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Alexander White and the Pirates (and Goblins)

Chapter 4


Goblin stories by Zsolt Kerekes

Sharkey was manning the midnight watch on the pirate ship. In the dark, the little black blob which had started out as a bump on the distant horizon, was getting bigger. At first, he thought it was just another iceberg. But they were too far south for that, and global warming would have turned it into an ice cube long before it reached the channel. It was a long way off, so he nudged the rudder to steer around it. But it was still getting bigger, as if it was coming straight at them. He held up his bottle of rum to the twinkly sky. Half empty. So he was still stone cold sober. He turned the rudder a bit more. Half an hour later the blob had turned into a mountain. But it was floating and still getting nearer.

He licked his finger and held it up in the air. The wind was behind them. This was unnatural. He wondered if he should go and wake the captain. But captain Feary didn't like people disturbing his sleep. Best to wait for a bit. The good thing about the pirate ship was that it could sail against the wind, and even if there was no wind by aiming the shark. He pulled the emergency rip cord which dropped the sails, and tugged the shark line to wake up the shark. The pirate ship had a very small turning circle, and before long they were cruising at one giant shark power away from the black island. Congratulating himself for a job well done, he finished off his bottle of rum, and then started on his second bottle. For some reason, he was too nervous to look behind him.

"Silly" he thought. "It'll be gone by morning. I won't even mention it."

His thoughts started wandering, and calling up some of the many strange things he'd seen in his years as a pirate. The breeze now blew more strongly into his face as the pirate ship ploughed into the wind. Maybe that's why he didn't hear anything until it was too late. Probably there was nothing he could have done anyway.

There was a crackling sound. Night became day, and a voice like thunder boomed down from above the stern of the boat.

"Ahoy there the pirate ship! Stand by to receive boarders."

He turned around. Several bright lights like the sun were shining down onto the deck, and figures dressed in black wearing balaclavas were sliding down ropes and advancing towards him. The mysterious floating island had caught up with them. As the leader of the group came within reach Sharkey wondered if he should draw his sword and make a last stand, but something about the other man's demeanor was odd. He was wearing a clean white uniform, and his pistol was neatly wrapped in a shiny leather holster. He was also smiling, and held out his hand.

"Always wanted to do that. Jolly nice boat you've got here. Very authentic. The name's Smith. Royal Navy. We understand your radio's conked out, so we've come to render assistance. Pleased to meet you."

In later years, Sharkey would admit that the phrase "Royal Navy" had almost done him in.

The floating black island was the latest, biggest and most deadly in a line of Royal Navy destroyers, which in earlier centuries had been launched with names designed to scare the wits out of any enemy ship foolish enough to get in their way. Names like the Victory, Ardent, Valiant, Fearless, Invincible, Dreadnought and (and strangely Pinafore) had flown the white ensign and earned their place in naval history (and song) with cannon blasts and torpedoes and missiles. Launched at the dawning of the twenty first century this was the most dreadfully scary destroyer that had ever sailed out of Portsmouth.

A young civil servant in the early 1990's had been given the job of choosing a name which would terrify and demoralise any foe. But it also had to be something which hadn't been used before. As a joke, one day, at the pub he suggested to his boss they should name the destroyer after the English prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher. She was really scary to her enemies.

"You know" his boss replied seriously "That's not such a bad idea. I think she might be flattered. I'll make inquiries."

And that's how, ten years after, when the ship was eventually launched with the traditional bottle of champagne. It sailed out from the shipyards of Portsmouth with the scariest name anyone could think of - "The Iron Lady."

Captain Smith was used to entertaining foreign dignitaries on this, the Royal Navy's most impressive warship. In fact, if you took away the missiles, torpedoes and communications gear, you would be left with the world's most expensive restaurant. Due to a brilliant diplomatic negotiation at the time when France was talking to England about getting permission to finally join up to the English half of the channel tunnel, the UK Ministry of Defence, represented in this case by the Admiralty (because the tunnel was mostly underwater) had managed to squeeze an important concession from their French counterparts. And so it was, that the Iron Lady's galley, was in fact staffed by French cooks. A similar trade had been done with the US Department of Defense, to ensure that the Iron Lady got the latest missiles and gadgets from the US Navy, in return for free parking for US Air Force planes on British airfields. But unlike the US Navy, the Iron Lady had another important advantage to visiting guests, apart from the French cooks. Her Majesty's ships were were not dry.

"Do have another piece of stuffed vension Captain Feary. There's plenty more where that came from."

