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 was a general roar of assent. Then a few alternate viewpoints were tentatively raised...
"It's kind of rusty for a cruise ship, isn't it? Looks more like an oil tanker," said Pulp Fan.
"And did anyone else notice that all the fire extinguishers have been replaced with ice buckets?" asked Losgud.
Before these issues could be addressed, the door to the bathroom flew open and Kim came hopping out, still pulling up her shorts. "Mal baby! I thought I heard your voice!" She leapt into Malinov's arms and gave him a wet, sloppy kiss. Then Taria came out of the bathroom, looking flushed and a little embarrassed, followed by Uther Pendragon, who's heavy breathing and tented slacks suggested that he was less than thrilled by the interruption. There was a brief scuffle as several people tried to go into the empty bathroom at once.
Kristen Becker switched on a powerful boombox, and a pulsating reggae beat filled the small cabin. There were several loud pops, and some screams as champagne corks bounced crazily off the metal walls. The first annual Spring Workshop of the Internet Erotic Author's Guild was officially underway. When the giant foghorn announcing the departure of the S.S. Sybarus boomed out, no one even noticed.
As the last echoes of the foghorn rolled around the harbor, Julia checked the passenger manifest one last time. Only two no- shows for this cruise, not too bad. She slid the moveable section of railing across the opening to the gangway, and started to loosen the bolts connecting the gangway to the ship.
"Wait...wait!" A man and a woman came running across the the dock toward the Sybarus. The man was heavily laden with packages, and was lagging behind.
"You must be Mrs. Cindy," said Julia to the woman as she came up the gangway. "And that must be Mr. DG."
"Close enough," said Cindy with a smile. She was a slender brunette with long hair and perfect features. Julia had noticed that many of the female passengers on this cruise were extremely attractive, and Cindy was no exception.
"Come on honey, almost there," called out Cindy. "DG's a little upset with me," she confided to the cruise director. "I sort of got carried away at the duty-free shop."
"Been there, done that. I'm Julia, the cruise director. Welcome aboard!"
"Aren't you a little young to be a cruise director?"
"Not in Mexico, I'm not."
DG came stumbling up up the gangway, mumbling something about melted credit cards and debtor's prison. He was carrying so many packages that Julia couldn't really see what he looked like, just that he was quite tall. But if he was married to Cindy, he couldn't be too bad.
"Are you both erotic writers?" she asked, reconnecting the railing.
"I am," said DG, catching his breath. "Cindy is a professional shopper."
"Cool! Those both sound like interesting careers. You folks are in cabin 265. I'll take you down there myself, since you're the last ones to come on board."
As the huge ship started to move away from the dock, the still- connected gangway groaned in protest. With a tearing sound, it pulled out a section of the wooden decking and dropped into the harbor.
First Officer Milton leaned casually against the side of the control console of the S.S. Sybarus, drumming his fingers annoyingly on the polished wood and staring into the distance. He was trying, perhaps a bit too hard, to project an aura of relaxed competence. With Captain Hazelwood locked in his cabin, most likely for the duration of the cruise, Milton was effectively in charge of the ship. The feeling of power was almost intoxicating. He had a sudden urge to give an order.
"What's our heading?" he barked, startling the dozing second officer.
"Er...let's see...West. No, wait, more like Southwest."
"Full speed ahead, sir. Thirty knots or so. The speedometer thingy is broken."
Milton turned to the young, bearded Farnsworth to ask their position. But the navigator was staring angrily at his computer screen, shaking his fist and muttering under his breath, and he decided to leave him be.
He stroked his chin thoughtfully, as if making an important decision, and said "Very well, carry on." Then he returned his gaze to the huge bank of windows that spanned the width of the bridge. Straight ahead there was nothing to be seen but light blue sky and dark blue ocean, the latter dotted here and there with little flecks of white foam. Lowering his gaze just a tad, the main deck of the Sybarus came into view. There was a line of people at the bow, each waiting their turn to lean forward over the railing with their arms spread wide.
Lowering his gaze even further, Milton had a panoramic view of the large, outdoor pool. It was late afternoon, and the pool and the chairs and two open bars surrounding it were finally starting to fill up with people. The erotic writers had partied until the wee hours last night, and the ship had been deathly quiet all morning.
Suddenly Milton leaned forward and adjusted his glasses. Was he dreaming, or were some of the female passengers sunbathing topless? Yes! And right below him, in the shallow end of the pool, two couples were horsing around, the women perched on the men's shoulders while shrieking and clawing at each other. As he watched, first one bikini top and then the other was torn off, revealing bouncing wet globes of female flesh.
Trying to move quietly and casually, Milton went over to a wooden cabinet and took out a pair of binoculars. Then he returned to his position and settled in to enjoy a few hours of voyeurism before dinner.
Down by the pool, some of the writers were also enjoying the view as they recovered from the previous night's festivities.
"Good call on inviting the cheerleaders, Bear," said DG, taking a sip of his margarita. "They're really quite good. Terrific entertainment." DG was a picture of relaxation, with his long body draped along a chaise lounge. His friend Bear was next to him, his burly form parked in a deck chair. On the deck in front of them, five topless young women were performing spirited cheers. They had obviously been working together for quite some time, since every jump and every jiggle was in perfect unison.
Bear nodded. "They take their cheerleading very seriously. I thought they would add a certain...enthusiasm to the atmosphere."
There was a snort from a nearby chair, and Taria said "Five half-naked college girls cavorting under your noses - you guys must be in heaven. Are we going to do anything on this cruise besides drink, ogle each other, and have sex?" There was a hint of a smile on the corner of her mouth, which took the sting from her words.
