Chapter 7: Not Once More, But Still With Pirates

(Do:) Embrace ridiculous word-count padding tricks if you story has stalled. -No Plot? No Problem!


With no time to react, Random caught only a glimpse of dark, lithe shapes in the corner of her eye before she felt a rope lash out and snag her around the waist, pinning her arms to her sides. Pilcrowe fared no better, her coat wrapped around her body so she could barely move. Someone stepped out of the shadows...

"At last we speak on even terms," said the ninja master. "After so long, I have tracked you down, and this time- wait a minute, who are these people? What's going on here?"

"I was about to ask you the same question," said Random. Pressed up against her chest, the shovel detector whirred through its calculations.

"This is a pirate ship," said the ninja master. "When I board a pirate ship, I expect to find pirates. Instead, I find myself face to face with too much hair and a lab coat. Explain?"

"Why do you have that huge hair, anyway?" said Pilcrowe.

"Why do you have anything? Shut up and talk us out of this!"

Pilcrowe sighed. "The one with the hair is my client. I represent S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Detective Agency. I would show you my card, but as you seem to have me at a disadvantage, that won't be possible under present circumstances. Might I have your name?"

The ninja master crossed his arms in annoyance (or what was probably annoyance - it was hard to tell with nothing on display but his eyes) "I am honour bound never to reveal my name to the uninitiated."

Pilcrowe glared.

"But if you must know, it's Steve the Ninja."

"Steve?" exclaimed Random.

"No, not Steve!" The ninja master flung his hands in the air. "Steve the Ninja! Don't you see, it's two extra words that way! Oh, forget it. You two, you may as well untie them, they're obviously not from around here."

There was a sudden lack of pressure, and Random felt the blood rush back to her limbs. She rubbed her arms. "Er, thanks," she said, as the two ninja underlings who'd been holding them captive stepped into view.

"We are investigating," Pilcrowe said, smoothing her coat down, "the suspicious movements of the Travelling Shovel of Death."

The three ninjas inhaled, sharply.

"So you understand that this is a matter of some seriousness," Pilcrowe went on.

"Yeah," said Random. "The one with the exposition there is Pilcrowe. That's probably Pilcrowe the Detective to you lot. I'm Random Idea Number Forty Two, which I suppose makes me..." She tapped at the detector screen. "Random the Shovel Researcher."

"Random the Shovel Researcher?" said Steve the Ninja.

"It's one more word than 'scientist'," said Random. And I can do science with shovels if I want. I might be a botanist! Botany is a science."

"Your words are concerning," said Steve the Ninja. "It is true that the Travelling Shovel of Death did visit this ship some days previously. That is not secret information; it is widely known amongst these parts. How can I expect you to honour your words?"

"Er..." Random thought back to the lab. "You don't have a TV on this ship, do you?"

"Oh come on, we're not that anachronistic!" protested Steve the Ninja.

"Thought not." Random nodded to Pilcrowe who, already guessing where this was going, had her phone in her hand. "Fancy watching The Tildeworth Hour tonight?"

The ninjas followed Random and Pilcrowe out onto the deck, where Random shaded her eyes from the sun after so long in relative darkness. The sky was a perfect blue, the sea its mirror, and there was not a hint of land in sight. Quite where the ninjas must have come from she had no idea but it was probably some sort of ninja thing. It was going to be a lot harder to explain what she was doing.

"Uh, hello?" she called out. "Or is it ahoy? Whatever it is, I need to speak to whoever's in charge here!"

("This is literally the worst pirates versus ninjas scene ever," whined Steve the Ninja, in the background.)

I used to want to be a pirate, Random thought, as she swayed, trying to keep her balance on the rocking deck. Now it didn't seem like such a good idea. She could feel a certain knot of discomfort rising in her throat. Maybe a princess would have been a better idea after all. Could you be a scientist princess? No, maybe a plain scientist would be best. She'd focus on that, not the jarring sensation between the ship and the waves.

"Steve the Ninja?" roared an unseen voice. "That be you, skulking around my ship like the rat you are?"

"He's brought company along, and we'd like to speak to you." Pilcrowe, standing with her hands tucked neatly being her back and her coat waving artfully in the sea breeze, didn't care one bit about harsh sun or unnatural movements.

"Look, I'll handle this," said Steve the Ninja. "I may as well do something here. Yes, Captain Frederick, it's me. I'm afraid there's been a bit of an... interruption?"

"On MY ship?" Captain Frederick, or whatever his name was, was exactly the sort of person who would get served from the speciality drinks menu at Club Ack! if he ever turned up. "Who dares cross me, Mad Capt'n Frederick, of the-"

"Fred the Pirate, we get it," said Random. Don't look at the sea. Whatever you do, don't look at the sea...

