THE WEATHER EYE
Chapter 8 - Infinitely Prolonged
by Karen Lee


Author's note: this part contains a guest appearance by a character originally-created by the
late, great, very funny Douglas Adams.

 

"My GOD!" Horatio shouted, voice cracking with alarm. "What happened to
him? Archie? Archie!"

Archie Kennedy was thrashing violently in the azure, foaming waters beneath
the splintered side of the reef-struck Flying Dutchman. His eyes rolled
back in his head and he appeared nearly insensate, but still, his body
twisted, coiling and uncoiling, legs scissoring violently, and his chest
heaved in and out with explosive breaths of salt-spray air, half-coughing,
entirely spluttering.

Julian Vanderdecker turned to his Second. "Get Steve up here," he said
tiredly. Still, the cursed Dutchman appeared to be on the verge of taking
an actual interest in the drama playing out beside his wrecked ship.

"I don't see anything in the water with 'im, Sir." Matthews was already
dropping a loop of rope to ensnare the young Lieutenant. "He were swimming
and the just began to twist about in some kind o' pain."

"Cor!" Oldroyd opined, scratching his sunburned scalp.

"I'm going in after him," Horatio said, and began to strip off his jacket
and shirt.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, mate." Hal Trevelyan placed a steadying
hand on Horatio's shoulder. "But, no worries, Horatio, old sport. Steve'll
handle this."

Horatio did not answer. Like the rest of the Petrels, he was leaning over
the rail, staring in horrified fascination as Matthews succeeded in getting
the coil of rope wrapped around one of Kennedy's legs.

"Right," came a voice from behind them. "Move ovah. Don't pull 'im up just
yet."

A medium-sized cove dressed all in tan, sporting a mop of sunbleached hair
and surprisingly dark brown eyes shoved his way through the mass of men
gathered at the rail. He wrinkled his nose in concentration, gazing down
intently into the blue-green water, then nodding with satisfaction.

"Box jellyfish," he said, obviously pleased. "Glorious creatures! Leave
'im down there a bit longer, eh? Just keep 'is head above the water line so
'e can breathe."

"Are you mad?" Horatio exploded. "Mr. Matthews, I order you to pull Mr.
Kennedy back on board at once! Mr. Styles, you will kindly assist Mr.
Matthews. And Vanderdecker, for the love of heaven, call for a surgeon!
You DO have a surgeon, don't you?"

But the newcomer, Steve, pinned Matthew's wrist to the railing.

"What good is a surgeon to a ship of immortals?" Vanderdecker rolled his
eyes disparagingly at Horatio, then turned to direct a question to Steve.
"Fatality rate?"

This seemed to get the sturdily-built blond man very excited, and he began
to gesture wildly.

"Whoa! The Australian Box Jellyfish is a VERY dangerous creature! These
animals are lethal. You can't see it, until you swim roit into it! Gaw!
That's a sickbay job for sure, but the mortality rate is only eighty
percent. Very high, no doubt about it, but not high enough!"

Vanderdecker's sandy brows knit in concentration. "Not high enough. Steve'
s right. Let him thrash around a bit more, then we will bring him in.
Something worse is bound to happen. It always does."

The Petrels gasped.

"You bloody murdering bastards!" Hornblower exclaimed.

Again, Hal was there with the calming shoulder clasp. "They know what they
are about. Just wait."

Suddenly, a gray shape loomed from the waters beneath the contorted body of
Mr. Kennedy. It was as if a great log was rising from the bottom. The
creature must have been twenty feet long if it was an inch.

Steve was beside himself with transports of glee.

"WOAH! I didn't know they got that big in these waters! Oh, look at the
size of 'er! What a BEAUTY! That's a large FE-MALE. WOAH! A real BEAUTY!
This is INCREDIBLE!"

He seized the rope and began to jig the unfortunate Mr. Kennedy violently up
and down. As he did, he turned confidingly to Horatio, and said in a
friendly, intimate tone.

"I'm a professional 'erpetologist. Trained to 'andle these dangerous
creatures. Woah, look! She's just a little bit angry. Yeh, she's just a
little bit frisky today, because we 'ave disturbed 'er habitat. This is a
very misunderstood animal. Great STUFF!"

The gray, cylindrical shape began to circle the Lieutenant. The deck erupted
in a chorus of horrified screams and shouts from all the Petrels, and a
free-for-all to grasp the rope ensued, but the agile Steve was too quick for
all of them and began to drag the jellyfish-stung Mr. Kennedy alongside the
Flying Dutchman in a tantalizing manner.

The water erupted beneath the unfortunate fellow and suddenly, powerful jaws
lined with saber-sharp teeth severed Kennedy's leg at mid-thigh. His blood
rapidly turned the foaming surf pink.

"Yeh! This is what we were lookin' for! A mortal wound!" Steve yelled in
exultation. "Now, to SAVE 'is LIFE!"

With a mighty heave, he pulled what was left of Mr. Kennedy onto the deck of
the Flying Dutchman.

Horatio and his crew stared in horror at the mangled remains of his friend.

Julius Vanderdecker shrugged. "He'll be fine."

Hal nodded his agreement, and smiled with mild enthusiasm, as if in
expectation of some anticipated treat.

"How can you say he'll be fine?" Horatio screamed, voice cracking with
hysteria. "He's half-eaten! And your-your-STEVE-is responsible."

"He'll be FINE. I told you, this ship is cursed," Vanderdecker said.

"With immortality?"

"And Steve," Vanderdecker finished. He tilted his head quizzically.
"Listen. Can't you hear it?"