Captain Feary, who still wasn't sure if this was just the last supper for the condemned, was happy to comply.

"And pass down the port Number One" said the genial navy host.

"Any more of that navy rum Cap'n?" asked Shiver-mi-timbers, while trying to shake the last few drops out of a solid silver topped crystal decanter.

Both captains turned at once. The navy captain, Smith, signed to one of the waiters, who preferred to be called stewards and never, ever "trolley dollies". Because the destroyer didn't, as yet, have a mixed sex crew.

"The grog seems to be very popular with our guests." That was a typical English understatement. The pirates swigged down their rum like a Bavarian at a bierfest. "Do we have any bigger decanters?"

"We'd really need buckets for them sir, meaning no disrespect of course" replied the chief steward, whose name was Kevin.

"How about a fire bucket sir?" suggested his Number Two.

"Better make it three buckets then" agreed the naval captain. "And bring up another barrel on standby. Nice to see our guests enjoying themselves."

Meanwhile the rum decanter was refilled and then immediately emptied again.

"Shiver-mi-timbers!" exclaimed Shiver-mi-timbers. "That's a fine cup of tea you do serve in the Royal Navy Cap'n, meaning no disrepect Cap'n" turning to Feary, who scowled but said nothing. The rum tasted a bit too fresh for his own taste, but there was plenty of it. It was confusing having two captains at the table. It meant he had to concentrate quite hard on the flow of conversation, so he could tell when the "Cap'n" was for him. Truth to tell he was starting to feel a little numb and quite mellow.

Captain Smith broke the silence. "I was most impressed by your ship Captain Feary. I noticed on our radar that you were able to tack quite fast into the wind. Quite impressive seamanship, given that you've only got sqaure rigging."

What other kind is there? thought Captain Feary. But he liked receiving the compliment. He replied.

"I wouldn't know about that Cap'n." It was easier when he said it. He didn't have to turn around. His brain was getting a bit muddled. But he decided to go with the convivial flow. "Firing broadsides and sticking prisoners with my cutlass is more my line. I leaves the finer technical aspects of sailing to me crew. As long as we can catch the merchantmen and make a fast getaway from the navy, I'm happy."

He smiled indulgently. Had he really said that? The words had come out of his own mouth. He'd actually admitted that he was a pirate to a Royal Navy captain! Maybe that fresh rum was stronger than he thought.

"Shark power" explained Sharkey. "That be our secret weapon. But don't ye be telling anyone in the Royal Navy, or they'll all be wanting one."

The pirates and the navy mess all had a good hearty laugh at that.

'We're as drunk as skunks' thought Captain Feary starting to feel uneasy, with his hand on the pommel of his cutlass 'and we're blabbing all our confessions and secrets.' But when he looked around he could see that everyone, though looking a bit blurry, was smiling and laughing, and he had the reassuring thought. 'Maybe they're all as drunk as we are, and won't remember anything we said in the morning.' That was a good point, and a decisive argument as far as his addled logic was concerned, so he stopped worrying about it, took his hand off his cutlass, reached out for another drink and went back to being jolly. His hearing seemed to be going, and he had missed something which had just been said when another wave of laughter went round the table.

He smiled and was about to say "Pardon" when everyone's attention switched to the door, where, three smartly dressed stewards appeared, carrying three shiny buckets, brimming with freshly broached cask strength grog. He breathed in the aroma.

"Ah more victuals" exclaimed Captain Feary. "Most generous."

The stewards laid down a bucket in front of each pirate and waited to see what would happen next. To these sober onlookers it seemed that time had slowed down. Each pirate looked at the bucket of rum on the table before him. Then looked at the empty Waterford crystal glass in his hand. There was a delay while some careful mathematical calculations went on independently in three pickled brains. But they all alighted on the same conclusion...

The three glasses were set aside. Three pairs of hands reached for three buckets, which were lifted to three pairs of pirate lips, and drained in one go. There was silence while everyone else round the table looked on in astonishment at this herculean drinking feat.

"I win my bet, I think" whispered Kevin to the other stewards with a sly knowing wink, as he pocketed their fivers.

"Nice cup of tea" beamed Captain Feary, in appreciation.

Alexander who hadn't known the pirates very long, worryingly noticed that Feary's good eye had started slowly spinning around in its socket, and his head was moving around in the opposite rotation as if he was trying to compensate and keep things looking steady. (In fact, this was perfectly normal for the pirate captain, after he had downed four gallons of rum, but Alex wasn't to know that.)

"What shall we do with a drunken pirate?" Sharkey started to break into the first verse of their favourite song.

