… you’re welcome?” said the whitening agent.
“You salty moose. A secret agent?” yelled Stede.
“It’s not like that! I mean yes, I am a secret agent, sent to cleanse the waters of piracy, but I… I like you! I don’t even know what she’s doing here! And I’m not Agent Chlorine. My real name’s Agent Chlorine!” Agent Chlorine looked as confused as the rest of them at the last remark.
“He knows you’re not a pirate now,” said the flying lady. “You may as well admit to the rest. You hung out my spare cape to signal me because he led you to where he’d hidden what he stole from us.”
Agent Chlorine looked back at his hammock, and back up at the woman. “Uh… yes, yes, of course, Flying Thulium, I hung up the cape to signal you. I knew he was digging up our letters because…”
“Because what else would it be?” she said confidently. “I can read them from here with my x-ray vision.”
Before Stede had a chance to wonder whether x-rays were known about in the age of piracy, the Flying Thulium swooped down toward him. In an instant, her cape was tangled in the branches of the palm tree, and she dangled by her neck, strangling herself a little every time she tried to fly away. “You’ll live to regret this!” she asserted. As if to emphasise her point, a coconut fell and hit Stede’s spade, whose digging motion propelled it into the water. The parrot flew after it, but was unable to lift a coconut without the help of a second parrot and a piece of string.
Stede turned his attention to Agent Chlorine, formerly known as Toothbeard. “Th’wench says this be my treasure, looted from you. We split it?” he tried to lift the treasure chest from the hole, but couldn’t grip it well enough with his hook, and fell onto it. He cleared room for his legs and made himself comfortable sitting on the chest.
“Those are our love letters, you filthy pirate!” said the Dangling Thulium. She shot laser beams from her eyes and melted the sand around him. When the melted sand cooled, his peg leg was stuck fast, and he was surrounded by walls of vitrified sand. Not for the first time, he wondered why the peg leg was not removable.
Agent Chlorine tried to pull him out, but slipped on the glass and found himself lying over the hole, arms on one side, feet on the other. The parrot left a dropping on his back while echoing, “You filthy pirate! You filthy pirate!”
Stede stood up, headbutting Agent Chlorine’s stomach. Agent Chlorine slid forward on the glass and his feet fell into Stede’s face. Agent Chlorine pulled himself up and slid on his belly toward the unmelted sand, defeated. Stede nursed his bloody nose, and the parrot came and sat on his head.
Stede let forth a stream of insults which are not suitable for a general audience, but which came out as “You scurvy yellow-bellied scallywags!” Being a pirate was no fun any more. “I be nay e’en a real pirate. I work on thems bewitch’d boxes.”
“The path to understanding,” began the Dangling Thulium authoritatively, “begins with an open heart and ends with proper English.”
“I think he said he’s not a real pirate,” said Agent Chlorine, who had learnt quite a bit of pirate lingo during his time as a spy. “Which suits me fine, because I’m not a real secret agent. I’m an interior decorator, as you should know, Flying Thulium. I just found myself in a pirate’s bunk one day, wearing a smart black suit with a lot of secret pockets. Next thing I knew, there was a big commotion outside and I had to give my bunkmate a cyanide pill and and take his pirate clothes before Captain Bonnet found me.”
“You too?!” exclaimed Stede and Thulium in chorus. The parrot on Stede’s head perked up and repeated after them.
“You’re not alone,” said Thulium heroically. “I was once trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem while mourning the anniversary of my heart being broken, when I found myself rescuing a princess from a pirate crew.” She said it in a way that inspired all of them to try to become heroes. “I didn’t know Agent Chlorine was here until I saw the cape.”
“Aye, but how d’ye know Cap’n T… Agent Chlorine?”
“Sometimes,” she said, “the answer you seek is directly beneath your derrière.”
Stede snickered until Thulium’s heroic glare caught him. He stood up and tried to turn towards the treasure chest, twisting his pegged leg as far around as he could before falling backwards, ending up parallel to the chest with his back against the side of the hole. He undid the clasp with his hook, and watched as the chest sprang open and a golden glow lit the space where the lid had been. Stede pushed himself upward with his good leg so he could see into the chest.
Stede’s confused arrr for some reason reminded him of Scooby Doo. There was no gold, just letters. He fished them out with his hook, and tried to get himself upright to close the chest, but fell and ended up sitting in it. That would have to do.
“Read to us” commanded Thulium, who was levitating as comfortably as she could next to the top of the palm tree.
So he did. They were love letters between childhood sweethearts: a lass studying mathematics and her beau studying interior decorating on the other side of the country. Jim had never heard such a touching love story, having been raised in an orphanage, left there by unmarried girl who had been impregnated by a passing sailor, and then been sent to an asylum for telling crazy stories about spies or something. He was almost in tears, but Levitating Thulium and Agent Chlorine were in stitches hearing their words read in his unintentional pirate dialect.
Stede was so absorbed in the letters he didn’t notice Agent Chlorine climbing up the palm to reminisce with Thulium. When he finished the letter he was reading and saw them, he couldn’t help chanting, “Chlorine and Thulium, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” The parrot, who was not so good at spelling, echoed only the ‘aye aye!’ as it flew up toward them. Surprised, Thulium lost her grip on Agent Chlorine, who fell into the hammock. The force of the falling agent caused the hammock to come untied from the tree, and without its makeshift tether, the ship began to float away. Agent Chlorine hung onto the hammock and tried to pull the ship back, but before long he was drifting with it out to sea while Thulium tried desperately to untangle her cape from the tree.
Meanwhile, Stede read the last letter silently. Things had not ended well. Agent Chlorine had had some kind of existential crisis and couldn’t continue his relationship with Thulium. He hinted that he’d met someone else at design school.
Well, Thulium and Chlorine had seemed pretty friendly moments ago. Stede wanted the love story to continue, even if it meant losing his first mate. He stood up in his glassy sand hole and tried to free his peg leg. Thulium hovered at the top of the palm tree and tried to free her cape. Agent Chlorine clung to the sparkly cape-hammock for dear life as the ship pulled it away from shore.
Stede moved to close the chest so he would at least have somewhere comfortable to sit while everything went wrong. At the bottom of the chest, he saw the source of the golden glow: a diamond ring with a small note attached from the Flying Thulium. “I shan’t keep this, then.”
“Yo ho!” called Stede, waving the ring in the air.
“Yo ho!” answered the parrot as it grabbed the ring from his fingers.
“Oh no!” gasped Thulium as the parrot flew off with the ring. Then “Oh!” as the ring landed in her hand. Her cape was almost indestructible, but diamond can cut through anything.
“Noooo!” Agent Chlorine completed for her, as he lost his grip on the cape-hammock.
Thulium quickly cut her cape free with the diamond and flew to Agent Chlorine’s rescue. She boarded the boat with him, and they sailed off into the sunset.
Stede sat back down inside the treasure chest with a dejected arrr, unsure if he could call this a loss or a win. After some time, he discovered a false bottom in the chest. Underneath it was some gold jewellery, and one last note, which he recognised as being in Thulium’s handwriting. It was a note he’d seen once before when he was a little boy, but been forced to throw away. “Please call my baby Stede, after the pirate who helped bring his daddy and me back together.”
Jim was glad the orphanage staff had not obeyed. Stede was a pretty funny-sounding name.