Horatio listened, and heard a loud sound like that of a very, very, very
large piece of crumpled butcher's paper, being uncrumpled, and the ship
began to move ever so slightly away from the reef..

The uncrumpling sound segued rapidly into the sound of unsplintering, then
unbreaking, and finally, disimpacting and uncolliding. Or at least, that is
how it sounded to Horatio, who, though, never having heard such sounds in
his life, was hardly in a position to describe them yet to others.

"I suppose we were about to sink," said Johannes. "Just in time, too."

"Right," said Vanderdecker. "Good thing, that. Otherwise, we could have
been stuck here a good long while." He sighed. "Not that it makes any
difference to us, of course."

The *Petrels* stood in a stunned and silent circle around their fallen
comrade, Kennedy. The ship gave a sudden lurch, then broke free, bobbing
easily as a cork upon the gentle waves that crested and broke upon the reef.

Simultaneously, a gasp arose from the circle of astonished men.

"This is incredible--I don't believe it!" Horatio finally breathed. He had
not realized he had been holding his breath.

"Really incredible!" Steve agreed, gazing out over the gentle swells. "This
is what I wanted to show you. Just LOOK at this gorgeous sea turtle! Check
out his vivid coloration. He must be looking for a mate!"

But Horatio's attention was completely captured by the battered body of his
comrade, which was undergoing a similarly miraculous reversal of damage as
that which had just occurred to the ship. The angry red weals on his arm
and shoulder faded, then vanished altogether. The severed leg, which had
been spurting arterial blood when they hauled him up from the reef,
lengthened, strengthened, and even began to grow a downy covering of reddish
gold hair to match that of the undamaged other leg. Five perfect
pinkish-golden toes popped out, tipped by five perfectly manicured toenails,
with never a hint of sand or stocking lint in the cuticles. It was as
perfect a leg as a man's leg could be.

"I told you he would be all right, Hornblower." Hal said. "You should know
by now you can trust me, after all we've been through." His tone was
reproachful.

"I still don't know what you are doing here, Hal, but thanks anyway."

Mr. Matthews peered over the side rail, his jaw slack with astonishment.
"Mr. 'ornblower, Sir, the Dutchman is like she never were wrecked at all.
It's like it never happened!"

"I know," grumbled Vanderdecker. "It's so depressing."

But Horatio wasn't listening. At this sight of his rapidly mending
companion rapidly starting to mend, he had rushed forward and gathered his
friend into a sagging embrace, supporting the limp body with one strong,
long, blue-clad arm under each shoulder. Kennedy leaned back and began to
murmur. His eyelids fluttered.

"Archie.oh, Archie." Horatio soothed. "Can you hear me, Archie? You are
going to be all right. You are going to be all right!"

"H-, Horatio? What happened?"

Kennedy's golden head lolled against Horatio's lean jawline, and Horatio
kept his arms wrapped tightly around Kennedy's bare, muscular, Grecian
torso, forming a pose of such tender manly concern that if it had been
filmed for broadcast, it would surely have launched a thousand slashy fan
fics.

Vanderdecker, though, was not overwhelmed by the touching scene. He began
to give a series of orders which got the Flying Dutchman back under sail.
Johannes disappeared for a moment, then returned with Kennedy's clothing.

The Petrel crew, naturally, was buzzing about the strange events as the
Flying Dutchman's sails filled and she scudded majestically away from the
hazardous reef and back out into the untrammeled South Pacific. Mr.
Matthews said that he had seen many strange things in the East Indies when
he was a young rating, but this did beat all. As Kennedy stood up and
pulled himself back into his breeches and jacket, he appeared dazed, though
none the worse physically for his horrific ordeal. But clearly, the Petrels
had a great many questions for the captain of the Flying Dutchman.

"Is that why you wanted him to get attacked by that shark?" Horatio
interjected, comprehension dawning. "I thought you were trying to kill
him."

Vanderdecker shook his head. "That's part of the curse. The ship can't
sink and any man aboard her can't die."

"You said your ship was cursed, Vanderdecker, but I would say it is
blessed!" Kennedy said. "I was as good as dead."

"You had to be. The curse won't do a thing for mere flesh wounds. Hal,
pull up your shirt."

Hal did so, obliging the men with a view of a jagged scar that crisscrossed
his back.

"Battle wound?" Horatio asked.

"Cut myself shaving," Hal winked. "But it is true, what Vanderdecker says.
Any mortal injury or any damage to the ship that might cause her to sink
gets magically-repaired."

"So." Horatio's brow furrowed. "If we had brought him up with just the
Jellyfish sting."

"He'd 'ave had weeks of unbearable pain, and he might not have died at all,
just lost the use of his arm and been horribly scarred," Steve interrupted.
"Good thing I was able to raise that shark. Woah! What a beauty SHE was!"

"Bloke must've not seen a woman in a damn sight longer than six bloody
months," Styles muttered.

"Thanks, then, for trying to kill me," Archie stammered. He still looked
stunned. Steve waved it off and then ran over to the other side of the
deck, having spotted some other odd bit of fauna to exclaim over.

"He is annoying as hell, but he sure knows how to piss off deadly animals,
and that sometimes proves useful."

"So, we sail on to Port Jackson now?" Horatio asked.

"Sorry, but no. I might be a *deus ex machina*, but by the terms of the
curse I'm not allowed to be either a water taxi or Sea Tow."

"Then, are we marooned here, same as you?" Horatio once again fought down a
wave of irrational panic, for Vanderdecker, the man who controlled their
fate absolutely, wasn't making any sense. "Same as Hal?"