"Oh, great," said Captain Frederick, now Fred the Pirate by consensus of just about everyone else, and suddenly devoid of accent. "You try so hard to get into the spirit of things, and this happens. Why are you on my ship again? What sort of sense am I supposed to make of a.. a.."

"Scientist," said Random.

"Detective," added Pilcrowe.

"Right, right," said Fred the Pirate. "What sort of sense am I supposed to make of a scientist and a detective turning up on my ship? My pirate ship? Ninjas I can handle, but this is going too far!"

"Wordcount?" offered Random. Don't think of the sea. Think of molecules. Nice happy molecules. I'm happy. I'm thinking of molecules. Arginine, histidine, lysine...

"I've been asking the exact same thing," said Steve the Ninja.

"Oh shut up, Steve, nobody asked you!" snapped Fred the Pirate.

"Well," said Steve the Ninja, folding his arms in indignation, "if you're going to be like that-"

"Can we move on to the point?" said Random, who was staring at the deck, wishing it wouldn't move so much, and holding up a hand for silence. Scientifically speaking, she knew that all that was happening was a disconnect between her visual and kinaesthetic senses, causing her brain to interpret the inconsistent signals as the effects of a powerful toxin, and thus take appropriate measures to deal with it. Scientifically speaking, this did nothing whatsoever to help.

"S. C. Pilcrowe's Inter-Novel Investigation Agency," said Pilcrowe. Random couldn't see much beyond her feet at this point, but she knew the business card was doing extra duty to make up for its earlier absence. "The point being that we are tracking the movements of the Travelling Shovel of Death, and I would like to speak to anyone who might have any information in relation to its whereabouts. In particular, you."

"Travelling Shovel of Death, eh? Well you're right in that, it did pass here a while ago. And what a shovel was doing on my ship I don't know! I mean, there's deliberate anachronisms for amusement value, and then there is simply pushing it. Pushing it, I say. Well it all happened when-"

...alanine, valine, isoleucine, leucine, methonine... Random ran to the rails, leaned over the heaving sea, and the biology lesson turned into a practical demonstration.

That settled it. Being a scientist was way better than being a pirate.

"Arrr, the sharks be drawing near now," said Fred the Pirate. But it was clear his heart wasn't in it any more.

As luck would have it, the shovel murder (of Fred's first mate, now known in these circles as Dave the Former Pirate) was below decks, so Random didn't have to deal with the sea. She could still feel it under her feet, but without that visual disconnect, it was perfectly easy to deal with the motion. Quite relaxing, in a way.

She ran her scanner over the area and picked up the next co-ordinates, while Pilcrowe questioned the witnesses - in other words, Fred the Pirate. He looked about to complain to begin with, but one look from Pilcrowe shut him up.

Engrossed in her own work, Random left them to it. The co-ordinates that came up on screen proved what she had suspected - that this shovel death had come straight after Neo's. If only they had a more recent trail to work with, one that would show better links! They could practically catch the Shovel in the act! All these years it had been as random as... well, as her name. But what about now? She imagined Tildeworth on screen, saying in her most pleasant voice, "And now, the shovel forecast."

No, she had to think of the task at hand. But when they found Neo, he was never going to shut up about this, either. The fact that he hadn't done it himself didn't matter. His friend, his practically a sister, had invented the first Travelling Shovel of Death Detector. He'd even shut up about dying from the shovel over that.

She might not know where he was, but she knew exactly what he would say. That was what being friends was all about.

It is well known that a detective needs only a single glance to tell the life story of their subject. The way someone looks at you or those around them, how they move, what clothes they wear, could be critical. They picked it up in a second, and their minds pondered over the results.

Pilcrowe rested her chin over her folded hands, and stared at the duo in front of her. Somewhat embarrassingly, all she could pick up on was that she was talking to a pirate and a ninja, and that they both had issues.

She tried not to think too hard about it. "Can you describe to me the scene?"

"Aye, t'was the morning of... that is to say we were in port and someone decided it was a good idea to board my ship without asking. I don't call that very polite, but some people simply have no manners. Don't they, Steve?"

"Oh shut up, Fred," snapped Steve the Ninja. "I'm only incidental to this story. I don't even know what I'm doing here."

"I can wait all day." Pilcrowe unfolded her hands and gazed at her nails.

"I'm sorry, but some people love to interrupt," said Fred the Pirate.

