From the author: My third Perihelion SF story. Quantum Rose is my take on a pirate story, wrought by a bored housewife with skills. Published August 2016. Sam Bellotto Jr helped me tweak the scifi details to elevate this beyond *just* a pirate story.
The life of a pirate isn’t for everyone. But it is perfect for her: Quantum Rose.
A pirate, privateer, yo ho ho and a bottle of Cap’n Morgan, in her fantasy she is more agile than Errol Flynn, less cautious than any of the Three Musketeers, out-swaggers a piratical Johnny Depp. She dreams of too much rum and no hangover. She desires doubloons and treasure more fabulous than ever the Count of Monte Cristo owned. She lusts for slavey-boys and slavey-girls and the warm life-enriching waters of Jamaica, man. Steel drums and thunderstorms thrum a back-beat in her brain. She considers pirate flags and cannon, fancy costuming, talking parrots and carnivorous sharks.
Her eyes open to see SUVs, the mall, the Gold Card – boredom, she understands deep down, beneath her cream-colored sweater twin set and behind the blue eyes hidden by trifocal lenses and under the frizzy halo of red hair – she is bored. Groceries in cart, keys in hand, she rejects boredom. She will not stand for it. And she knows how to conquer it.
What she is: painfully awkward geek-girl, why yes she is a rocket scientist, spry with numbers, symbols, non-linear differential equations, and she knows chaos, sweet chaos. She has all the tools. Experimental tools. And a laboratory in which to use them. Test and test and retest again. Published, yes, and her soul, does it perish? No.
The life of a physicist isn't an exciting one.
But oh how she fixes that! Quantum foam and infinite possibility, a shot of yes/no electrons leading the way backwards through the maze of likelihood until she finds the catgut thread she wants and plays it like Slow Hand himself.
She calls the device an astrolabe, for want of a better word: a device that measures and casts and shows the way. There's brass and steel, titanium and strings, markings etched into the gears and cogs. It's smaller than a bread box and it's an engine that will take her anywhere.
She pulls and pushes the astrolabe's strings and gears and eschews the comforts of home. The fractals of chance cascade into place like waves on an agitated sea. She lets the vibe grab her, stretch her, pull her away, and she slides all the way there, her boys in tow, pirate ship ahoy!
Not that the dimensional move is effortless, no, not that. She earns her place as captain with threats and promises, promises she must keep or the bloodthirsty crew will see her blood on the deck. The shopping mall kung-fu lessons come in handy, oh yes. She is proud of her tight muscles and martial art skills, proud her boys see her strong and victorious, sorrowed they see her fight at all. Her place assured, her boys, lieutenants and armed, learning swagger, learning all the shipcraft they need from the rough rowdy sailors. Her boys grow, taller, thinner, sunbleached and tan, faster than she expected, and no camera to capture the moments, string them into the usual life story. They do not lead a usual life. She vows to never forget a single moment. She promises herself that the boys will return to a more conventional life as soon as they want, as soon as they are discontent, as soon as….
But oh! The fierce simple men of her crew can never understand -- though her boys do -- her hot unchristian joy for the feel of the ship's deck under her feet and the feel of the salt spray on her face. For the sailors, not a single one pressed to serve, the sea and the sails are a life, a job. For her, for her boys, it's a choice, a passion.
She stands firm on the captain's deck, arms akimbo, head up, lips curled happily. She keeps her nose to the wind, twenty-one different names - or maybe forty-two - but to her, he is always the same constant companion, steady like a good man, playful like a schoolyard friend, serious and diverse as fate. She misses him when he's gone, when the sail lies slack and the water is a moveless oily mirror. He always returns fetching the scent of exotic islands, jasmine and plumeria, cocoanut and fresh green leaves, all overlaid with salt, ever-present salt.
Salt and tar. Salt in the air, tar on the ship's planks, black goo that holds her world together. The tastes are on her tongue and she wonders no longer why sailors are called 'Salts' and 'Tars.' Once she yearned to be a salt, a tar, a lawless pirate. And now she is.
She pulls the thick greatcoat closed, toggles the button at her throat, shoves her cold-sore-dry hands deep into the furthest corners of the silk-lined pockets. Warm there, and in the left hand one, for luck, a chill coin. A penny from her birth year, more zinc than copper, a reminder. She rubs the greasy metal till the coldness gives way to warmth.