Vanderdecker allowed a faint spark of interest to light his muddy blue eyes.
"There's a lot I suppose I should explain to you. Why don't you dine with
me tonight?" He strode over to the galley hatch and pulled it up. Calling
down to the galley, he bellowed, "Hey! Emeril! Do you think there is
anything in the provisions you could cook tonight I haven't already had a
hundred thousand times before?"

A thin voice rose up from below.

"Lobster patties?"

"Don't be an ass, we've had those four thousand times in the last
twenty-five years."

"Bombasplinctz?" The voice was too indistinct for the Petrels to hear it.
It sounded like "Bombasplitnctz."

Vanderdecker appeared to approve the Bombaplitnchtz, and Styles shot
Matthews a worried look. "I suppose there ain't no chance of beer and
pease, duff, and a biscuit?"

"None at all, Styles," Matthews agreed. "I never thought I'd miss Naval
rations. Still, we ain't dining with the officers. Where's Oldroyd?"

"'e's over there with that 'Steve'.

The energetic blond fellow was attempting to get Oldroyd to help him subdue
a large seabird that they had plucked from the rigging. As they wrestled
with the flapping bird, Steve kept up a constant string of commentary.
Oldroyd, usually at no loss for mindless chatter himself, seemed overwhelmed
by the verbal barrage.

"Whoa! Albatross shat on Oldroyd! GREAT STUFF!" Steve crowed. His entire
sturdy frame positively vibrated with delight. "A rare and unusual
defecation behaviour, practically never observed by humans! That's what I
wanted to show you, Oldroyd!"

"Does he ever stop talking?" Horatio wondered out loud.

"No, that's why he's part of the curse," Vanderdecker said sadly. "There's
more than one way to be immortal, I suppose."

"He won't be joining us for dinner, will he?"

"When he sees what we are having, he won't want to," Vanderdecker brightened
at the thought. "See you in an hour, gentlemen."

***********************************

"Gentleman, a toast."

A platter of pan-scorched bread made the rounds.

"You said you had things to explain to us," Horatio began, discreetly
crunching. The toast points were pleasantly crispy, and in response to a
pointed nod and wink from Vanderdecker, he dunked his in his soup with
noticeable relief, then waved it about expressively between the occasional
pensive nibble. "Naturally, we are all curious how Mr. Kennedy's leg was
regrown and how the ship repaired itself, and the nature of this so-called
"curse" you sail under. Perhaps you might wish to start at the beginning."

"Even *I* might not have that long, Mr. Hornblower," Vanderdecker replied.
"But I suppose I can try. In a nutshell--"

"In the Flying Dutchman, Skip," Johannes corrected.

Vanderdecker rolled his eyes. "Briefly, then, I am cursed to sail the
seven seas for all eternity, unless certain conditions are met."

"But why?" Kennedy asked, being Kennedy, and therefore part of dinner party
scenes mainly to react to statements issued by characters more central to
the plot. Also, his hair looked great, with the lanternlight giving his
wispy golden bangs a halo effect above his glinting sapphire-blue eyes and
fine, aristocratic cheekbones-in fact, his eyes looked so very blue that if
he could have been filmed for broadcast at just that moment, he would have
launched a dozen slavering websites no matter what his character did from
that point on. "Why did you get cursed? You don't seem totally evil, or
even mean, just rather-callous."

Vanderdecker shrugged, annoyed by his obtuseness. "The usual reason. I
blew off a supernatural being who appeared to be some inconsequential mortal
nobody in a prideful and callous way. But then," he continued with a more
wistful expression, "I compounded my error by attempting to find loopholes
in the curse. That was the real mistake."

"Yeah," Johannes added. "At first, we were only cursed to sail the seven
seas until he," he jabbed an accusing thumb at Vanderdecker, "Could find an
honest purser. But he kept trying to find away around it."

"That's right, I did. I didn't take the curse seriously, you see, three
hundred years ago. More's the pity--"

Vanderdecker turned at the sound of the mess door swinging open.

"Ah, here is our dinner."

Dinner turned out to be an artfully-arranged fan of small pancakes, curled
around a center of some sort of creamed meat, arranged on an expressively
squiggly design of red currant jelly. Horatio and Archie, after an
initially-cautious sample, plunged in like hearty trenchermen.

"This is excellent!" Hornblower exclaimed. He wished there were small
beer, but apparently, lack of spirit rations was also part of the curse.
"Continue."

"I'm so glad you like it," Vanderdecker said in a very bored and sarcastic
voice. "My cook has had lots of practice." He took a deep breath.
"Twenty-one times, I tried to find my way around the terms of the curse.
Twenty-one times, the curse was strengthened, made more difficult to lift.
Now, I am very nearly resigned to my eternal torment."

"Eternal torment? This? Immortality! And on such a beautiful ship, too.
Any Captain would give his eye teeth for a vessel like yours," Archie
interjected. Vanderdecker shot him a pitying look.

"It's only the inevitability of dying that makes you appreciate life. And
only the possibility of living your life on land that makes you yearn to go
to sea."

Hal nodded, still a part of this story, though nobody knew why. "He's
right, you know."

"That seems rather cynical," Horatio said. "What about the small
pleasures-the little things that give daily life its variety? Such as a
fine meal, like this. What is this dish, anyway?"

"Blintzes," Vanderdecker replied.

At that moment, the swinging door to the mess banged open and Steve
appeared.

"Sorry to be late, mates, but I couldn't find my wombat. Anyone seen him?
I've been looking all over the ship and--"

Vanderdecker smiled fondly down at his plate.

