This fable is dedicated to Dennis Kelley and Robert Toomey
Our Tale Begins:
The lookout's cry echoed over the ship.
"Where away?" First mate Puzzleen Ev'hedance called from the afterdeck. . .
"Away over therel Can't you see it?"
"Use proper nomenclature, lookout. Where away?" Puzzleen Ev'hedance was a stickler for procedure.
"Fuck you, Puzzleen."
The lookout was not.
"Never mind, Ev'hedance," said the helmsman, Janor the Insane. "I see it."
Puzzleen.Ev'hedance tumed away, stroking his moustache. His dark eyes gleamed.
Janor raised his screechy voice. "Falling off to larbord."
Everyone on the afterdeck put his hands over his ears.
Janor let the big wheel spin through his hands. The Bobbies leapt to the ropes which ran from every spar and timber. Wearing their uniform of ill-fitting Levi's, dirty tennis shoes with untied laces and baggy T-shirts, the Bobbies scampered up the lines and tended to the giant square-rigged sails. Some were unnaturally skinny and continually pushed at glasses which tried to slide down their noses. Others were fat, with large rolls of suet that bounced over their belt buckles. Most seemed crafty and intelligent beyond their years while simultaneously understanding nothing of the social intercourse of adults.
"An ugly crew," said Philo the Phlegmatic, "but loyal to a fault."
"Any more mead in that basket?" asked Cap'n Stang from the comfort of his chair. "All those Bobbies scrambling around in the fresh air gives me a powerful thirst-on."
"Aye, Cap'n," Philo the Phlegmatic replied.
Without getting out of his hammock, that was strung between the sturdy post which held the helmsman's wheel and the afterdeck railing, Philo the Phlegmatic gestured toward a thick rope that trailed over the side. Puzzleen hauled hand-over-hand on the line. After a few tugs a stout woven basket banged over the rail. In the basket were several crockery demijohns wrapped in straw for protection. They dripped with moisture from their cold ride under the keel.
Philo the Phlegmatic worked one demijohn loose and passed it to his captain.
Cap'n Stang took a long swig.
"Nothing like some cold mead before a battle."
Being a good and fair-minded captain, he offered the bottle to his mates.
"Do you really," asked Mahvreeds the Cautious, "think it's a good idea to have mead at a time like this?"
He sat on the floor of the afterdeck running a whetstone down the side of his cutlass. The rasping of his stone drowned out even the anguished shrieks of the careless Bobbies, who now and then lost their hold and plummeted with a crash into the merciless sea. No one on the afterdeck noticed the occasional plunge. There were plenty more Bobbies where they came from.
"In point of fact," growled Philo the Phlegmatic, "I do. You got any more 'Frop?"
"'Frop, gentlemen?" a cultured voice asked from the main deck.
"With the very soul of the enemy so close at hand?"
"Ah, Friar Hal," said Cap'n Stang, "what have you got for us today?"
Friar Hal collapsed a gleaming bronze telescope. Hal, the master tactician of the Golden Slack, discerned the identity of distant ships and kept records of the booty they carried. The good friar, a large man who gave the appearance of rotundity but who wielded a sharp sword and sharper tongue, produced from under his brown robes a rolled chart. He spread the chart out onto the a%erdeck and the mates and officers gathered around him, all but for Janor the Insane, who watched the wind and steered the Golden Slack on a course to intercept the unknown ship which grew larger with every passing minute.
"By her location, size and rigging I make her to be the flagship of the Conspiracy, the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel herself."
A moment of awed silence held the crew. They hardly dared to look one another in the eye. This was no ordinary Conspiracy fleet merchantman to be plundered and burned, this was the very essence of their sworn enemy. Here was good booty enough for all.
"De Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel?" snorted Jah Gar I, squinting through his glasses as a thick haze of smoke enveloped him, "And pray tell, mon, what she be doing in the Miasmic Sea?" He drew deeply on his 'Frop-laden pipe and another cloud encircled his head.
"Perhaps," answered Friar Hal, "she came off course during the storm last week, or she trades on a new trade route. She doesn't know the Golden Slack plies these waters. All accounts had us sunk at the hands of those infernal captains MaKcraw and Heel."
All laughed nastily.
"Aye, they thought us dead, but we were only shot," cackled Janor the Insane.
Everyone nodded. As usual, no one understood a word Janor said, but they knew it was the truth.
"Anyway," continued Friar Hal, "she thinks we aren't in our customary waters but we are. I see no ships to protect her and she cannot outrun us in this wind. We will be upon her shortly."
"Puzzleen Ev'hedance," said Cap'n Stang, "what of our weapons?"
"We have two or three swords for every man, not counting the Bobbies, of course, two pistols per man, a few shotguns and three rounds of grapeshot for our cannon."
"And the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel?" asked Phi'o the Phlegmatic.
"Oh," said Puzzleen Ev'hedance dreamily, "thirty-four-inch cannon to a side, a hundred musketeers, blunderbusses, a fighting complement of marines and the usual assortment of accountants, state patrolmen, waitresses, bank loan officers, low-echelon toadies, corporate brown-noses, network presidents, office snitches, Ivy League attorneys, takeover specialists and so forth."
"Just once," said Mahvreeds the Cautious, "just once I'd like a fair fight with the Conspiracy. We're always outgunned."
"But we've a weapon no conspiracy can match," thundered Friar Hal. The officers bowed their heads, except for Janor, who spat over the side.
"We have faith in the almighty BOB!"
Friar Hal held a dollar bill high overhead in one outstretched hand. A sudden gust of wind swept across the afterdeck and snatched the bill. It danced on the breeze and floated out of sight.
"The bill is taken," said Friar Hal in a voice of deep reverence.
"BOB speaks!" shouted Janor the Insane. "BOB shows himself to us. It's a goddamn miracle!"
The Bobbies paused at their endless labor in the convoluted rigging at this glorious shout. They raised one hand in salute and vibrated the other on their Adam's apples, ululating like Iranian housewives. Two or three, those with the least faith in BOB, slipped off the wet ropes and tumbled through the air into the whitecapped sea. They sank without a trace.