"Shiver-mi-timbers!" said Shiver-mi-timbers, with some gusto.

The pirate trio clanged their empty buckets decisively back onto the table. Then there was a gasp of "Oh!" from the audience and a crash as three chairs fell backwards, tipping the pirates onto the floor, where they lay very still. But a few moments later the sound of synchronised snoring perfected on many a long sea voyage, confirmed that they were still very much alive.

"Our guests look a bit tired" said Captain Smith diplomatically. "Help them up and show them to their quarters, where they can have a bit of a rest."

"Pick them up and carry them, don't you mean sir, so they can sleep it off?" asked Kevin mischievously.

"Carry on. There's a good man."

When the pirates had been removed, the stewards returned. Alexander noticed that they were all scratching themselves.

"Now then Master Woyte... and how did you get involved in all this piratical business? Shouldn't you and your companions," here waving at the goblins, "be at school or something, this time of year?"

This was a tricky question, and Alexander had up till now managed to avoid any discussion of his own particular circumstances. He kicked the minions under the table, who took the hint and bought him a bit more time to think.

"I think I would like to go to bed now" yawned Sleepsalot.

"I think I would like some more to eat" said Eatsalot, gathering up the remaining food from the pirate's plates.

"Moi, je pense que I would like a little bit more to drink" pronounced Buvalot, stretching out to retrieve the nearest decanter of port.

Alexander was still thinking about his reply, although the goblin's comments had given him a few more valuable seconds to think of one.

"I'm a 'prentice pirate" he replied at last. "It's a school work study project. This month we're doing pirates. Next month it will be... sailors." He added tactfully "Royal Navy, I mean."

"Oh good show" exclaimed captain Smith. "You'll have to give us a call when you do that. We have a shortage of recruits, you know, and we have open days for schools. Which school did you say you went to, by the way?"

"I'll be going to Portsmouth Grammar Preps in September" Alex replied.

"Splendid. Pompey is our home port, don't you know" said the captain. "But you don't have to wait that long. If you and your friends want to have a look at our facilities, I'm sure that Number Two here would be happy to take you on a guided tour. Or would you like to have a swim first? It is rather warm for the time of year. Something to do with global warming and carbon dioxide, I've been told, though how those little fizzy bubbles you get in a glass of Bolly can do so much harm to the whole planet is beyond me. Not a science man myself, don't you know. Have to rely on specialists for that sort of thing. I read PPP up at Jesus. Anyway..." mused the captain, feeling a bit sticky now "...sometimes we just put the old engines into neutral and have a quick dive over the side. Soon cools you down and freshens you up."

"I don't think that's a desperately good idea" said Alex in a squeaky voice, starting to get worried. He cleared his throat "Ahem" and in his most determined grown up voice, he continued "you've got to watch out for man-eating sharks."

"Nonsense" said Smith. "We don't get many man-eaters round here. Anyway, we can spot them a mile off with our sensitive sonar."

"I think you'd better get your sonar fixed then" said Alex in a low serious voice. "The pirates may have been tipsy, but they weren't joking about the giant shark."

Frustrated, he could see they were all smiling indulgently, but they didn't really believe him, and he was worried that some of them might get eaten if they did in fact dive over the side. So he picked up the remains of a large leg of ham from the sideboard, and started to walk out of the captain's dining room.

"Follow me, and I'll give you a demonstration. If you want to swim after that, don't blame me."

Maybe there was something in his eyes, or the determined way he stood. But follow him they did. And if you had been there on that night, you would have seen the curious sight of a fair haired five year old boy walking out onto the deck followed by three shorter goblins, followed in turn by the much taller captain Smith and his officers all filing out in a long crocodile, with the stewards making up the rear and busily placing bets.

Alex chose the stern part of the deck closest to the pirate ship, which was being towed on a long line about a hundred yards behind. He put down the heavy plate onto the deck and tore off a small strip of of ham. He looked down over the safety rail and even in the starlight he could see that the water behind the destroyer was frothy from the churn of the propellors. 'This won't do' he thought, so he ate the piece of ham, picked up the plate and carried on walking until he was about a quarter length up the port side. Then he stopped again suddenly and the crocodile bunched up behind him.

Putting the plate once more down onto the deck, he tore off a small nibble of ham and waited for everyone to gather round before he threw it over the side. Everyone waited expectantly. Nothing happened. If there was a splash, it was masked by the hum of the destroyer's engines. Alex looked back towards the pirate ship. It might have twitched a bit, or it could have been his imagination.