The stocky blond fellow spluttered, at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

"Crikey! You didn't! Julius, you are a right bastard!"

Vanderdecker took a generous dollop, chewed it thoughtfully, then smiled at
the crewman. "Mmmmm...Great STUFF!"

"CRIKEY!" The door banged shut.

"I told you he wouldn't want to join us once he found out what we were
having."

Wombat blintzes? Horatio's stomach roiled, but then he recalled that it was
actually quite good. He also recalled that he didn't know exactly what a
wombat was, anyhow, and fancied it might be rather like a pig. He hoped it
did not have tentacles, or a slimy body, or anything disgusting like that.

Johannes picked up the thread. "Now, Skip is cursed until he can make
someone love him enough to die for him."

Horatio looked about the table. Vanderdecker's men all seemed like good
enough sorts, amiable and loyal, despite sharing their master's curse.
"What about your men, sir? Wouldn't they die for you? I would gladly give
my life for Captain Pellew."

Vanderdecker shook his head with a grimace. "Thought of that. No, it has
to be a female."

"Your mum?" Archie interposed.

"Has to be a young female with her whole life ahead of her."

"Sisters?"

"Not related to me."

"Then find someone desperate for love." Horatio said.

'Te'wa', Archie thought, recalling the dark-skinned young girl who had
ministered to his needs so tenderly on the island. Perhaps someone like that
might be just waiting for a Flying Dutchman to sail into her life on any one
of these remote islands in the South Pacific.

"No, I'm sorry. She also has to be attractive, educated, personable, and
wealthy. They thought of everything."

"And the problem is, as you can see," Johannes added, "That Skip, here, is
the most relentlessly ordinary-looking person."

It was true, though he did have the typical Dutch coloring. His hair was
blond, but it was a dirty blond. His eyes were blue, but they were a muddy
blue, not the sparkling, twinkling species of blue. His face was neither
cherubically-round, nor manly in its square-jawed ferocity. His build was
medium at best, middling at worst, and his nose was neither small nor large,
his expression one of determined blandness, and his eyebrows were a shade on
the unplucked side, but did not bristle, nor did they arch ironically.

"And his personality is not what you would call fascinating to females."

"Why," Vanderdecker said with a bleak expression, "I am not even evil enough
to be interesting, and I am certainly not nice enough to be endearing.
See, I can't leave the ship but for one night every seven years-that's part
of the curse. I guess you could say I am not a likely candidate for that
sort of eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room selfless and pure love at first
sight Romeo and Juliet sort of thing. You really have to get to know me."

"But," Horatio insisted, "the strangest sort of people ARE loved, you know.
Surely if you could pick up Hal, here, you could find some nice girl and
bring her aboard."

"I tried that," Vanderdecker said. "But it's no good. Once a girl has spent
long enough aboard the Flying Dutchman to have gotten to know me well enough
to start to think about falling in love with me, she can't help but notice I
'm immortal and can't be killed. So, it hardly makes it worth her while to
prove she'll die for me, when I can't even die at all. It is a real
problem."

"That's some Curse, that Curse-22," Johannes pointed out helpfully.

The men all stared at their plates, acknowledging the hopelessness of his
situation.

"And," Johannes added, "I hear tell Skip kisses like a fish. We're all
doomed. Eternal damnation and ceaseless wandering."

"Shut up, Johannes! You didn't need to tell them THAT!" Vanderdecker's
knife flashed through the air, and he buried it deep in Johannes's ribcage,
then pulled it out. With a foamy gurgle, the first mate of the Flying
Dutchman slid from his chair, hitting the floorboards under the table with a
sickening thud.

Horatio and Archie stared at Vanderdecker in speechless horror.

But in a few seconds, Johannes's hand snaked up and grasped the edge of the
table, and with a sigh and a heave, the man pulled himself back into his
chair, rubbing his ribcage thoughtfully. Only a rent in the fabric of his
shirt showed where the "Flying Dutchman" had stabbed him.

"I hate it when you do that."

"Oh, I don't know, I think it is a rather interesting sensation the first
dozen or so times." Vanderdeck grinned evilly at Hornblower. "You haven't
tested the resuscitating powers of the ship, yet. Would you like me to
shoot you in the head."

Hornblower swallowed hard. "No, thank you. I-, I'll take your word for it."

"Well, here is another thing. The only place I can take you, is the place
from whence I took you. I can only take you back to, not away from."

"Wish you'd told ME that," Hal muttered.

"So unless you'd care to sail with me endlessly and pointlessly, you'll have
to go back to that island."

"The Island?" Archie groaned. "Oh NO!"

Horatio considered this, then smiled. "But this is great news. Archie, we
need to go back. We left the bank notes there. Don't you want to complete
our mission?"

"Horatio," Archie blasted, "How can we complete our mission! We don't have
a ship, remember?"

"Then we must find a ship, or build a ship, and this time, we won't lose
it."

Archie turned to Vanderdecker. "Horatio is the most fabulous tactician, but
he has been rather unlucky in the matter of keeping his ships. They have a
bad habit of sinking or getting captured."

"Really?" Vanderdecker looked interested. He pronged a thoughtful forkful.
"I wonder if I gave him temporary command of.."

"SKIP! You're doing it again!"

Vanderdecker sighed. "I know."

"Archie, I am not going to let down Captain Pellew and the Royal Navy,"
Horatio continued, sudden enthusiasm etching the clean lines of his face
into a determined expression. "His Majesty is counting on us to deliver
those funds to Port Jackson."