"Jah Gar I," ordered Cap'n Slang, "go below and let loose another boxcar o' Bobbies. They're getting a might thin up in the shrouds."
Jah Gar I, who spoke no more than Philo the Phlegmatic, nodded. He left the group trailing a thick cloud of 'Frop-smoke.
"Now then," said Puzzleen Ev'hedance, "what is our strategy?"
"Simple," the deep twang echoed with authority.
Everyone on the afterdeck looked to the main cabin doors. Braced in the doorway stood a matched pair of pirates who were each more than a match for any two men. They never emerged from the deep cocoon of their cabin unless a battle was near. No one signaled them. No one called for them. They simply appeared.
Monsieur Le Deuel stood well over six feet. The Inner Crew of the Golden Slack was not a physically prepossessing lot, but in the wild bars of their various pods the women instantly understood that Monsieur Le Deuel was a pirate. It took a bit of convincing that his shipmates were also feared men of the sea. Monsieur Le Deuel looked the part. His eyes shone in the aitemoon sun. Two crossed pistols nestled in his belt. A pair of matched cutlasses, snatched from the dying hands of a Central American bank president after he had made the mistake of insulting Monsieur Le Deuel in a minor financial transaction, hung on either hip. A stabbing knife rested in the lapel of his snakeskin jacket. Beside him stood the man who had spoken, Stern-Ho. Stern-Ho, once a quiet farm boy from the hinterlands of the Conspiracy, had eamed his nickname with his vicious tactics at sea. The Golden Slack, outgunned as she usually was, often employed a simple but effective maneuver: Janor the Insane, using the cunning which his name implied, would steer the Golden Slack straight into the bowsprit of the enemy ship. In a bow-on attack the enemies' cannon could not be brought to bear upon the Golden Slack.
Even before the Golden Slack was entangled in the Conspiracy ship's rigging, Stem-Ho would leap to the enemy vessel, cutlass in his teeth, shotgun in his hand, ready to cut a path all the way to her helmsman. As he jumped, the robust po'bucker would point his cutlass to the rear of the Conspiracy ship and cry:
"Forward for BOB! Stern ho-oo-oo!"
Like as not, he would hack his way to the stern of the craft, bodies piled up behind him.
"Bring the Golden Slack on a course dead astern of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel," Stern-Ho said grimly.
He pulled the glowing 'Fropstick from his mouth and paused only long enough to take a burger from the quarterdeck grill.
"When we close on her we can spray her deck with our cannon. That should hold down their marines. Then we ram from the rear and board over the quarterdeck."
Monsieur Le Deuel nodded.
"Brothers," cautioned Friar Hal, "Where's the Slack in that plan? If the wind falters while we are astern, the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel may come about and rake us with her guns. We would be defenseless."
Cap'n Stang huddled for a moment with Philo the Phlegmatic and Puzzleen.
"janor can do the job," Puzzleen said. "We'll shadow them until nightfall, then close in. If the wind fails we should have enough time to fall away. They will not pursue."
Chef Snavely hobbled down from his lookout and vanished into the gallery. In a moment he reappeared, bearing a bowl filled with yogurt, granola, whole-wheat pasta and peanut butter. He placed the bowl on the afterdeck and passed out cutlery.
"Uh, Stern-Ho," said Cap'n Stang, averting his eyes from the healthful feast as the Bobbies dug in, "would you please pass me another burger?"
Soon it was nightfall.
The Inner Crew bustled back and forth. Ancient pikes, swords and halberds were brought up from the hold, polished and then dipped in the sacred Excremeditational "mixture" which ensured that even the slightest wound would be fatal. Janor felt the wind and watched the stars, ignoring the ship he shadowed. Despite his seeming indifference, the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel drew nearer and nearer.
"Puzzleen," said Cap'n Stang, "what are you scribbling? It's time to distribute weapons."
"I'm parodying the Pope's correspondence," answered Puzzleen, his shoulders hunched over a pad on his lap, his legs braced against the rise and fall of the gentle swells. "It isn't easy-he keeps changing his position."
"put that light out, Puzzleen!" snapped Mahvreeds the Cautious. "We're only a league away. Do you want them to see us?"
Puzzleen blew out his torch and lay his writing aside. What use were words when battle was near?
The thick cloak of night protected them from the prying eyes of the lookouts on the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
"Fear not," growled Le Deuel, "lookouts look forward, never back." Under the bright stars the massive sails of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel shone whiter and whiter. The Bobbies in the rigging, all gagged with cloth, since none of them knew when to keep their mouths shut, giggled silently. The Inner Crew left Janor at the helm and made their stealthy way to the base of the bowsprit. Puzzleen handed out weapons to each man.
"Damn," muttered Jah Gar I, "Dese sword is all rust, mon. How'm I and I gone chop up de Conspiracy wif dis?"
"Take mine," said Philo the Phlegmatic, stepping into the crisis. He passed over a sinister electronic maiming device stolen from the labs of AT&T.
Jah Gar I shook his head.
"When I and I rub in de 'mixture,' no mon resist dis blade." He turned toward the bubbling "mixture" pot. Two Bobbies wearing gas masks stirred it with wooden paddles. It hissed and steamed even though no fire glowed under it.
Janor appeared on the foredeck bearing the Sacred Ark and Catapult. "Hold," whispered Friar Hal, "in the excitement we've forgotten the hymn and benediction."
"We've no time," snapped Puzzleen.
"There are no attacks too important to bypass the hymn," Cap'n Stang solemnly intoned.
"Or the benediction," echoed Philo the Phlegmatic, "that's my favorite part of any attack."
"Except the beheadings and plank-walkings," said Stern-Ho.
"That," answered Philo, "goes without saying."
"And," crowed Monsieur Le Deuel, "the ear-pullings!"