Warm coins are heavy somehow, heavier than cold hoarded unloved coin. Like pearls, she thinks, they go to waste and ruin if not touched. Soon she'll find a treasure map and heel the ship over to a new course and they'll all search for the iron-bound chest of coin. She knows it's out there. But not yet. For now, she waits out the early morning dark. Something she needs is just beyond the horizon.
Before the morning watch bells sound -- four in the morn' and eight sharp raps on the bells, four sets of twins -- a ship’s boy brings her a wooden mug of grog and a rocky crust of bread.
Her sons, her boys, turn out before dawn and stand watch arrayed behind her, these clear-eyed lieutenants of her private navy. They report readiness in words once unfamiliar to them yet expected by all, now solidly learned. They quiver on the ship's deck above this ancient black sea.
"Sing out, boys," she says. "Past time for the crew to muster up."
Her boys -- Billie Boy, Rusty Steve, Little Louis -- call out names and crew responds with shouted "Ayes!"
She paces, waiting for a quiet that never comes, so she just speaks over the mutter and stir of men waking, rousing to the new day of piracy on the open sea.
“All the rum you might desire, but your soul will never thirst with the ocean at your feet,” she says, and someone’s rough “Aye!” answers her.
“You’re never alone, me buckoes, for the sea’s full of ghosts to tell you a tale or two whenever you’ve a hankering,” and more “Ayes!” chorus from her crew’s throats. The growly sounds are harsh-edged and she fears these men, her cold wet sailing men, won’t be pleased if she stops her sermoning now.
Not that she's done.
“Never at a loss on board, with yer wits for company and yer tasks to keep the devil outta yer hands,” she says, and this time the rugged chorus of “Ayes!” from her pirate crew contains some laughter.
The crew is busy and entertained, a good situation for an unregistered ship at sea crewed by desperate runaways. Always a short fuse away from mutiny, she knows, but she also knows something even better. The night’s sailing has brought them into the shipping lanes. She holds the astrolabe and plays its strings, summoning forth what they want and she needs.
“Never a minute of rest!” she shouts, pointing into the fog which lifts to reveal a fat plum, a ship of merchandise and money. “Ahoy maties, let’s get to work!”
The battle lasts long hours that morning. Somewhere she discards her greatcoat. The rising sun burns away the fog and warms her, shines on her red braids and steely cutlass. She'll never use the blade, its function as anachronistic to her as her cutting laser is to the people of the ship. She draws a Mandelbrot on the side of the merchanter, a woodburning project delicately wrought. Her finger moves and draws from afar and her crew cheers the other crew's terror.
She corrals her boys, the lieutenants held on the sidelines. Together they watch her crew enjoy the fight and shout unneeded encouragements, til the merchant ship's crew is subdued and her men gleefully return with booty. She boards, triumphant, her boys behind her.
Not for her the wrested prizes of a conquered ship: spices, jewels, luxurious clothes and exotic woods. Not for her the games played with the terrified captives: swing the rope, jump the keg, walk the plank.
She has one goal in mind. In the vanquished captain’s lounge, rich teak, thick rugs, leaded glass windows and a brass telescope idly aimed at the deck, she spies what she wants. Rank hath its privileges and this captain, scared small man in his foppish lace and unsuitable silk, this man who is too stupid to flee from a bare-faced pirate ship, he has collected all the books.
She gives herself a precious hour to read the spines, smell the leather, run her hands along the gilt or gall-ink words. She pulls a few and tucks them in her ditty bag: treasures.
She ignores the sea charts and ship's books and the captain's sigh of relief. The titles, the authors, she reads them outloud: Jonathan Swift! She swoons. The Arabian Nights! She laughs. Robinson Crusoe and she wonders at the captain's taste in literature. But oh! a pamphlet by Voltaire, Micromegas, and the fop is redeemed in her eyes. Does he know science fiction, she wonders, but thinks not. The pages are uncut. Just for show. He will not miss them.
The captain squeaks finally, the first sounds she’s heard from him. “Who are you?” Faint, as if he’s astounded at his own bravery.
“Who am I, who am I," she repeats. She ponders. She answers, "Call me Quantum Rose. I’ve always known which way the wind blows. And now it blows us clean of this room.” She escorts him to the main deck, tired of the game, almost ready to leave this plundered ship behind. But only almost.
“Surrender your letters of marque,” she says. “We have more need of them than you.”
He hesitates, too scared to decide. She helps him.
“The letters of marque or we torch your vessel,” she whispers. “Have you ever seen a ship go up? The flames dance while they feast.” She stares him down.