"Very well, Horatio, I suppose it is our duty. I suppose I've endured
worse." Archie clenched his jaw and pursed his lips, shuddering slightly.
"But-what about Simpson? I hoped we'd seen the last of him. He's still
there, you know."

"Simpson?" Vanderdecker perked up.

"Jack Simpson?" Hal asked.

Archie nodded and Horatio rolled his eyes.

"Jack Simpson is on that island? Well, then, you have to go back."

"Impossible," Horatio said. "I tell you the man was shot dead six years
ago. I saw it with my own eyes."

"Sure, that Jack Simpson was shot dead, but not this one," Hal Trevalyan
said. "The authorities have been on this one's trail for dog's years. He's
notorious in certain circles-wanted for more crimes than you can shake a
belaying pin at."

"What?"

"The man you knew as Simpson had a twin brother, Jasper. While they were
both quite young, Jasper hit upon a scheme and the stupider of the two,
Jonathon, or "Jack", decided to go along with it. Jack would enlist in the
Navy, and Jasper would book himself a passage to the East Indies. Only, see,
Jasper never left."

"Go on."

"Jack and Jasper took turns serving aboard his Majesty's ships as
Midshipman. The shorebound brother was then free to pursue a life of crime,
knowing that he would have the perfect alibi should he be spotted and
identified by a witness--that he was actually serving on board a Ship of the
Line in front of hundreds of people at the time the crimes took place."

"Fantastic!"

"It was a fine plan, until one of the two got killed in your duel, Mr.
Hornblower."

"He duelled twice, you know. The first time Clayton injured him. Clayton
died, but Jack Simpson should still have had the scars from where he was
shot in the shoulder."

"Did he?"

Horatio thought about the man with the skull tattoo he had rescued from the
wreck of the Justinian. "Come to think of it, no."

"Right. Clayton shot Jasper, whose turn it was to be "Jack". Jasper was
taking too long to recover, and was in danger of being put on indefinite
shore leave, so Jack got the Ship's doctor drunk, put on a bandage, and
faked a remarkable recovery, leaving Jasper onshore to recuperate. The man
you saw on the island is Jasper, but he calls himself "Jack". Quite
identical, except for the scar on the chest. Oh, and this one is just a liar
and a thief, not a buggerer."

"Well, that's a relief." Archie said, then he checked himself, coloring
crimson. "How did you know?"

"Everyone knew. He was sort of notorious for that sort of thing. Not to
worry-happened to a lot of young fellows. Nothing to be ashamed of."

"Oh."

"I find this story very difficult to believe. In fact, I don't believe it
at all," Hornblower said stoutly.

"Well, did you ever see the two of them together?" Hal asked.

"No."

"Then that proves it." Hal looked satisfied. "So now, this Jack Simpson is
officially dead, and that means he too is condemned to wander without a home
or identity. Vanderdecker here can't die, and ironically, Jack Simpson
can't be restored to the land of the living, at least, not back in England.
But if Simpson is on that island, then you can be sure he is there for a
reason. There's something on that island he wants, and it isn't coconuts.
Trust me, Horatio. I was right about the shark thing turning out well, wasn
't I?"

"Then that settles it, gentlemen," Horatio proclaimed. "Back to the island
it is, if Captain Vanderdecker can find it again, and, of course, if it is
not too much bother."

"It is something to do." Vanderdecker had once again donned his mantle of
ennui. "We are bound to run into it, sometime."

***************************************

Several days later, the small party of former Petrels trudged across the
sandy beach of their former island home, and halted before disappearing into
the dark green haze of tropical maritime woods.

They turned to wave one last time at the big, black-masted red-sailed ship
they had left, and thought they saw the ship shimmer in the heat of the day,
and wave back.

The men allowed themselves the luxury of gazing a little longer at the
beautiful ship, so sleek and fast and indestructible, and yet so totally and
completely useless to them in their present predicament.

Archie Kennedy, ever willing to give voice to the more unpleasant of their
prospects, despite his deceptively sunny appearance, said glumly, "Horatio,
you know you will have to face a court-martial for losing the Petrel, even
though it was not really your fault. It was mine. I had the helm during
the worst of the storm. It should be me in front of those Captains and
Commodores, not you."

"I was the commander, Archie. That is the burden of accepting a command.
Besides," Horatio said kindly, smiling at his friend, "I don't know that any
man could captain a boat the size of the Petrel safely through a typhoon.
The Admiralty will understand, so long as we accomplish our mission."

Archie still looked worried. "But Horatio," he whispered, "what will you
tell them about Vanderdecker? The Flying Dutchman? So many strange
things.they'll think you barking mad."

Horatio's expression was guarded. "If they ask the question, then I will
answer it."

Archie's expression lightened. "I suppose they are unlikely to ask."

"Very unlikely."

Horatio tried to remember Vanderdecker, but already the Flying Dutchman's
features were blurring in his memory. He really was the most phenomenally
nondescript-looking person. But he had a very good cook. And an awfully
nice ship.

He feasted his eyes one last time on the beautiful Flying Dutchman. Damme,
he thought, I have got to get me one of those.

"I think the best thing to do would be to just forget any of it ever
happened. Come, Archie, Mr. Matthews, men, we have a mission."

The men turned and headed into the darkness of the trees.

********************************************

The Petrels turned away just in time to avoid seeing a silvery, cylindrical
spaceship shimmer out of the sky and land on the deck of the Flying
Dutchman. A hatchway opened and an alien with an expensive-looking
complexion glided down the ramp and came to stand in front of Johannes.