At the sounds of those wonderful words all the Inner Crew raised both fists over their heads and cheered soundlessly, grins splitting their faces. Overhead, the Bobbies raised one finger to their throats and silently mimed the piercing wail of a joyous pirate. As always, a few of the less agile pitched off the slick ropes and tumbled into the wavetops. The strong breeze masked these sounds and no one on the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel took notice.
"Ah," said Cap'n Stang, wiping away a tear of joy, "we haven't had a righteous ear-pulling in longer than I can remember."
"Tonight," replied Le Deuel, "tonight we'll have ear-pullage galore. I sweat to it."
"Save your swears," said Friar Hal. "Pray to it instead."
"All right," said Puzzleen Ev'hedance, "man the ropes."
The Inner Crew turned to a thick rope wrapped round a wooden stanchion. A large sign hung over the stanchion said: INNER CREW ONLY-DO NOT TOUCH-THIS MEANS YOU! Below that message, in smaller letters, was written: DUMP FOOD INTO SLOT.
The Crew took the rope in hand and hauled with all their collective strength. From deep in the bowels of the Golden Slack came a creak as wood shifted and a long groan as iron moved. That groan was followed by unintelligible human speech, a long random skein of words spouted for no purpose or meaning. As the Crew pulled on the rope the mumbling became louder and more distinct. A large object hove into view.
With a last grunt and gasp the Crew gave a final pull on the rope. They wrapped it back around the stanchion and tied it off. Hovering in the vastness of the empty hold, swaying just below the level of the deck, was a huge iron cage. From its top ran a food chute which connected to the slot just beside the stanchion. The mumbled words emanating from the cage grew into a shout.
"Whisper, O great reverend, great Cleveland," pleaded Friar Hal, "the enemy is near to hand."
"Yeah," said Philo the Phlegmatic in his relaxed commanding way, "lower your fucking voice."
The Bobbies leaned on their ropes for a closer look. Inside the cage was a large wheel, a human-sized version of the sort on which pet gophers or hamsters spin away their days. A middle-sized man with pale, pasty skin, filth-begrimed glasses and a small blue beret turned the wheel with laborious strides. Just out of his reach, just outside the cage, hung a small golden ring. It was this ring for which he reached, etemally. It was this ring that lay just outside his grasp. He walked the wheel to get nearer to the ring. His energy never flagged. The ring was his quest; the wheel, his fate. He was Dunkan Cleveland, a legend to the Inner Crew of the Golden Slack-a legend, a living monument and, ultimately, the benedictor of any important action by the Inner Crew.
Sitting next to the cage, pumping the pedals of a wheezing old harmonium, was a tall, skinny man with a long neck and a once-ornate haircut now grown to a shambles. His skin had not seen the light of day in years. His nimble fingers moved carefully across the greasy keys, shooting out dislocated music of extraordinary power. Known simply as The Deacon, he had been banished from the outside world by corporate decree. The Deacon's music contained too much truth and poetry for the audience of the Conspiracy, and so he had been shackled to his harmonium and sent to death in the slave galleys. Rescued by the Golden Slack some years ago, he had fled bright sunlight for the gloom of the hold and the constant gibbering of the Great Cleveland. The Deacon claimed to find Dunkan Cleveland's preposterous mutterings quite soothing. Dunkan Cleveland felt the same about the mad music of The Deacon.
"The hour is at hand," whispered Frair Hal. "Give us your blessing."
Dunkan Cleveland did not look up from his wheel. He raised one filthy hand in benediction. The Deacon began to play "O Canada!"
"Excuse me, The Deacon," Cap'n Stang said tactfully, "this is an American ship."
The Deacon nodded distractedly and shifted without flaw into "America the Beautiful."
The Crew smiled with delight at the rising bloodlust that patriotism endgenders.
"Leap into their rigging," shouted Dunkan Cleveland at the top of his lungs. "Put your hand down their throats and tear out their bowels!"
His hand drooped. He had forgotten them.
"Ears," hissed Le Deuel. "He didn't say anything about pulling their ears!"
"Pardon me, O Great Cleveland," said Cap'n Stang. "But we need to know-what about pulling a few ears?"
"PULL!" The Deacon screeched. "PULL and pull and pull!"
The Inner Crew jumped in horror at the volume of his screams.
Everything happened at once.
"Man the gun," screamed Janor the Insane. "We are upon them."
A piercing light split the gloom, freezing the Inner Crew like startled deer.
"Who goes there?" came the imperious question from the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. "Name your vessel and show your colors."
Puzzleen sprang for the tiny cannon which swiveled on a brass stand at the bow. They were atop the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. So engrossing was the blessing of Dunkan Cleveland that none had noticed their rapid closing of the intervening distance. Puzzleen seized the firing lanyard and looked back to Cap'n Stang, awaiting his command.
"Let me down," wailed Cleveland.
"Name yourself or be fired upon," commanded the voice of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
"We may not attack without launching the Head," called Janor the Insane.
Cap'n Stang stood stymied.
"Stern-Ho," said Philo the Phlegmatic calmly, "take the helm. Janor, come forward and launch the Head. Puzzleen, stand by."
Philo the Phlegmatic raised his cutlass and tumed toward the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
"And AS FOR YOU," Philo the Phlegmatic shouted, "you Conspiracy pipsqueak, you can just KISS my SubGenius ASS?"
"Show the colors!" screamed Cap'n Stang, ready for battle at last.
Snavely snapped the black flag onto the lanyard and yanked with all his might. The flag shot into the moonlit sky and proudly unfurled. The wind stretched it taut and blew it toward the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. It stretched free and brave, to strike fear in the hearts of the Pinks, the wimps, the Conspiracy Mind-Death Dupes and all their ilk.
Janor scrambled forward, bearing the Sacred Ark with some difficulty. Snavely shuttled beside him, stringing up El Catapulto del Slacko. The two knelt on the deck while all the Inner Crew nervously gripped and ungripped their weapons.
"Behold?" came the terror-stricken cry from the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
"Behold the crossed Pipes!" cried another voice, quivering with fear.
"Behold the simple smile!"
"Behold the part!"
"Behold the dots!"