He finds a leather pouch in his sleeve, he hands over his official English protection, he spits at her.
She sniffs. “Hardly. I take a bath every night.”
On the other hand, the captain has disgraced himself and yellowed his too-white pants. She thinks he just might need a bath, himself.
“Over the side with him, boys, he’ll make a tasty morsel for the sharks!”
Her pirates grab the captain, arm and leg, and heave him over. She’s not at all worried for his mortality: his crew sends down a rope ladder, allows him to clamber back up. They'll coddle him well. They must. Without the letters of marque and reprisal, the Queen’s leave to do as they wish, the ship is vulnerable, the cannon illegal, the crew hangable, if their captain is not available for blame.
Now that she possesses this signed and sealed and stamped bit of vellum, her own crew is safe from military intervention. Now these pirates made legal privateers can set foot in any port and not become gallows meat. She slides the papers into a drawer. Her crew will find them should she and her boys ever disappear.
The sun sets the western horizon aflame as the day ends. Her pirate ship catches the evening wind and flies across the sea. Her crew has matters well in hand. Full-voiced chanteys ring behind her, sails heave and sheets snap.
The life of a pirate is seldom an easy one.
She’s never heard of a ship with a bath like hers, she wonders how she lucked into this bit of business: veined marble and oil-rubbed cedar and mullioned windows in every glass color. Thick Turkish towels and pearls and doubloons in slithery cascading piles. She steps into the hot perfumed water – fresh water on a pirate ship, wasted each night on her bath – and flower petals swim up to meet her flesh. She slides down to her neck and thinks, “Ah yes, a pirate’s life for me!”
After she splishes and splashes, her divine imitation of a mermaid, before her fingers wrinkle like a water-logged corpse, she rises from her bath and dresses in stolen finery: suede pants, silk waistcoat, lace sleeves. She braids her hair tight to her head, adding a few amber beads, one red parrot feather, a golden Chinese coin with a square in the middle, all woven in for luck.
She catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, yes, a silvered glass set in carved mahogany, and recalls the timid thing she'd been. She laughs, no longer timid, no longer bored, her work changed from experimental mathematician to practical physicist. Will she publish her results? She does not care. She is living them.
Ship's bells chime. Time for her nightly consultation with the ship's officers: her lieutenants, her sons.
She tucks her boys into bed. They’re warm and soft and sweet-scented from hot baths and footsie pajamas. She asks if they want to hear a story. Pilfered books spill from her lap like golden coin from a pirate's swag. So many new, lovely stories hidden in the books she pillaged from that other captain. So many new places.
"Where shall we go next, boys?" she says, heart in throat, tender. She holds the astrolabe at hand, ready to turn their course. Will this be the night they decide to return? They've tasted the extraordinary, a life outside dimensional stricture. Do they yearn for the ordinary, the routine? She sits, sweeps tumbled brown curls from the youngest's pale freckled forehead.
Excited boys, tired but thrilled.
"I want to see dolphins!" says Billie.
"And narwhales!" says Steve.
"And spaceships!" says Louis.
No laughter, as they all love little Louis. They wait for their captain to pronounce her judgment. Do they see her relief? Maybe. Maybe.
"Spaceships, eh?" Quantum Rose considers the question in practical terms: how to force the quantum thread to that particular center.
"What I know of dolphs and narwhales and other sea creatures is that they're a lot more intelligent than people believe. And I know why." Her eyes gleam. She strokes the astrolabe, searching for the right story.
"I hear tell of an island," she whispers at last, "not on any map, hidden from the clearest-eyed sailors, surrounded by sharp-horned narwhales determined to keep the secret: the secret of the octopus starship base!"
Little Louis gasps. Quantum Rose nods.
"We all know that octopuses are alien. Let's find them!
"Billie, you'll ask the dolphins for assistance," she continues. "They know the way and they run with the wind. And I always know which way the wind blows."
A tempest as they plan the course change, a deluge of ideas, thunderbolts of inspiration. The storm of the new passes and the boys calm, smiling, happy. Not bored.
Little Louis says, "Can we ride in the spaceship?"
"Of course we will," she says with a kiss. "We're pirates!"
The boys subside into sleep, dreams so clear she can see them dancing above their heads.
She strokes their foreheads, humming soft and sweet. "Yo ho, yo ho,” she whispers. “The pirate's life, the physicist's life, the mommy's life for me."