He threw in another, bigger, bite sized piece. The onlookers weren't sure what they were supposed to see. They did see a small splash, so they were looking the wrong way and didn't see what Alex saw about eight seconds later. The towed pirate ship had twitched and changed its angle ever so slightly to the left of the wake behind the destroyer. Or it might have been the effect of a wave. It was hard to tell. Now it was pointing directly straight again. Eatsalot reached out furtively for the ham, but withdrew his hand swiftly when Buvalot slapped it.

"There, you see" said captain Smith. "Not a ripple. It's perfectly safe, just as I said. I'll get you a swimming cosie and we can switch the engines over to treading water for a bit. You don't need to worry about the dark. As you saw, when we introduced ourselves earlier, we've got very good arc lights. He started to turn back for the nearest door along the deck. So Alexander did the only possible thing he could do in the circumstances. He lifted the plate up off the deck, balanced it for a moment on the rail, and then threw the leg of ham in, plate and all. There was a small splash and then nothing for a few seconds.

"I say" said one of the stewards. "That plate was part of a set."

"Less washing up" said Kevin.

And then it got scary.

First there was a kind of whooshing sound.

Everyone heard that, and turned around. The goblins clung onto Alexander's back and onto each other. The pirate ship was catching up with the destroyer. Correction. The pirate ship was overtaking the destroyer on the port side. The sea around the little sailing ship was positively foaming. It stopped at about the place where the ham had gone in and bobbed up and down for a few seconds.

Then it got even scarier.

The pirate ship disappeared. As their eyes got used to the blackness, they could see an enormous black streamlined silhouette, which rose hundreds of feet up into the sky. Whatever it was, was blocking out the pirate ship. Masts and all. Then they recognised the characteristic fin shape emerging from the water. It was the giant shark rising out of the water and almost standing on its tail like a dolphin at play. (The shark had finally gotten rid of the last vestige of goblin taste, and had eaten somthing nice. So it was in a good mood and doing a victory roll). Then gravity seemed to take hold, and the shark splashed back down under the waves. The pirate ship returned into view, unharmed, and drifted slowly back into its previous "under tow" position behind the destroyer.

"Now that's what I call a shark" said Kevin with a smile, because he'd just won another round of bets.

Alexander had made his point.

"Sorry about the plate" he said calmly. "It slipped. But that's why I said swimming in the sea would not be a desperately good idea"

The goblins, seeing that the danger was past, climbed off his back, let go of each other, and started grooming themselves, just like cats do when they're embarrassed.

"I think we'd better have a looksee at our sonar Number Two" agreed the captain. "Do you want to come along Alex? It's part of our standard guided tour."

Alex was happy to accept the invitation. He'd seen the outside of lots of navy warships docked in Portsmouth on his many shopping trips to and from France on the Brittany ferries. But he'd never actually been inside a warship before and seen the interesting high-tech bits. Judging by the restaurant, he thought this could be a good ship, even if they didn't have a children's play area. So the captain, his number two, Alex and the goblins descended into the most protected heart of the ship, the war room, where all the signals from the radar, sonar and even MTV were received and analysed by racks full of silently running military computers.

Meanwhile, in the sky not far over the horizon, Spellerbyte was explaining to Alexander's mum what had caused the unexpected delay.

It turned out that a "round-the-world" solo balloon race was taking place, and that some of the leading contestants had been heading straight into the flight path of the magic carpet. Before Spellerbyte had realised what was happening, the balloons, which one minute were coasting full speed ahead into clear dark sky, the next minute were getting hopelessly tangled together when they hit a dense mass of white cloud which just appeared out from nowhere. The "Phileas Fog" hit the "Virgin Skyscraper" and as they started twisting around together, they were hit in turn by the "Mines Bigger than Yours" balloon piloted by the billionaire eccentric Steve Gopherit. As the balloons twisted closer together spinning in a deadly dance, and the baskets bounced against each other, Spellerbyte realised that a dangerous situation was developing for which his own magic unrolling cloud cover was largely to blame. And so he parked alongside, switched on the magic carpet's headlights and tried to untangle the knots.

It took several goes, because every now and then a gust of wind would retangle everything which had been unravelled in the past few minutes. The ballonists themselves added to the swirling confusion, because they didn't want any of their rivals getting an unfair advantage by being the first to get away. Joanna had slept through all this, and so was unaware that two of the three billionaire pilots had started to make offers to Spellerbyte and bid against each each other, for the magic rug together with its sleeping female passenger.