"Saints preserve us!" screamed another. "We are doomed!"
"Man your stations," barked the imperious voice of the captain. "We have found the pirates."
"Surrender instead," answered Cap'n Stang. "None may best those who sail under the Crossed Pipes of the Jolly Bob!"
"The Jolly Bob?" This stunned whisper traveled the length and breadth of the Multiconglomerate Troding Vessel. The Inner Crew could feel the Conspiracy Marines lose heart even across the short length of sea which separated the two fighting ships.
"The Head is ready," cried Janor the Insane.
"El Catapulto del Slacko is strung," echoed Snavely.
"Then," said Puzzleen, with the eerie calm which always o'ertook him at the moment of battle and bloodshed, "fire when ready."
Janor knelt beside El Catapulto del Slacko, whispered an incantation known only to himself and loosed the string. The Head, taken from the living neck of a video network head ofprogramming, had been carefully cured and shrunk by Janor and Snavely, using only organic and naturally derived shrinking substances. No chemicals or preservatives marred this head. Crafted into a remarkable likeness of J. R. "BOB" Dobbs, this head was fired across the decks of every ship the Golden Slack had ever attacked. Since the Golden Slack had yet to lose a battle, the Head was always retrieved. Begun as so many Church rituals had been, the Launching of the Head was simply Janor's idea of a joke, a way of striking fear into the hearts of the Conspiracy.
Like so many other jokes, it had become deadly serious, a joke one could believe in. No battle began without the Launching of the Head. Janor the Insane snapped the catch and El Catapulto del Slacko arced the Head out across the brief space between the ships.
Janor the Insane raised his head to the heavens in a paroxysm of joy. "Ramming speed!" he screamed.
"Fire!" called the captain of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
His crew yanked the lanyard on their small stern-facing swivel gun.
The Bleeding Head smacked square into the open barrel of the tiny Conspiracy cannon.
Snavely spun the giant wheel of the Golden Slack. Her bowsprit smashed into the stern of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Marines were flung across her decks. The Inner Crew, braced and ready, awaited only their captain's orders.
The tiny swivel cannon, its barrel blocked by the sacred Bleeding Head, backfired, blasting the charge through the rear of the breech- loading gun. The dupes manning the gun were ripped to shreds and the captain was hurled the length of the deck. What remained hanging from his ears did not deserve to be pulled. His crew splashed through his blood as they looked helplessly for a place to hide.
Clinging to the bowsprit with one hand, waving his "mixture"- dripping cutlass with the other, the first mate of the Golden Slack pointed to the enemy and cried with a bloodcurdling scream:
The Inner Crew boiled over the bow and swept onto the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Stem-Ho lowered his head and led the way. Swinging his cutlass in giant arcs, he hacked his way forward, pausing only to pry the recalcitrant blade from the ribs or thigh of some unfortunate Conspiracy Marine.
Cap'n Stang strolled casually among the camage. A pacifist, he was unarmed. A Conspiracy Marine approached, pistol in either hand. Cap'n Stang held up two fingers on his right hand. The Marine paused.
"How many fingers," Cap'n Stang asked, slowly and calmly, "am I holding up?"
"Two," replied the puzzled young Conspirator.
Cap'n Stang smiled a pleased, encouraging smile.
"Right!" he said happily.
The young Marine smiled back. Cap'n Stang drove his two upraised fingers into the Marine's eyes. When the Marine dropped his pistols to clutch at his face, Cap'n Stang ducked, put a shoulder under the young man and heaved him over the rail.
For some reason no one ever swung a weapon at Cap'n Stang. Monsieur Le Deuel and Philo the Phlegmatic stood shoulder to shoulder, cutting theirway through the Marines. LeDeuel fought withhis left hand and Philo the Phlegmatic with his right. A Marine mshed the pair, a wicked bayonet gleaming on the end of the musket. Philo seized the musket as the man lunged and Le Deuel yanked the man off his feet.
Holding the Marine close to his face, Le Deuel spoke quietly: "Repent," he said. "Quit your job. Slack off, and I will spare your life." "I repent," the Marine replied, his voice choked with fear.
"Do you take the almighty BOB as your savior?"
"Y-y-y-ess," stammered the frightened Marine. "I do with all my soul."
"Foul LIARI" screamed Le Deuel, his voice dark with hatred.
He pushed the muzzle of his pistol into the Marine's mouth and pulled the trigger. Blood gushed from the Marine's nose in a fountain and brains blasted out of his ears in two horizontal gray streams. Le Deuel pushed him away in disgust. Le Deuel's shirt was stained with the Marine's blood.
"Wasn't that," Philo the Phlegmatic asked without a pause in his hacking and chopping, "a bit excessive?"
"Did he," Le Deuel replied in outragei "say he had repented and taken BOB into his heart?"
Philo ducked under the muzzle blast ala Marine's pistol and drove his sword deep into the man's chest as the Marine paused to reload. The Marine thumped to the deck. Philo nodded to Le Deuel.
"Yet," continued the outraged warrior, "did he offer BOB any money or wordly goods via me, BOB's representative on this ship?"
Philo the Phlegmatic could only shake his head as he parried the wild thmst ala Conspiracy accountant in a shabby brown suit.
"How then," asked Le Deuel, "can any man claim to have accepted BOB if he does not tithe to BOB that which is BOB's?"
"Without payment," gasped Philo the Phlegmatic, "there is no conversion, no acceptance. . ."
"No SLACK!" Janor the Insane screamed in their ears.
"Indeed," said Le Deuel. He had not jumped. He was accustoIned to Janor sneaking up on him. "You have to buy SLACK, not earn it, and that dupe would never understand."
As battles do, this one seemed to swirl around Le Deuel, Philo the Phleglnatic and Janor the Insane. They found themselves in a small eddy, standing shoulder to shoulder as SubGenii chopped and fired their way through the massed Marines.
"What do you want, Janor?" asked Philo the Phlegmatic. Janor seldom sought companionship in abattle. The force ofhis hate was so strong that he was as liable to injure a friend as a foe. Most of the Inner Crew made sure to avoid him in combat. Now he seemed unusually calm.