"You are an cretin, Johannes A tagalong chowderhead with the intellectual
depth of a matchbox."

Johannes stared at him in shock.

"You are Sven Johannes, aren't you?" asked the alien. He pulled a long list
out of his glittering robes and ran one of his white, expertly-manicured
fingers down a column of strange writing which looked almost, but not
entirely, exactly like Dutch.

"Y-yes? Yes," Johannes stammered.

The elegant alien produced a silver pencil and crossed out a line of writing
on his list.

Vanderdecker, who had been aft at the time the spaceship landed, approached
the visitor.

"Hello, Wowbagger," he said.

The alien regarded him with distaste.

"Hello, Julius."

"Not my turn yet?"

"Computer?" the alien addressed the ship. "Vanderdecker, Julius, immortal
human?"

The computer answered with an incomprehensible series of numbers and alien
words. The alien glared at Vanderdecker with pale, hostile, alien eyes of
muddy blue overlaid with silver. "Tuesday."

"I'll look forward to it."

"Of the earth year 2597."

Vanderdecker's face fell. "Still cursed, then."

The alien nodded with an expression of gleeful malice, turned and glided
majestically back up the ramp, and the spaceship door closed behind him with
such a perfect fit that not even the most subtle seam could be seen in the
highly polished metal.

"Who is THAT?" Johannes asked. "And how do you know him?"

"We immortals do tend to run into each other after awhile. His name is
Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. Like me, he wasn't born immortal. He
became immortal by accident, and he hasn't dealt with it very well. Many
years ago, he decided that it would make immortality bearable if he had
something do which would take a really, really long time. So he decided to
insult every life form in the universe, one by one."

Johannes's brow knit. "You know, Skip, other than being sort of a silvery
cove, he actually bears a remarkable resemblance to you."

The ship lifted off the ship's deck with the most satisfying purring sound,
then rose straight up, flashed, and disappeared into the sun.

Vanderdecker gazed hungrily after it with naked avarice evident in every
nondescript line of his unremarkable face.

"I have GOT to get me one of those."

************************************************

Horatio halted the men in a small clearing, densely thicketed with lush,
tropical vegetation.

They all crouched on their haunches, and Horatio took a twig and began to
sketch a map in the sand.

"All right, gentlemen, we appear to be here," he made a mark. "And I could
see from our landing site that the high ground where the temple and spring
are is here, which means that the village of the islanders has to be right
here, about a mile to our north."

The men all wore looks of intense concentration.

"I know that none of you are happy to be back on this island, and I am
touched by your loyalty in returning with me, but there will be reward for
all when our mission is completed."

Loyalty? Archie thought. He had the strangest feeling that he would be
obliged to come back here again and again unless they managed to leave in
some fashion, and with some victory to claim upon their arrival in Port
Jackson, that was satisfactory to Horatio. Horatio would never just slink
back into any port in disgrace. That was not the kind of officer he was.
He'd die first.

"We need a plan. We need a plan that will accomplish two things. First, I
must get back my cape, for all of the bank notes bound for Port Jackson are
sewn into the lining, as well as my commission as Captain of the Petrel."

Archie nodded, "I wish I had known about where you hid the notes. I thought
they were lost. The cape is back in the village. The priest or chief, or
whoever the one with the skull on the stick has taken it and is wearing it
himself."

"Right, then we need to convince him that he should give it back."

"We have no weapons, sir," Matthews pointed out, "and nothing to trade with,
begging your pardon, sir".

"We have Archie."

Archie groaned.

"They think he is some sort of god."

"I still am not sure what sort. Simpson told me that I was supposed to make
it rain, but you know, he could have been lying."

"Well, then, what did the people of this island do? Come on, Archie, THINK!
Is there anything, anything at all that might have been a clue?"

"The girl, Te'wa, who was looking after me, was very kind, and she seemed to
like me. She brought me food and drink whenever I asked, and she smiled at
me all the time. But she did something very strange on several occasions,
Horatio. She kept rubbing my gold buttons, and then pointing up in the air,
at then wiggling her fingers. I thought maybe she wanted me to make it rain
something gold or golden."

The men pondered this for awhile.

"Was this at the altar?"

"No, actually it was underneath a big tree near my hut."

Horatio found an idea forming in his mind. "Every time she rubbed your
button, and then pointed to the sky, was it in the same place on the
island?"

Archie's golden brows raised in comprehension. "Yes, yes it was--a little
clearing beneath that tree. Horatio, do you think there might be something
special about that place?"

Horatio nodded. "I don't know what, but it seems to me like that girl was
trying to tell you something. Maybe if we went there, we would be able to
figure it out. Let's wait until darkness, and then go have a look. Perhaps
there is something about that area we can use to our advantage. Can you
find that tree again?"

"I'm pretty sure if I can find the village, I can find the spot where Te'wa
kept rubbing my buttons."

"We'll have to make something happen to convince them you are a God. Maybe
the spot has special significance to these people."

Horatio pondered a bit more. "Right. We are going to convince these people
they should give us whatever we ask for, up to and including having them
build us a big canoe. Styles and Matthews can make us a mast, and we will
have to sew our clothes together to make a sail."

He smiled at his men, who were looking a bit discouraged. "Come on,
fellas, it will be just like old times after the Marie Gallante sank. We
were able to sail quite a great distance in that little cutter."

Styles grinned, his first real smile in days. "Fish for it, you said."

"Right. Now every man cut off his buttons and give them to me. If these
people want golden buttons to fall from the sky, then that is exactly what
Archie shall conjure up."

"A-, all our buttons, sir? Even the ones on our britches?" Oldroyd asked.