"Sorry if we're not providing enough intellectual stimulation, Professor," said DG lazily. "I happen to be enjoying myself thoroughly."
"Me too," said Bear. He finished his Mountain Dew and then crushed the can in his huge paw. "But that reminds me, there's a printed agenda for the workshop. Maybe we should check it out."
He unfolded a sheet of paper and shifted his body to let some shade fall on it. "Let's see...Day One, that's today. Eight am - coffee and donuts in the conference room, introductory speech by Lord Malinov."
DG and Taria laughed. "It's four in the afternoon," said Taria. "I guess we've missed some stuff."
"At eight am Malinov was introducing his stomach contents to the Pacific Ocean," said DG. "What else did we miss?"
Bear read on: "Eight thirty - The Role of the Point of View in Drawing the Reader into the Story, an open discussion moderated by Antaeus Feldspar and Greybeard. Nine am - The Rules of Grammar, a lecture by Eric Skilton."
"Ouch - that sounds pretty brutal for the first thing in the morning," said DG.
"Nine-thirty: Reviewing Stories - Should The Reviewer's Personal Preference Affect the Rating? Discussion to be moderated by Bronwen and Vickie Tern."
"Yowza," said DG. "Hope they had some riot police on hand."
"Eleven am: Mat Twassel will read his latest work, a series of erotic poems based on the Koran."
"Cool!" said Taria.
"At eleven forty-five, Kim will issue a heartfelt apology to the group, on a topic to be determined later," continued Bear. "There's a lunch break at noon, and then at one pm...this looks interesting - the writer Imma Scared will stage a live theater performance reenacting her fantasy of being raped by several large bald men. Follically challenged men in the audience are encouraged to participate."
"Sounds like just the thing to wake people up after lunch," said Taria.
"Uh-oh," said Bear. "Better listen to the next one. Two pm - Culturally Relevant Erotica - Introducing Literary Elements into Erotic Storytelling, a lecture by Taria."
"Shit!" said Taria. She grabbed the sheet from the Bear and stared at it. "Double shit! I missed my lecture!"
"Taria's in troooouble," crooned DG in a mocking falsetto.
"I worked on that lecture for days!" cried Taria, slapping her forehead. "I have detailed notes, overhead slides, I even brought my laser pointer! Damn Malinov and his stupid jello shots."
The commotion woke up the writer Sandman from his nap. Normally an outgoing fellow, he was looking a bit morose and hung over. "What's going on?" he asked blearily, squinting against the bright sun. "Can't a guy get a little sleep?"
"Taria blew off her lecture."
"Oh, didn't you hear? All the stuff scheduled for today was moved to tomorrow. Nobody was in any shape for a workshop this morning." Sandman put a towel over his unshaven face and went back to sleep.
"Thank God," said Taria. She noticed that Bear and DG were elbowing each other and laughing. "Hey! You guys knew that all along didn't you?"
"Sorry about that," said Bear. "It was DG's idea."
Taria, good sport that she was, laughed and looked back down at the schedule. "Let's see what else is on the agenda...wow, all sorts of good stuff. Uther Pendragon is going to present and defend his latest list of story codes at three, then at four LEo M is going to present his proposed changes to the U.S. copywright laws."
"Lord have mercy," said Bear. "That should generate some discussion."
"Oh, and this should be educational - at five Eli-the-Bearded is going to speak on the subject of hard drive repair and maintainence. After that we go to dinner."
DG shook his head. "Sounds like an awfully full day tomorrow. When am I supposed to have sex with Cindy?"
"Don't be crude," said Taria. "It doesn't even end there. After dinner, Celeste is going to lead a seance. Oh, neat! We're going to sit around a table, hold hands, and try to contact Mike Hunt."
"Woo woo!" said DG, perking up. "Now you're talking."
"That's Mike, space, Hunt, you moron," replied Taria, as Bear cracked up. "No one has heard from him in months."
Back up on the bridge, the famous erotic writer Mark Aster knocked on the doorway and asked politely if he might look around. As always, Mark was accompanied by the beautiful Allen sisters, Pat and Julie. All three of them were dressed for dinner; Aster in an elegant tuxedo and the ladies in stunning evening gowns. Naturally, the request was quickly granted by the young second officer. Even Milton was able to tear himself away from his binoculars when Julie pressed up against him, cooing that she loved a man in uniform.
The only crew member who was annoyed by the interruption was Farnsworth, the navigator. His problems with the guidance system were, if anything, getting worse. Mark Aster and Pat Allen sidled up behind him and watched curiously as he punched a series of commands into his computer and then sat back, glaring at the screen and tugging on his scraggly beard. The screen blinked a few times, then flashed: "Please input current position."
"If I knew where the fuck we were, I wouldn't need a fucking computer guidance sys-" Farnsworth broke off when he saw Mark and Pat.
"How's it going?" asked Mark, raising an eyebrow.
"Fine, fine..." Farnsworth glanced up at them with a forced smile and then buried his nose in a thick technical manual.
Pat elbowed Mark discretely and nodded towards a large map on the wall above the navigator's head. Three dotted lines started together on the west coast of Mexico and then diverged rapidly out into the Pacific. Near the end of each dotted line were several crosses and question marks, many of them erased or crossed out.
"So..." began Mark cheerfully. "Which course is it, then?"
Farnsworth gave him a fierce look, then followed his gaze to the map, which he stared at as if seeing it for the first time.