"Something's wrong," Janor answered. "I fear we are losing this battle yet I cannot say how. I believe we should withdraw and return to the Golden Slack."
Philo and Le Deuel were awestruck. It was not that Janor had shown concern, something he never did no matter how drastic the circumstances, but that he had spoken in such clear, rational sentences!
"The heat of this battle has scrambled his brains," Philo the Phlegmatic whispered to Le Deuel.
"Aye," the privateer nodded, "but mark his words with care nonetheless. The more insane he becomes, the more sense he makes, even if his delusion takes the form of clarity."
"That's right, Philo," Janor the Insane said smugly.
"Protect him, Le Deuel," commanded Philo the Phlegmatic. "Fight your way back to the Golden Slack and regain her helm."
Le Deuel Trade no reply. He seethed inside-no one told hiIn what to do in a fight! But the fate of all, he knew, meant more than the hurt feelings of one. With one hand Le Deuel gripped Janor tightly by the aria and with the other he raised his cutlass. He stepped back into the fray, this time fighting to retreat.
Philo the Phlegmatic scrambled into the lowest rigging of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. He kicked once at a Conspiracy A.M. Talk-Show Host, dressed in a bright red minidress with matching accessories, as she clutched at his pants leg. His boot heel found its mark unerringly and the Talk-Show Host collapsed on the deck, sobbing through her mouthful of broken teeth. She would never make the big jump from affiliate to Network.
Philo the Phlegmatic shaded his brow IFom the rising sun with the flat of his hand and quickly scanned the Golden Slack. Her foredeck was deserted. All the Bobbies hung in the rigging, watching the battle and cheering every SubGenius blow. The wheel tumed emptily. No helmsman stood to guide it. There was no threat that Philo the Phlegmatic could determine.
He swung his gaze tc the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Below his feet the SubGenii had gained the length of the quarterdeck, including the wheelhouse of the huge ship and the base of her rearmost mast. Yet the forces of SLACK had not moved below to the gun decks nor forward on the main deck. The small band ofpirates was in fact hemmed in, and more marines boiled out of the forward hold even as Philo the Phlegmatic watched.
The reinforcements, Philo realized with shock and horror, were not the real problem. The problem was the freshening breeze. As Philo the Phlegmatic stood in the rigging, ten feet above the battle, the doom of the Golden Slack was played out before him and he was helpless to act.
The two ships were locked together, bow to stern. The bowsprit of the Golden Slack was hopelessly tangled in the stern rigging of the larger Conspiracy ship. But the new wind, which blew across the bow of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel, pushed that bow toward the stern of the Golden Slack. The wind increased as Philo the Phlegmatic watched, and the bow of the Conspiracy ship moved so near the Golden Slack that the two ships formed a large V.
Philo searched the deck quickly. None of his brother SubGenii could see over the enemy before them. None understood what was happening. None grasped the threat borne on this freshening breeze.
The horror that Philo the Phlegmatic felt as the two ships drew nearer was nothing compared to the fear which smote him when he beheld who emerged from the fo'c'sle cabin door. Philo the Phlegmatic never assumed this man was aboard, never thought for a moment that his worst enemy would ever leave the safety of the shore.
This man was the dread CEO of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel, the most feared commander in all the Conspiracy. And he understood the power of the rising wind all too well.
Waiting as he always did, waiting until all circumstances were in his favor, he showed himself.
A slender figure stepped out of the foredeck cabin door. A quartet of young Conspiracy Starlets in clinging black Lycra and high-heeled shoes surrounded him. Each carried an Uzi and a sawed-off shotgun. He climbed easily to the highest point on the deck. As always, he wore an unconstmcted black blazer and a black T-shirt- His perfectly cut bangs drooped manic-depressively across his forehead.
Phi'o the Phlegmatic saw this scourge of every right-thinking SubGenius and slapped himself in the forehead. He should have known. Only one man could command this ship. Only one man could be considered the Conspiracy incarnate. Only this evil, twisted, yet in his own way brilliant Conspiracy dupe could rule a ship as important as the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
Phi'o the Phlegmatic raised his voice in a mighty shout, one which swept over the battle and caused every participant to rest his sword arm, if only for a moment.
"Cap'n Stang," he shouted, as he pointed to the foredeck, "behold! Behold the tme captain of this foul ship-Admiral Rear Lodar!"
Cap'n Stang followed Phi'o the Phlegmatic's pointing arm. When he beheld the self-important smirk, the empty, glazed eyes and the fashionably understated apparel that could only belong to Admiral Rear Ladar, Cap'n Stanis heart sank with forebodings of doom.
Strangely, all Marines and Inner Crew held their breath and ceased their fight. All eyes rested on the feared admiral. The clanging of swords, the grunted shouts, even the mutters and cries of the wounded Conspiracy Marines died down. There was only the rising wind, the slap of the ocean on the hull, and the creaking of the lines.
Le Deuel paused, caught in the jumble of rigging that held the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel fast to the bowsprit of the Golden Slack. Janor the Insane raised his head as he drooped over Le Deuel's shoulder. He painted with a feeble arm to the ever-diminishing distance between the bow of the Conspiracy ship and the stern of the Golden Slack. As usual, only Janor understood. The arms of the V were closing. Soon the wind would hold the ships side to side.
Admiral Rear Lodar raised one arm.
"Grapples away!" he cried.
From the first gun deck five small cannon boomed. Thick ropes shot from the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Leading the looping ropes through space were eight-pointed grappling hooks of the stoutest iron. The barbed hooks tore through the gentle sea air and slammed into the Golden Slack.
One buried itself to the shanks in the sturdy oak of the Golden Slack's forerail. Another sailed over the rail and chunked into the thick teak deck planking. The third caught an unwary Bobbie in the back and smashed him into the mainmast. The thick barb broke his chest and pinned him fast. Blood ran in thick streams out the bottom of his jeans and coated his expensive sneakers. He opened his mouth for one last breath, to praise the name of BOB, but all that emerged was a bubble of blood. The last two hooks whirled into the rigging, where they wrapped themselves around and around like bolos, knocking two Bobbies from their perch and into the rapidly shrinking sea between the two ships.
