The small harbor of Antuahuaoc, on the west coast of Mexico, had not been designed for anything as large as a cruise ship, and the white behemoth now nestled against the quay dwarfed the fishing boats and pleasure yachts that surrounded it. From a distance, the S.S. Sybarus, with her multiple decks, hundreds of portholes, and three huge smokestacks, appeared a paragon of modern shipbuilding technology. Up close, those who knew ships and the sea might have frowned at the rust stains and peeling paint along her sides. The condition of her fittings, lifeboats, and rigging were also, for want of a better term, less than shipshape.
The cruise director of the Sybarus leafed through the passenger manifest as she walked along the main deck, and her pretty face wrinkled in confusion. It was impossible to memorize all two hundred and seventeen names, of course, but she was supposed to familiarize herself with the passengers as much as possible before they came on board. She was three weeks into her summer job with the ValuShip cruise line, and she had never seen so many odd names on a manifest. Jubjub? MC Woodsmoke? Uther Pendragon?
Not that she was complaining - it was going to be very interesting, having an Erotic Writers Workshop on the upcoming cruise. Maybe even educational. And with any luck it would give her something exciting to tell her high school classmates next fall.
As she approached the gangway that connected the ship to the dock, she saw that a line of people were already waiting behind the velvet rope. Putting on her best cruise-director smile, she called out "Hi everybody! I'm Julia, your cruise director. Like...welcome to the S.S. Sybarus!"
The first person in line was an attractive woman with chestnut hair and a mischievous, devil-may-care gleam in her eyes.
"Can I have your name?" asked Julia.
"OK, and your last name?"
"If I told you, then I'd have to kill you," said Kim with a wink. "Seriously, it's just Kim."
"Oh. Let me see..." Sure enough, there it was. "You're in Cabin 341, on the right side of the ship. Oops - I mean starboard, sorry."
"Great," said Kim. "Hey, could you tell me if Taria is on board yet? We've arranged to, um, get together. First thing."
"Nope, you're the very first passenger to come on board," said Julia, smiling and cracking her gum. "I'm sure she'll be here soon."
"She better be," said Kim with a frown. "When she shows up, give her my cabin number and tell her to get her cute little butt in there on the double."
Julia's eyes widened slightly. "Certainly, Ms...er, Kim."
The next person in line was a blond surfer type. "The name is Poison Ivan," he said. "And this is my buddy Tom Carvett. Hey, is this the uh..." he looked at a scrap of paper "S.S. Sybarus?"
"Yes it is. Welcome aboard, Mr. Ivan and Mr. Carvett."
"And this is the right cruise for the org- I mean, the Erotic Writers Workshop?" asked Tom
"That's right," said Julia. "Exciting, isn't it?"
Poison Ivan slapped Tom on the back. "Looks like you made the party this time, Tommy Boy!"
Calling out for Kim to wait up, they ran on board.
A stout, gray-haired man approached. "Good morning, Lass," he said in an Irish brogue. "My name is Sven."
Julia leafed through the manifest. "Let's see...Sven the Younger?"
The man's brow wrinkled in confusion. "No, Sven the Elder."
"Oh, like...here it is. Cabin 323, Mr. Elder."
"Thank you. Now, could you be telling me where Kim's cabin is, young lady?"
After Julia gave Sven directions, a nervous-looking young man stepped forward. "Hi, I'm Brian Mueller. I'm twenty years old, and I live ten miles south of San Jose, California."
"Well hello, Mr. Mueller. Nice to have you aboard." Julia found his name and checked it off. "You're in Cabin 231."
Brian lowered his voice and said "Hey, you wouldn't happen to know which cabin Kim is in, would you?" Julia felt him pressing something into her hand.
"Of course I do. Let's see...Kim is in cabin 341. She's already on board."
"Thanks." He gave her a conspiratorial nod and headed on board.
Julia looked to see what he had pressed into her hand, and saw it was a twenty dollar bill. "Hey! Thanks, Mr. Mueller!" She waved the bill at him with a wide smile on her face, ignoring his look of horrified embarrassment. "This is my very first tip!"
On the next deck up, two of the Sybarus's officers were leaning against the rail, smoking and watching the passengers as they walked up the gangway and boarded the ship below them.
"Pretty strange bunch of passengers, sir," ventured the younger officer. He was a thin man with a scraggly beard who's nameplate read "Farnsworth."
