Preparing Neopia for the Meepits Circulation: 123,710,650 Issue: 248 | 14th day of Swimming, Y8
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Captain of the Ship


by extreme_fj0rd

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Standing on the docks of Neopia Central, Jall stared out at the ocean. The blue Kacheek's eyes were filled with longing as he looked: the rippled light on the water, the waves swelling over one another, racing to get to shore first.

      "You. Boy."

      The Kacheek started and turned quickly. Reflexes were important for people like Jall: the runaways, the outcasts. Those who lived back in an alley in a box, not in a grand Neohome like everyone else.

      The pirate Lupe addressing him was tall, verging on a giant's height to the small Kacheek. His clothes were nothing special--what most shipmates working out of Neopia Central's docks wore--but they looked like cloth of golden silk. "Do you want work?"

      Jall stared, wide-eyed, at the Lupe. "I... yes, sir! Yes!" he said quickly, nodding.

      A grin formed on the Lupe's face. "Don't you want to hear what sort of work, first, young master?" he asked, with more than a hint of amusement in his voice.

      The Kacheek shrugged, and the Lupe's grin widened.

      "The S.S. Eithne's Flame finds herself in dire need of a ship's boy," the Lupe said, turning to look out across the docks. "See? She's--there," he said, and pointed.

      The ship was nothing special, nor were the letters of the name in peeling gold paint, but it was beauty to Jall. A ship! Work on a ship!

      The Lupe turned back. "So! Do you want it?"

      Jall nodded again. "Yes! Yes, sir!"

      Shaking his head, the Lupe chuckled. "All right, then. You've got it. But"--he put out a paw to stop Jall from dashing over straightaway--"mark you this well: our captain's a bit of a recluse, so you might not see him in all your time. And also," he added, "stop calling me sir. My name's Claren."

      "Yes, sir--that is, Claren," Jall said, and stuck his paws behind his back, mortified. "Sorry, Claren. I'll try to remember."

      Smiling, Claren nodded. "You do that." He turned away, and then back again. "Any possessions, family you need to notify?"

      Jall shook his head, fear growing in his stomach. Would Claren fire him because he didn't have parents?

      "Well, then. I suppose that means you can start right away," the Lupe said, and smiled. "What's your name, boy?"

      "J-jall," the Kacheek said, and lifted his gaze to look at Claren.

      "Well, then, Jall," Claren said, stooping down to place a heavy paw on Jall's shoulder, "welcome aboard the SS Eithne's Flame."

Years later

      "Land ahoy!"

      Jall straightened up from mopping the deck and shaded his eyes with his hand, looking far across the waves. Turning, he squinted up into the crow's nest.

      "You sure about that, Kella?" he shouted up.

      The red Nimmo stuck her tongue out at him. "Just you wait, Jall."

      Glancing back, Jall shrugged. A dim mass of land was barely visible on the horizon: Neopia Central.

      "Well, you've won this time," he called back up to Kella, but his thoughts weren't on the Nimmo. Propping his mop up, he leaned on it, staring at that small line of darkness. For seven years they'd sailed the lands of Neopia, and not once come back to Neopia Central. Most of the work had been ferrying loads of rock from Tyrannia to Mystery Island--where it would be carved and set out in souvenir shops as genuine Islander statuettes--it was true.

      The Kacheek had loved every minute of it: just the thrill of being on a boat kept him going sometimes. Storms, rain, hail, sleet that threatened to freeze their sails and keep them stationary--no matter what the conditions, Jall put all of his being into sailing. Even chores such as swabbing he did with a ready, and singing, heart.

      And now they returned to Neopia Central, simply to take on a small load of Petpets to deliver to Krawk Island. Jall dreaded it, though. Something deep within him associated it with his childhood, which seemed all the worse in retrospect: no boats! What if they were going back merely to dump him off, just the stray they'd taken on for one run? What if--

      An odd slithering sound attracted his attention, and he glanced around to see Kella sliding down from the crow's nest on one of the loose ropes. She landed on the deck with a thump and straightened up.

      "Still brooding on that shore?" she asked, grinning.