Admiral Rear Lodar raised his hand to give another command. Le Deuel raised his pistol to blow the evil man's brains out the back of his head. A new contingent of Marines, armed with Ingram MAC-10s, poured out of the hatch and leveled their submachine guns at the startled and surrounded SubGenii.
Phi'o the Phlegmatic, still unnoticed in his perch in the rigging, watched in honor as each SubGenius lowered his weapon and raised his hands. Admiral Rear Lodar smirked again. "Haul away!" was his command.
Unseen Conspiracy hands belowdecks pulled the lines from the grappling hooks taut and began to reel them in. The gap between the ships inexorably closed. The Golden Slack heeled slightly over toward the flat ropes and her gallant old timbers creaked a bit in resistance to this odd, sideways movement.
The SubGenii stood defeated, waiting for Admiral Rear Lodar's inevitable command to board, when hundreds of Marines would sweep over the rail of the Golden Slack. The Bobbies would be tossed into the sea or chained into slavery. For the Inner Crew there was only imprisonment, a mockery of a trail and a long drop on a short rope.
The two ships touched gunwales with a gentle bonk. Admiral Rear Lodar did not give the command to board. He stoodi smirking as always, on the foredeck, his hand upraised. The Marines waited at the rail, bayonets poised. The Bobbies ran wailing down the rigging, making for the few lifeboats.
Mahvreeds the Cautious stood atop a cluster of dead Marines, his sword coated with their innards. Blood, bones and shreds of uniform covered him from head to foot. Mahvreeds the Cautious did not like the Conspiracy.
He studied Admiral Rear Lodar with care. Always the first to anticipate (and embrace) the negative implications of any situation (with the possible exception of the far-away Pope of Popes), Mahvreeds the Cautious suddenly understood the intentions of Admiral Rear Lodar.
He pointed in anguish at the Golden Slack.
"My black velvet!" he screamed.
An intuitive flash raced through all the Inner Crew. Like Mahvreeds the Cautious, they finally grasped the disaster about to befall their beloved Golden Slack.
"My comics!" said Friar Hal.
"My 'Frop!" said Jah Gar I.
"My tapes!" said Puzzleen Ev'hedance.
"My lunch!" said Janor the Insane.
"My snakeskin jacket!" said Le Deuel.
"And I just about got those damn Bobbies broken in, too," said Cap'n Stang.
Phi'o the Phlegmatic, true to his name, said nothing.
"Avast that shitl" cried Stern-Ho. "What about Dunkan and The Deacon?"
Half the brave warriors of SLACK turned toward the Golden Slack. Half whirled to confront Admiral Rear Lodar. They found only a solid wall of Conspiracy bayonets.
Admiral Rear Lodar gazed down on their anguish with glee and satisfaction. He hesitated another moment before giving the order.
"Fire!" he said.
The Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel had three gun decks on each side of her massive hull. Each gun deck had openings for twelve cannon. Each opening showed a six-inch cast-iron cannon, loaded with solid ball and explosive canisters. The broad snouts protruding from the gun pods almost touched the wooden walls of the Golden Slack.
A split second after Admiral Rear Lodar's command, the roar of thirty-six guns firing at the same instant drowned out all thought, all feelings, all action. The blast rocked every man back on his heels. The Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel heeled away from the recoil of the massive guns, tipping her deck sharply and dumping the unready SubGenii pirates onto their backs. The braced Marines took a step closer and pinned each man to the deck with the gentle touch of a bayonet point in the throat.
A thick, acrid cloud of gray smoke rose from the gun ports and obscured the Golden Slack. Philo, thrown from the rigging by the force of the blast, tumbled onto the deck and was instantly seized. Likewise, Le Deuel and Janor felt the prick of a bayonet point in their backs as they tried to rise from all fours, whence the shuddering of the two ships had tossed them.
Deafened, the SubGenius pirates could not hear Admiral Rear Lodar command his troops.
"Let them up," Admiral Rear Lodar said with a wave of his hand. "Let them understand the power of the Conspiracy."
The Marines beckoned the pirates to their feet. They stumbled to the rail. None spoke. None could believe their eyes. Truly, at this moment, there was no SLACK.
Nor was there any Golden Slack. Her side was blasted completely open from waterline to gunwale and the sea rushed in, steam blending with thick smoke from the fire that raged from stem to stern. It was as if the chamber that once held Dunkan and The Deacon had never existed. There was no wheel, no harmonium and no evidence that either had ever been. The broken burning timbers of their hold sagged crazily.
Above'deck the devastation was equally complete. Both masts lay across the deck. The foremast had snapped at the deck and brought the jib sail down over the mainmast, which broke halfway up its length. Tangled in the jungle of rigging, canvas and wood that covered the Golden Slack from end to end were the broken remains of the Bobbies. They had tumbled with the masts, the crossbars and the ropes into the infemo that the Golden Slack had become. Their pitiful cries reached over the smoky water to the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel.
The Golden Slack heeled toward the open wound in her side as seawater poured in. Her gunwale struck the ocean and gentle waves swept her deck. In a moment she would slip beneath the sea.
Someone dived off the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. A splash marked his position. Marines raced to the rail, rifles upraised. A figure showed, swimming across the wave tops. Twenty rifles spoke and the water around the swimmer was peppered with singing splashes as bullets pocked the water around him. Richochets sang offthe trunks, spars, tools and cookpots that littered the surface.
The swimmer dived under the flotsam. Admiral Rear Lodar raised his hand. The firing ceased.
"Let him be," said Admiral Rear Lodar. "I want to see what he's after."
At that moment Puzzleen Ev'hedance clambered out of the sea and onto the tilting deck of the Golden Slack. Ignoring the sharply increasing pitch of the ship, the moans of the Bobbies and the flames licking all around him, Puzzleen Ev'hedance made his struggling way over, around and through the jumbled sails and ropes until he found the top of the mainmast where it lay across the deck. There he tore the JOLLY BOB free of the mast and waved it triumphantly overhead.