"At that point" explained Spellerbyte "I cast a sleep spell on all of them, because they weren't cooperating, and were slowing me down. Then I untied the balloons one by one and towed them far apart and at different altitudes so they couldn't get tangled up again, waking each balloonist when I was out of sight. They'll probably just think they had a strange dream."

"What if the ytalk to each other?" asked Joanna. "If they compare notes, won't they think it a little odd that they all had exactly the same dream?"

"Judging from their behaviour, I think they're too competitive to be having friendly chats with each other. So I think our secret is safe."

"Can't you cast a spell of forgetfulness on them? Just to be sure."

"My dear Mrs. Woyte" said Spellerbyte. "If I could just wave my magic wand to make people forget things, the first person I would try it on would be my bank manager, to make her forget that we have a very large unsecured overdraft on the Prickly Spine Software Company bank account. Things don't happen like that in real life. Anyway, we wizards work to a very strict ethical code... apart from siphoning off a little whisky now and again. But we've been doing that for a very long time and people have got used to it. It's traditional."

"Just out of interest..." asked Joanna, as she rummaged around in her handbag. She pulled out a hairbrush. "Is there a rear view mirror?" She asked. Spellerbyte pressed a button and one appeared.

"And an internal light?"

Click. The rug was illuminated (but by a magic process none of this light actually leaked outside). Joanna started brushing her hair, which had got a bit flat from being slept on.

"Just out of interest..." Joanna returned to her previous line of inquiry. "Just how high did the bidding for me go?"

Spellerbyte laughed. "They didn't offer enough." he replied with a twinkle in his eye. "Which is why you're still here. And if I told you what they did offer, you'd have to clear out your wardrobe and start buying a much bigger size in hats."

This reply seemed to please Joanna, and so, invigorated at the thought of not one, but two billionaires fighting over her, and refreshed after her sleep she felt ready to face any challenge.

Spellerbyte's map came to its end and rolled off the spool.

"Just over the horizon" he commented. "We should see it soon."

Dawn was breaking as the magic carpet dropped down from the cloud cover and under the radar angle. In the pale mists of daylight the Iron Lady was a long grey hulk with lots of domes spread along its deck. And like the castles of old it had several turrets protruding into the sky and bristling with the spears of its defenders. Except on closer inspection, these weren't spears, but hundreds of pointy aerials sucking in radio signals from every frequqncy. And rising up from the middle of the tallest turret was a mast, festooned with signal flags, some wire clothes hangers and someone's socks.

Actually this was a very good place to dry your socks if you were down to your last pair, because the combination of microwaves from the transmitters, and the sea air dried things faster than a tumble drier, and it didn't waste any unnecessary energy. But you had to talk to the sparkies first to make sure that things got turned off, because otherwise you might get fried yourself while hanging out the washing.

"It does look like a Royal Navy ship to me" said Joanna relieved. "So I'm sure that Alexander will be all right."

"If you don't mind, we'll back off now, and decide what to do next" said Spellerbyte. "I don't want the Ministry of Defence finding out too much about magic carpets, because they might start taking pot shots at wizards to try and acquire them. I've woven a bit of a mist around this area, so they can't see us now. We'll hop back over the horizon and lay low for a bit while we work out the best way to pick up your boy and his goblins."

The officers on the watch were confused by the sudden appearance of the sea fog.

"The weather forecast wasn't very accurate today" commented seaman Dai Cast from Pontardawe. "Just sprung out of nowhere like."

"If you ask me, we get more accurate weather forecasts from satellite TV" muttered his companion Dave Mellor, from Basingstoke in agreement, while idly scratching himself with one hand and adjusting his binoculars to the infrared setting with the other.

"Good Lord! What was that?"

"Spellerbyte's magic carpet flashed across the screen on his binoculars and then disappeared.

"What do you mean?" asked Dai, who switched on his own binoculars and started scanning in the same direction. There was a very silent sound like click, click, click. His own binoculars had been specially adapted for use on shore leave, when he used them for bird watching near his home in West Glamorgan. Along with all the standard military gadgets, it also had built-in windcreen wipers to keep off the rain.

Dave shook his binoculars and pressed the button for testing batteries.

"Just another magic carpet" he replied.

"We'd better add it to the log then," said Dai, taking out his leatherbound notebook, and special all weather astronaut style writing pen. (This is an upmarket version of the special pilot's pen which can write upside down, and has a built in torch just in case you have to write anything in the dark. It also uses greaseproof permanent ink, so that in an emergency, if the built in paper roll runs out, you can write a message on the back of your hand.)