"Do go on, then," said Pilcrowe. She'd taken over the captain's cabin, all the better to immerse herself in her subject's mind, though yet again, there wasn't much of any use here. She simply sat at his table and stared out at the pair as they sat before her like a pair of children called in for A Stern Word With Teacher.

"Okay, so, we're in port and Steve here decides to attack-"

"We got a lot of words out of that scene and you know it!" protested Steve the Ninja.

"-so then there's this battle. All epic, lots of jumping and climbing and sliding down the sails and all that," Fred the Pirate went on. (Possibly the smarter one, Pilcrowe noted to herself, in the depths of her mind. Needs more investigation.) "Look, do you need a drink or anything?"

Ah, here came the bribes. "It's rum, isn't it?"

"It's hardly going to be champagne!"

"In that case," said Pilcrowe, "I think I'll pass. It seems that nobody knows the value of a good coffee any more, but I can't say I expected to find one here. Now do go on."

"So Dave... er, Dave the Pirate, right, he's fighting away alongside me, but these masked buggers keep getting out of the way all the time."

Steve the Ninja cleared his throat in amusement. "Clearly not understanding the way of the-"

"Shut up, Steve, it's my ship and it's my story! So we're all focused on his lot, and out of nowhere there's this shovel, just flying out of the air, and claaang, it's right on Dave the Pirate's head. And he falls over, just like that. Haven't seem him since, though I suppose it's a long way to swim up from the bottom of the sea."

"At the bottom of the sea?" said Pilcrowe.

"It's not as if we could keep him on board," said Fred the Pirate. "That's what you do when you're a pirate, doesn't anyone know these things? Anyway, he'd have found his way back."

"Idiots!" snapped Pilcrowe. "Everywhere I look, idiots, the lot of you! Does nobody ever hold on to a body any more? None of you ever stops to think 'oh hey, someone might need to see some evidence'? No, clearly you don't share my priorities." She took off her thick rimmed glasses, and rubbed her forehead. Closing her eyes, she listened to the silence that ensured, woven with the squeak and groan of the ship's timbers, that took on an echoing quality this deep within.

"Don't look at me," said Steve the Ninja. "I didn't have anything to do with it. How is it my fault that I was the last person at the scene of the crime?"

Pilcrowe looked up, sliding her glasses back on. Probably honest, she thought. Doesn't looks like he has a reason to participate in anything deadly. Doesn't look capable of it.

"Well, my thanks anyway for your input," she said. "You're both free to go whenever you like. I'd say wherever you like, but that's not very far right now. But go on, go. I'll take another tour around the scene. Oh, and another thing, both of you?" She leaned forward. "Do yourselves both a favour and kiss already."

That night, deep in the hold as the ship swayed in the dark, a handful of pirates, three ninjas, one detective, and one scientist all sat around a phone screen.

"..and we'll be hearing more from the Knight of NaNoWriMo as the month goes on. Now viewers, I don't like to assume the worst, and I certainly don't like to be sure of the worst, but as your friendly impartial news source in these parts, it is my duty to remind you all of the oncoming Week Two."

Pilcrowe's fingers tightened around the phone.

"Now we hear about this every year," Tildeworth went on, "but the sentiment is always, always the same. Some of you will no doubt be dancing into Week Two. Some of you may even have surpassed your fifty thousand word target! Those of you who ran the Fifty K Day may be waking up and thinking 'oh Tildeworth, what are you talking about? That happened at six in the morning! And what's going on, anyway? I just woke up!' And I salute you, brave storyteller.

"But there are many of us who will not have that fortune, those of us who will struggle in the days to come, and I beg you three words. No, not those words. Not those words either, as they were recently deemed far too terrifying for evening television. The three words are: Don't give up.

"Now I am no... pep talker... but allow me to say this. You may well struggle in the following week. You may well wish you had never embarked upon this journey, especially if you happen to find yourself in mortal danger yet again. But look back, viewers! Look at everything you've done and... depending on your quality levels, you may well be ashamed. You probably will be ashamed. You will wonder what in the name of Chris Baty possessed you to do such a thing. You will throw yourself to the ground and howl in despair at how dreadful, and I mean dreadful, your plot really is!

"As I said, I am not a pep talker. Nor would I dream of being one.

"But look back again, and what do you see? Words. Many, many words. It doesn't matter if you've reached the required twelve thousand, five hundred word mark by the end of tonight, though I must say you'd be doing yourself a lot of favours by getting a move on. But you got this far, and maybe, just maybe, if you don't keep on finding yourself in mortal peril, you will pass through the storm that is Week Two and make it outside. What you will find there, I can't tell. Hope it's a good one!