Admiral Rear Lodar again raised his hand.
Twenty Marines opened fire on Puzzleen Ev'hedance.
The Golden Slack turned turtle, tossing Puzzleen Ev'hedance into the sea. As her keel showed itself to the sky, the Golden Slack sank slowly, turning and turning in the center of a widening whirlpool. Even after the Golden Slack had vanished from sight, the whirlpool swirled about, pulling into its center all the trash from the ruined ship.
"Can Puzzleen outswim its force?" whispered Friar Hal.
Cap'n Stang could only shrug.
"Silence, please," ordered Admiral Rear Lodar in his indolent way. "Whoever commands this rabble, show yourself to me."
Cap'n Stang turned toward the foredeck.
Admiral Rear Lodar opened his mouth, but a lookout interrupted him.
'The whirlpool grows!" came the cry from the crow's nest. "Hard a'lee."
"Helm hard a'lee," echoed Admiral Rear Lodar.
The helmsman, clad in the latest, most fashionable Conspiracy sailing gear, clambered over the captured pirates to the forgotten helm. He spun the wheel as Conspiracy yachtsmen leaped into the rigging like trained monkeys. Their tans were perfect.
Again eyes turned toward the spot where the Golden Slack had sunk. Indeed the whirlpool was growing. But not outward, not in the sea and not like any whirlpool ever seen. The whirlpool rose out of the ocean, spinning faster and faster, growing like a summer weed, until its mad whirling top stood higher than the crow's nest on the mainmast of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Far below, along the waterline, trailed the narrow tapered bottom, which spun with the same terrible force as the enormous top.
"Is it," whispered Friar Hal, "a waterborne tornado?"
"There are no tomadoes at sea," answered Le Deuel. "It must be a waterspout."
The whirling water tilted slightly toward the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Its bottom tore free of the wave tops and the immense spinning tower bore down on the Conspiracy ship.
Janor the Insane studied the waterspout with care as Admiral Rear Lodar barked commands. The stunned crew moved slowly, afraid to tear their eyes from the destruction that bore down upon them. "Cap'n Stang," said Janor the Insane, who was now so deranged that he spoke with perfect articulation, "gaze with care upon the upper sides of this waterspout-what do you percieve?"
Every pirate followed Janor the Insane's suggestion. They felt no fear. What did they care if the waterspout capsized this den of Conspiracy Mind-Death Dupes? Their Golden Slack lay on the bottom of the pitiless sea, their benefactors blown to bits, their battle lost and their BOB defeated. None felt willing to flee or had the energy for the terror which swept the Conspiracy crew.
The Inner Crew watched the whirling dervish of water. Strange protuberances projected from the top.
"That bump on the upper rim," said Cap'n Stang, "I hate to say it, but it looks exactly like Dunkan Cleveland."
"And the one beside," said Philo the Phlegmatic, "looks like The Deacon."
No one spoke as realization sunk in. All turned to Janor the Insane as the only fit man to say aloud what the Inner Crew knew inside.
"Praise BOB!" shouted Janor the Insane, "that's no waterspout, that's the Whirlwind of SLACK!"
The pirates, their hearts filled with joyi covered their ears against the roaring wind and dove onto the deck. As prophesied in hymns, the Whirlwind of SLACK had come to punish the Conspiracy and raise the SubGenius up to his or her rightful place. The camage would be awful, but BOB would be served.
The mighty Whirlwind of SLACK rose majestically off the ocean's surface and hovered in the air just above the deck of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel. Later, when the battle was long over, some among SubGenii would swear that in the groaning, howling tornado that was the Whirlwind of SLACK they could hear the muted voices of Dunkan Cleveland and The Deacon, urging them on to glory.
As the helmsman gripped his wheel with the white knuckles of mortal fear, Admiral Rear Lodar screamed commands that none could hear over the raging wind. Marines scurried to and fro and yachtsmen fell from the riggings like ripe crab apples, begging for their mommies. The Whirlwind of SLACK seemed to wait for just an instant. Then, when the moment was right, the Whirlwind of SLACK struck.
Its spinning bottom, no more than a few feet across, snuffled across the deck like an elephant's trunk, daintily skipping over the prostrate pirates. It Hoovered every Marine in its path. Some held on to the rail with all their might. Some cowered at the base of the mast. No matter. When the vacuum force of the Whirlwind of SLACK took them, they simply disappeared. Snatched up the whirling snout, they reappeared a moment later atthe top ofthe huge tornado, tornin half, theirbonestumedtojelly, their limbs flopping emptily. The Whirlwind of SLACK spit them hundreds of feet into the air. They turned over slowly, head over feet, arms and legs flopping, drifting lazily through the clear blue sky.
When they hit the ocean, the sharks were waiting.
The Whirlwind of SLACK seized every Marine from the deck and every yachtsman from the rigging. The ship itself was not harmed. The elephantine snout reached the foredeck and whipped the Starlets into its sucking mouth. Admiral Rear Lodar was left untouched, as were the gun crews and enlisted men below. When the last Starlet had been blown out of the spinning top of the Whirlwind of SLACK, it rose far above the ship, and blew slowly toward the horizon.
The Inner Crew stood and swept up the abandoned weapons. They surrounded Admiral Rear Lodar. The deck of the Multiconglomerate Trading Vessel was picked clean. No one spoke; no one jumped to the defense of Admiral Rear Lodar. He said nothing. He stood smirking as always, resigned to his fate.
"Le Deuel," said Cap'n Stang, "have you The Book?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Admirali" commanded Cap'n Stang, "call your officers to the deck." "What officers? They all vanished up your vacuuming whirlwind." "Your fate is sealed," said Philo the Phlegmatic. "Don't worsen it by lying."
Admiral Rear Lodar opened the hatch behind him.
"Officers assemble on the deck," he called down into the passageway. "Unarmed." '
"Wait!" said Janor the Insane. "I hear someone calling us."