First Officer Milton, a chubby man with thick glasses, shrugged and said "I've seen worse. You should have been here a couple months ago when the Christian Morals Commission was on board. Now that was a creepy crowd."
They watched as a large, bearded man shuffled up the gangway. His barrellike physique and unseasonable fur coat gave him a startling resemblance to a bear. When he reached the cruise director, they heard him ask about his sister. "Cabin 341," answered the girl, without referring to the manifest. "It must be getting crowded in there by now."
Above them, Farnsworth said "The cruise director mentioned something about erotic writers, sir. Some sort of annual meeting. I suppose that's who these odd passengers are."
"Right, right, I heard about that too. Bunch of sex-crazed technogeeks, no doubt. By the way, Farnsworth, you can skip the sir stuff, this isn't the Navy."
"Thanks. Um, I was wondering...how's the Captain?" Farnsworth gave his superior a nervous, sidelong look.
"Hazelwood? Locked in his cabin, as usual."
"I imagine. Listen, don't worry about it, this ship pretty much sails herself." The first officer's eyes were riveted to a group of five gorgeous young girls in sorority t-shirts who were coming up the gangway, laughing and talking.
Farnsworth shook his head. "I guess. But if you ask me, ValuShip must be pretty hard up, hiring a guy like that."
Milton took off his glasses, gave them a quick polish, and resumed scoping out the sorority girls. "It bothered me a little, too. But I'm on the fast track to becoming a captain myself, so you won't see me making any waves. I started out two years ago shoveling coal in the boiler room, and here I am First Officer."
"Not bad! How'd you manage that?"
"Just normal attrition. Lotta turnover here at ValuShip."
"There must be," said Farnsworth. "I applied for a job waiting tables in the main dining room, and they made me the chief navigator instead. I'm a little nervous, actually. I've never been to sea before."
"Relax, I'm sure you'll fit right in."
"I don't know, I still haven't figured out how to work that damn computer navigation system. In fact, I better go take another crack at it before we shove out."
"Right, shove off. Jeez, all the lingo we gotta learn, eh?"
"Don't worry, it comes with experience," said Milton with a condescending smile. "You'll be a credit to the ship before you know it." As Farnsworth made his way forward toward the bridge, he dropped his cigarette onto the deck and ground it out with his foot.
All of the cabins on the S.S. Sybarus were small and sparsely furnished with a twin bed, a chest of drawers, and a halogen floor lamp. Cabin 341 seemed especially cramped, because it was occupied by a dozen or so erotic writers and their guests, laughing, shouting, and groping each other shamelessly.
Some of them were chatting and catching up on the latest gossip, while others were huddled around laptop computers having slightly more serious discussions involving their latest stories. JohnnyD had backed a pair of sorority girls into a corner of the room, where he was mesmerizing them with a rapid-fire series of pickup lines. The pleasantly plump form of Morgan Preece was wedged into another corner of the room. Morgan was chatting with Kitty Kat and Janey, who were trying unsuccessfully to solve the mystery of Morgan's gender. The tiny bathroom was in constant use. Interestingly, people went into it in groups of two and three rather than one at a time, suggesting that it was being used for more than just freshening up.
A good-looking man with dark hair appeared at the open door. His erect bearing and piercing blue eyes would have given him the aura of an aristocrat, were it not for the loud, wide-collared cabana shirt he was wearing. "Libertines!" he shouted. "Together again!"
The noise in the cabin rose another few notches, for this was their leader, Lord Malinov himself. Just four months ago, they had all attended a winter solstice party at his sprawling castle on the North Sea. That party, which had lasted the better part of a week, had been an unqualified success, resulting in dozens of new erotic tales, several new love affairs, and at least four illegitimate children. The only complaint had been the lack of central heating in the castle, so the hedonistic writers had decided to reconvene in a warmer climate.
"My Lord, how's it hanging?" said Poison Ivan, who had his arm around Daphne Xu.
"Malinov, you old dog, how's it going?" called out Ole Joe, who was comparing story lists with Commander Jameson.
With an ear-to-ear grin, Malinov greeted his old friends. "Did I get us a great rate on this cruise, or what," he enthused. "Carnival wanted more than twice as much per person, with no open bar. And you don't even want to know what Royal Norwegian is charging these days."
.... There is more of this story ...