"And remember, if NaNoWriMo really has eaten your soul, we can't help. This is a television studio. We don't deal in souls."

"Hey, hold that screen steady, would you?" said one of the pirates. "Can't see a thing on there."

"And the three words aside, let me offer you four more!" Tildeworth went on. "You are not alone! Should you wish to share your pain via, for example, the art of constrained poetry, I am pleased to announce that Saturday night is Suck Haiku night at the Suck Club. Free drinks for the best one! Or possibly the worst. It's hard to tell. If you would rather simply bemoan your fate with others, then the Spork Room is always open for tissues, hugs, and... well, sporks, I suppose, though what the latter are meant to do has always eluded me. Perhaps someone could enlighten me some day. Now I think we could all do with a good-"

"Could you hold on to this?" Pilcrowe pushed the phone into Random's hands. "It's getting a little stuffy down here."

It wasn't Tildeworth's fault, Pilcrowe reminded herself. It wasn't anyone's fault, not really.

The wind was out tonight, blowing over the deck and ruffling her hair out of place. She tried to smooth it back, but gave up when the wind undid all her work in seconds. She'd fix it ack below decks, or wherever it was they were going tonight. There didn't seem to be much else to do here.

Not in this light, anyway. The moon and stars shone bright overhead, but the only meaningful illumination was the lanterns fastened to the deck. But it was calm, and with nothing to light the water but a brilliant silver trail, it was easy to forget where she was and what she was doing. She was breathing deeply like Tildeworth had once said to do, taking in huge lungfuls of salty air. Maybe she'd stay here a while.

"Hey you up there? Show's over. You want your phone back?"

No such luck.

"Since you're obviously here now, I may as well take it," Pilcrowe turned away from the sea, to see Random climbing out of the hold.

"Okay, here you go," Random held it out as she approached, and Pilcrowe took it back, checking for any calls. Nothing so far. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

"As long as it's not about me," said Pilcrowe.

"Wasn't going to ask about you," said Random. She was standing like a nervous surfer, arms part raised, not sure if the water was about to leap out and swallow her. "Look. I figure whatever it is brings you out up here isn't any of my business."

"That's good to know." Pilcrowe pocketed the phone and reclined against the rail. "Because it isn't. So I take it you're going to ask me something about either yourself or Cedilla, or possibly the people below decks, though what conclusions they come to are entirely between them. So I will hope it is about yourself, or Cedilla. At least, I will hope it is about yourself."

"When I was out on the road..." Random began. She was looking to the rail - just a quick glance, one most others wouldn't have caught, especially not in that light. Pilcrowe hoped she'd make this quick, for her own sake if nobody else's. "That thing that happened."

"The thing I said not to do?"

"You didn't say I couldn't talk about it!"

"That is fair," Pilcrowe admitted. "Go on."

"What was it? It happened a couple of other times before, and only when I was on the road. I tested, you see. That's what a scientist does. A scientist wonders if that happens every time. And I don't know what it was, but I think you know, else why would you tell me not to do it?"

Pilcrowe looked away from Random, out over the otherwise empty deck. "It's nothing important. Not unless you plan on going back there."

"Why should that mean I don't get to know? It's those main characters, isn't it? They said I could come with them, and I said no and went to find you instead. I think it's because I was meant to go with them. Like, did you see how Mr Ian Woon talk about how sometimes he thought the story loved him? And it's not nothing important, because I came up here to ask you and given that I'm a few minutes away from another biology demonstration, I think you ought to say something!"

"You went to find me instead of going with them?" Pilcrowe shoved her hands into her pockets. They were deep and voluminous, all the best to hide clenched fists. She felt like a knot, tied all through her body. "Why would you even - yes, that's what it is. The story wanted you there, and you wanted to be there, so you're feeling it tug on you when you go back to that spot. That's all. It happens. It won't happen if you don't go there any more. Are you happy now?"

"Okay," Random said. She backed off, hands held out before her. "Sorry if I hit a nerve, I thought that was it anyway. I mean, if you're sure it won't happen unless I go back there-"

"It won't. You'll probably have a lot of stupid regrets anyway, but there's not much you're going to do about those, and I'm not doing anything about them for you."

"Remember what I said about not doing that thing?" Random stopped, tried to get her footing as a particularly energetic wave rocked the ship. "Anyway I... er. Hold on a minute. Can I just interrupt?"

Pilcrowe didn't say anything, but she didn't need to. Random heaved and, for the second time that day, ran to the rail and tipped her head over the side. Pilcrowe stayed exactly where she was, staring out ahead, not even listening to the retching beside her.

"Go right ahead," she said.