"All of them. For God's sake Oldroyd, cut yourself a vine and use it for a
belt. Once we start making our sail, you won't need those buttons, anyhow."

**********************************************

Archie Kennedy tried to put himself in a godlike frame of mind, but it wasn'
t easy. He had some serious doubts about Hornblower's plan to impress the
people of the island that he had returned to their midst as god to be
reckoned with. Also, his pants kept falling down. It seemed to Archie that
a real god would be wearing perfectly-draped robes of some sort, not
droopy-drawered knee-breeches and an open shirt.

Stealthily, the men had approached the scattered huts and lean-to's of the
island people, only to find that the entire village appeared to be
abandoned. Still, the sound of human voices drifted back from far away and
the sight of cooking fires left burning and possessions scattered about
showed that the people were simply away for a short period of time, and
would return.

A thin curl of smoke and the glimmering of torchlights could be seen atop
the rise where the stone altar stood. They must be having some sort of
ceremony tonight.

Excellent, Horatio had said. They will no doubt be in the proper frame of
mind to receive a "god" in answer to their rituals and prayers. He had
scoured the camp for his cloak, but it had not been left behind. No doubt
the priest was wearing it as a mark of his rank and power.

Horatio had been impressed with the lush foliage and impressive height of
the tree under which Archie had indicated his strange "conversations" with
Te'wa had taken place.

"We have to know in advance when they are coming back so that we can get
Archie in position," Horatio said. "This tree will suit admirably, and
Oldroyd, you are our best climber. Take the sack of buttons, climb this
tree, and keep a lookout."

"Aye, Sir, but.."

"Oldroyd, you have an order. Start climbing."

The tall, strapping sailor clinched the sack of buttons in his teeth, and
scaled the tree as easily as a monkey. He disappeared into the dark foliage
and in a moment, he called down, "When Oi see the torches startin' ta move,
oi'll let you know they are headed back-a this waya."

"Good!" Horatio whispered loudly, "All right, Archie, we are going to
disappear but we'll be hidden nearby. You know what to do. Oldroyd, when
Archie starts to moan and chant as the natives return, you are to let the
buttons trickle out of the sack. I want you to be directly over him and
make NO sound. We're counting on you."

"Sir?" Oldroyd said, "Sir! Then it look like to me I could be up here a
long time for and."

"DAMMIT, Oldroyd, just for once in your life, obey an order! And you are
NOT to come down until Horatio or I tell you." Archie exploded. He was
feeling quite nervous. It was all very well for Horatio, who got to hide in
the bushes and watch events unfold.

"But--"

"Oldroyd--" Archie growled. "Belay that."

"Right, Styles, Matthews, and Taylor, to me. There are some spears left
behind in the village. Go grab up as many as you can so we have some
weapons if things get ugly."

Well, thought Archie. That's better.

They had a long wait--a very long wait. The sky began to tinge with lilac
and pink before Oldroyd whispered, "They are coming back. Just a little
ways off now."

"All right, thank you Mr. Oldroyd." Archie took a deep breath and began to
sway and roll his eyes back in his head. He gave a small series of jerks.

Don't panic, he told himself. Don't panic. "Not yet Oldroyd, I'm just
practicing."

He continued to practice his "god" act, going through a series of movements
that he hoped was a good imitation of an actual fit.

"Getting closer, but them torchlights just went out," Oldroyd whispered.
"Er, Sir.I have to."

"Do what you have to, but just for god's sake be quiet up there, Mr.
Oldroyd."

"Godspeed, Mr. Kennedy," Archie heard Horatio's voice from somewhere close
by. Still, he felt very much alone. Well, practice makes perfect.

He gave another corkscrew twist of his body, leapt and jerked to one side,
and to his surprise, was enveloped in a cascading shower of gold.

******************************************************
"DAMMIT, Oldroyd!"

"I'm sorry, Sir, I didn't know you was going to move like that." There was
a short, embarrassed, pregnant silence. "I-, I've sort of needed to go ever
since I climbed up 'ere but Mr. Hornblower said--"

"Crikey!" Archie said in an unconscious imitation of Steve. He pulled off
his shirt and wiped his hair and face. He had never felt less godlike.

"Hey!" Oldroyd exclaimed.

It was getting quite light now. Archie wondered if the natives had
extinguished their torches and were closer than they thought.

"Quiet!"

"But, sir! There's something--GORBLIMEY!" Oldroyd started to laugh, a thin,
high-pitched, hyena-like sound.

"QUIET, Mr. Oldroyd!"

"Aye, aye," Oldroyd giggled.

God save the King, Archie thought. How could they have possibly put their
fate in Oldroyd's hands? What could Horatio have been thinking? The man
was a good climber but a borderline imbecile.

The unmistakable sound of many approaching feet and an excited chatter
heralded the reentry of the natives to the camp.

"AAAIIYYYYEEE!!!" Archie bellowed. "SEEMSUN! RAIN GOLD!
GOLGAFRIGGINRAINDOWN!"

The natives grabbed their spears and ran in the direction of the voice,
stopping in awe at the sight of their spasmodically-jerking returned god.
They regarded him warily, then Te'wa broke through the ring and threw
herself before him. She pointed at the sky and chattered. "Tre Sah! Tre
Sah! GO! GO!" then gave him a brilliant, encouraging smile. Archie felt
oddly enervated by the warmth and enthusiasm of her greeting. He took her
hand and kissed it as if she were the greatest lady in the land, and the
priest, who was wearing Horatio's cape, smiled as if pleased, then said
"SEEMSUN!" and pointed at the sky above Archie's head.