"I hear nothing but the crunching of sharks' teeth," snorted Le Deuel. Janor the Insane went to the rail. Far below, clinging to a fallen line by one hand, holding himself high enough out of the water to avoid the avid jaws of the encircling sharks, was Puzzleen Ev'hedance. In his other hand he held the black flag, the JOLLY BOB.
The Inner Crew hauled him aboard as the officers stood in formation. He rested against the gunwale, his day of heroism over, his place in the annals of freethinking, free-living SubGenii the world over assured. "Read from The Book," ordered Cap'n Stang.
"All those who are practicing members of the Bar in any state," said Le Deuel, "step forward."
Half the officers did so, those with the most somber neckties and dishonest eyes.
"All those with any postgraduate degree in business of any kind."
Half of the remainder stepped forward, those with the most belligerent attitudes and thickest necks.
"All those with any sort of executive position in motion pictures, television or music, not to include any skill-position union members."
Two or three, those looking the most ashamed, but also the most stylishly dressed.
"All state patrolmen."
The last few officers stepped forward to join their brothers. These men simply looked the least human.
"As I suspected," said Cap'n Stang, "This crew consists of the foulest examples of Conspiracy dupedom. Fortunately, we have ways of dealing with you swine, as do the sharks."
"Take positions," barked Philo the Phlegmatic.
The Inner Crew seized their sharpest swords and waited behind the row of trembling Conspiracy officers. Cap'n Stang stood beside the exhausted Puzzleen Ev'hedance. Cap'n Stang would now read from The Book.
"Sever the Achilles tendon," he read.
A quick slash did the job. The officers fell to the deck, writhing in pain.
It was done, though the officers squirmed like dogs in their own deepening blood.
"Break their arms."
The Inner Crew raised their feet and stomped their way through the blood-soaked, retching crowd of formerly powerful and sophisticated Conspiracy leaders. Where they stomped, a sharp crock! sounded. When an arm proved too strong to break, it was levered up over a SubGenius knee, where a helping hand quickly provided the required pressure. The dupes were now too weak to scream.
Knife points searched out eyes, even though two SubGenii were now required to hold down each dupe.
The Inner Crew stepped back to admire their work. The foul fiends of the Conspiracy had been treated as they deserved, but their punishment was not yet complete. The Crew looked to Cap'n Stang.
He slammed The Book closed with a thump.
"Commend them," he said solemnly, "to the sharks."
A great cheer went up, with Friar Hal leading the way. He lifted two dupes, one in either hand, and flung them over the side as if they weighed no more than a sack ofpotatoes. The screams and panting cries of the Conspiracy officers were loud, but not so loud as the snapping jaws of the happy sharks.
In a few minutes, the sea was again peaceful, with only a widening slick of blood to mark this fitting conclusion to such a ferocious battle. Admiral War Lodar had not moved from the foredeck.
Cap'n Stang turned to him once more.
"Assemble the enlisted men," he ordered.
The poor gunners and swabbies, cooks and cleaners, accountants and cabdrivers stood on the deck, shivering with fear.
"This is our ship now," bellowed Philo the Phlegmatic without preamble. "We need Bobbies. Will you serve?"
The crew, to the last man, nodded eagerly.
"Then," said Le Deuel, "tithe unto BOB that which is BOB's!"
A blizzard ofcoins, bills, watches and jewelry cascaded onto the deck.
"Friar Hal," said Cap'n Stang, "gather up the tithing and get these men into the rigging. Set our course for the South Coast. Janor, take the helm. Jar Gar I, pick a few of these new Bobbies and get a crew going-repaint the stern."
"Aye, aye," said Frair Hal, tucking as much as he could grab into his voluminous robes.
Janor the Insane strode to the wheel without a word.
Jah Gar I moved through the crew, gauging them carefully through a thick cloud of 'Frop smoke.
"You, dupe," said Cap'n Stang, "get your mangy Conspiracy ass down here, pronto."
Admiral Rear Lodar strolled off the foredeck. He stood relaxed and calm, as always.
"You still don't get it, do you?" he said quietly. "You think you're in charge. You won a measly little battle, but I still hold the cards. You and your bunch will always be small-time without a guy like me.
"What are you doing mucking around in the Miasmic Sea? I could set you up, make you rich, take you public. I'm talking about exposure beyond your wildest dreams.
"You need big-time representation. Big-time presentation. I'm talking Pat Sajak, Arsenio Hall, and, if you play your cards right, and do as I say, maybe, one day even Letterman. I'm talking college tours, lecture circuits, Ivy League groupies, the works. I'm talking you and me.
"What do you say?"
Cap'n Stang looked from face to face at his faithful Crew. He saw the answer there, shining tme. Without speaking, Cap'n Stang nodded to Le Deuel.
"When we sell out," roared the enraged pirate, "we'll do it on our terms, not yours!"
He took Admiral Rear Lodar by the ears, one in either massive hand, and pulled with all his might. Admiral Rear Lodar grabbed Le Deuel's forearms, but to no avail. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound emerged. His eyes rolled back in his head and blood leaked from his nose.
Le Deuel's face tumed bright red. The veins in his neck stood out like sausages, his breath came in pants and sweat poured down his cheeks.
"Now]" he screamed.
Admiral Rear Lodar split right down the middle. His head burst like a melon and his neck opened like a flower in a springtime rain. His ribs fell off his spine and his legs tore from his crotch. As his organs spilled onto the deck in a slimy, quivering heap, Le Deuel stepped back so as not to get splashed. He held half of Admiral Rear Lodar in either hand, using as handles the admiral's ears.
Cap'n Stang turned away. '
"Clean this mess up and get under way," he said. "We've other ships to plunder."
"Cap'n Stang," called Jah Gar I from his scaffolding below the stem rail, "what name do I and I paint on dis worthy vessel?"
"The Golden Slack," replied Cap'n Stang with a small, proud smile, "The SLACKEST ship that ever sailed in the service of BOB."
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