      Jall shrugged, glancing back and away toward Neopia Central. "A bit." His eyes fell on the captain's cabin. "Kella, who is the captain, really?"

      "Well," the Nimmo said, "it's rumored that he's really a giant Bearog."

      Jall, not really listening, nodded absently. Abruptly he straightened up and turned around. "Kell!"

      She grinned wickedly. "Well, that's what they say!" she said innocently, though her broad smile betrayed her.

      "Sure, sure." The Kacheek made a face at her. "But... really, Kella. Why does he never come out, at all? I mean, I know that Claren brings food in for him, but..."

      "It's possible he doesn't exist at all," Kella said, serious for once. "That Claren just brings the food and eats it himself, or dumps it in the water."

      "Maybe," Jall said. "Or..."

      He glanced around quickly, making sure no one but them was in the area. "Kella... what if I went in there? What would happen?"

      The Nimmo shook her head. "I think that's a bad idea, Jall. I don't think you should try it."

      "Yes, well..." The Kacheek shifted impatiently. If he knew who the captain was, or why he stayed in there... if he knew the secret... Claren could never let him go. He'd have to let Jall stay on the SS Eithne's Flame forever.

      "I'm going in," Jall said, and started forward.

      He was at the door to the captain's quarters before Kella could react, or do anything other than cry out.

      "Jall!"

      No one came, though there were at least ten other crew members of the Eithne's Flame aboard.

      Jall put his paw on the latch, and lifted it.

      Well, that was easy, was his first thought, as he pushed the door open wide. He walked inside, his anger and determination keeping his stride stiff.

      The room was empty, save a small table. The only thing on the rough table was a tray--the one Claren brought in every morning, noon, and night, Jall noticed--with a few scraps of food on it.

      Across the room stood a door.

      The Kacheek crossed the room quickly and tried that one. It was open, too, but he paused at the sight inside.

      A yellow Wocky stood with his back to the door, his paws on the ship's wheel, steering the SS Eithne's Flame. He made no motion when Jall came in; he seemed to be deep in some sort of a trance, only his paws moving as he shifted the wheel back and forth by small increments.

      Jall stepped forward to place a paw on the captain's shoulder. He still didn't react.

      "Hello?"

      The word seemed to echo a lot longer than it should.

      "Um, sir?" the Kacheek asked, circling the captain warily.

      His eyes.

      The Wocky's eyes were wide, shifting back and forth in--terror? dread?--while the rest of him remained frozen in place.

      Jall's own eyes widened in response. The captain still steered the ship, with the smallest motions of his paws necessary, and no response to the intruder.

      Jall frowned.

      "Sir," he said, and put his paw on the nearest peg of the ship's wheel.

      As soon as he touched it, the Wocky staggered free, as if released from some enchantment. At the same moment, Jall found that his paw was stuck to the peg. He yanked at it to free it, but his feet were moving against his will, taking up precisely the stance the Wocky had been in. His other paw swung up jerkily as the Kacheek tried to resist, pulling it back down one inch for every two it moved up.

      When both his paws were touching the ship's wheel, they slid around to clasp the pegs, and he was frozen except for the smallest motions.

      He could hear, distantly, the sound of the Wocky's frantic footsteps as he fled from the captain's quarters, and the gurgle of water as it slid beneath the ship.

      And then, more distinctly: the slower, more deliberate pawsteps of a Lupe.

      Claren circled Jall, who tried to speak. Nothing came out; he could barely move his lips. To his gratitude, however, his nose wasn't blocked up, and he could breathe. And he could move his eyes...

      The Lupe nodded at Jall, standing in front of him.

      "I always knew you were a good one," he said, and went out, carefully shutting the door behind him.

      Two hours later, when they put into port in Neopia Central, Jall stood woodenly at the wheel and watched Claren stride briskly off the ship and onto the wharves. The Lupe, whose fur hadn't grown more grey over the past seven years, hailed a small Quiggle who had been standing at the edge of the docks, looking out at the ocean.

      "You, there, boy! Do you want some work?"

The End

 
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