Back there again are we? He thought. Well, time for my god act. This is
really going to impress them. I just hope my pants stay up and they let me
take a bath after this is over.

Archie moaned, groaned, cut loose with a stream of unintelligible gibberish
(actually, he recited the soliloquy from Hamlet very very very fast), and
began to jerk around wildly, contorting his sturdy frame in all manner of
unnatural postures.

And this time a shower of real gold fell from the sky upon Archie, not
buttons, but a shower of golden coins that fell and fell and fell. The
heavy coins stung and hurt when they landed on his face, eyes, shoulders and
head, so he jumped aside and stood staring with everybody else at the
accumulating pile of gold beneath the tree. It was as if a mischievous tree
spirit were throwing down a King's ransom, one handful at the time.

Te'wa laughed and clapped her hands delightedly. "TRE SAH!!!" But Archie
noticed that neither she, nor the other natives, made any move to touch any
of the coins. In fact, they took great care to avoid even stepping on them
as they gathered around their "god" and gave a lusty cheer.

*************************************************

Horatio Hornblower and the rest of the Petrels, by contrast, had no
squeamishness in the sight of such an unexpected windfall. They emerged
from their places of concealment, and the ratings fell upon the coins and
took to scooping them up. From up in the tree, Oldroyd laughed, and
continued to throw coins, though each handful seemed to contain fewer and
fewer of the shiny, golden pieces.

Horatio picked up one of the pieces and examined it. The coins were old, at
least fifty years old, and Dutch. Dutch gold. "The girl must have wanted
you to find the hidden treasure," he said to Archie, who was attempting to
retie the vine that held his breeches up. He was suddenly very glad that
the natives didn't seem to want their buttons after all.

"I feel entirely stupid," Archie said. "I guess I never was supposed to be
a rain god. I wonder what they really wanted from me?" He glanced at the
old priest from under lowered sandy-golden brows.

Horatio motioned at the cape, and made a gesture signifying that the cape
belonged to him and the man should give it back. The old man stepped
backwards, shaking his head and waving his grisly scepter at Horatio. Two
men lowered their spears at Hornblower. It was clear that the man was not
going to give back the cape without a great deal more negotiation.

The priest pointed at the golden coins, waving his hand to encompass all of
it. Then he pointed at Archie, then Te'Wa, and smiled.

This was incomprehensible. Were they offering the money for Archie? The
money for Archie to take Te'Wa? Te'Wa for the money?

Horatio's thoughts were abruptly jerked back to more concrete matters by the
sharp retort of a pistol.

"I thought you Navy brats would be back for the gold," he spat. "But as you
have no ship, I think it will be a lot safer with me. Back off, or I'll
shoot you dead, I will."

Captain Roberts, the insane Pirate of Kaliakra, strode into the clearing.
In each hand, he held a musket. Horatio raised his spear, but immediately
realized the futility of such a weapon against a foe with two loaded
pistols. Roberts had been nothing if not decisive. Even now, one of his
pistols was firmly lodged against Archie's ear, and the other was lowered at
Jorgenson and Styles. "Start packing that gold into this sack or I'll blow
his head off," Roberts said.

But he didn't blow anyone's head off, because with a strangled cry, a very
large, formerly curly and blond, sunburned sailor dropped out of the trees,
landing in a clumsy heap upon Captain Roberts. Both men went down in a
tangle of thrashing arms and legs and yelps of pain, as Horatio and Archie
fell upon them, each emerging from the fray with a pistol.

"If it's gold you want, then by god you shall have your fill," Horatio
hissed, and took the half-filled sack of gold and swung it forcefully,
hitting the pirate at the base of his skull. He fell to the ground,
insensible.

"Oldroyd," Styles grunted. "Yer' a hero!" He slapped his friend on his
shaven scalp.

The natives all began to chant and cheer again, this time because Archie's
breeches had fallen down in the fight with Roberts. Again they pointed at
Archie, then Te'Wa, who smiled at him shyly and rapped a tendril of long,
dark hair around her finger. The priest pointed at the sack, and indicated
that it was for Hornblower to take, then once again pointed at Archie. The
men of the tribe kept chanting, then began to thrust their spears
rhythmically in the air. The Petrels seemed to get their meaning a split
second later and joined in the chant, laughing and making bawdy jokes, still
filled with glee by the sight of so much gold.

Archie, blushing furiously, hissed, "I can't believe I never noticed this
before, but there aren't any children here on this island! Damme, this is
unbelievable. I can NOT believe this is happening to me. It is like someone
's idea of a sick joke."

Hornblower stood up and dusted himself off, then smiled down at Captain
Robert's inert body. It was bright, whipcracker of a smile, with just the
right mixture of intelligence and mischief that, if he could have been
filmed for broadcast at that very moment, and despite a total lack of other
evidence that Horatio Hornblower could ever have been considered a hot date,
would have inspired legions of fan fiction writers to write for him romances
where he would woo and win a spunky and worthy heroine who, though she might
not resemble the author physically, would nonetheless share many of her key
personality traits.

"It seems to me, Gentlemen, that the Kaliakra, a very fine ship I might add,
is suddenly in need of a captain."

"Well," thought a tall, rangy old midshipman, who had actually been part of
the proceedings at the altar earlier than night, and had trailed behind the
tribesmen on the way back to the village, hanging back and observing all the
goings on beneath the tree with great interest, "It won't be you." And Jack
Simpson, grinning foully, slipped back unobserved and unremarked into the
darkness of the woods.

*************************************************