"So far this month, that makes three magic carpets, six mermaids, and one pirate ship. All we need next is for Steve Gopherit to drop out of the sky in one of his dodgy balloons, and that'll make this month the most sightings of Unidentified Flaky Objects this year."

Dave Mellor was disappointed to see that the battery test light, said "Battery OK." Just to be on the safe side, he pressed the reset button.

"I always said it was a mistake putting software into binoculars. Must be another software bug. When my contract is up, I'm going to start painting all the wierd things I've seen with proper traditional paints and brushes on real crinkly paper. I'm not using any of those namby pamby software drawing packages like Quark or Corel. You can't trust software. It sticks things in when you're not looking."

His companion, Dai, had heard this one before.

"Do you think there's a business in drawing goblins and magic carpets and mousy wizards and the like then?"

"I don't know" replied Dave. "But I'll feel less of a fool painting pictures of make believe objects, then I do when I stand here reporting them."

"Well it's lucky we don't put them in the official log then" his companion rejoindered. "Otherwise your painting career might start sooner than you might think. I hear they do a lot of painting in them trick cyclist places. Very therapeutic."

He snapped shut his notebook, and carefully clicked off his pen, and slid it back into the specially designed space saving pen holding receptacle built into the spine. He wrapped the waterproof protective leather cover over the notebook and slid it back into his velcro sealed inner pocket. Then he pressed a button on his collar stud which was miked to a small digital recorder built into the jacket.

He checked his special divers watch which was guaranteed to work down to three thousand feet below sea level. It also has a built-in stop watch, compass, calculator, personal organiser and MP3 player. But when you plugged the headphones in, it wasn't guaranteed to be waterproof, so he hadn't tried that function yet.

"Seaman Dai Cast reporting at oh four two five hours. Sudden sea fog descended. Visibility down to thirty five metres. Have switched over to infrared. Sea is calm. Nothing unusual to report."

Meanwhile in the war room, captain Smith was hearing an explanation of why the world's most expensive sonar had failed to detect the world's biggest fish. The sound engineer was pointing to one part of a very large monitor which was showing a ghostly white blob shaped rather like a giant shark in the top left hand quarter of the screen.

"This is the raw log of what we picked up under the pirate ship. As you can see, if you look carefully, this small bit of the blob, here, is as big as the entire pirate ship above it. The raw data isn't very useful at this point and goes through some adaptive noise filtering software to make it better."

He scrolled a trackerball and clicked. After a short delay the ghostly blob was joined in the top right hand quarter of the screen by a much sharper image of a giant shark. Alexander though he could even make out the outlines of individual teeth, in that wicked smile he had seen when floating on his bunk bed. The goblins held his hand for comfort and hissed at the picture.

"From here, the filtered data goes into the object recognition software which tries to match it to known objects like fish, submarines etc."

The tracker ball was spun again , followed by another click and a much longer delay while nothing happened. A series of blurry shapes appeared and disappeared again in the lower left hand quarter of the screen like a swarm of buzzing dots which coalesced and then broke up again every time they got too close. A bit like bees, thought Alexander. Or expanding universes. (He'd seen that on a documentary about astronomy.)

"Unfortunately the unknown object database rejected a match for 'shark' because the dimensions didn't match any known species. So the software assumed that the shark outline was just an aliasing error, and broke it up again."

Another roll, another click.

"From which we got the identification..."

The dots in the lower left hand quarter of the monitor stopped swirling around and settled into a neat arrangement of small fishes fitting neatly into a large shark shaped outline. A message on the lower right hand quarter of the screen flashed triumphantly the message. "Hawkeye sonar recognition software, version 2.3. Unknown object successfully identified after 1,902,431 matches as shoal of sardines (probably edible). Probability equals 99.2%. Good fishing and have a nice day."

"Lord help us from low bidding defence software contractors" sighed the captain. "Even a child can see that the first blob is a shark. Meaning no disrespect master Alex."

Alexander nodded. He totally agreed with that. You'd have to be a child who had lived in the desert all his life and never watched TV or seen a book, or else a completely drunken pirate, or apparently version 2.3 of the Hawkeye sonar recognition software to think it was anything different. The shape of the first blob was glaringly obvious. It screamed at you "shark."

The captain continued. "I dread to think what would happen if the Russians decided to build a giant submarine. Our sonar software would probably identify it as a pile of old lost-at-sea baked beans tins."

The sound engineer nodded. He'd seen version 1.1 of the software. That was scary. Unknown shapes were often identified as poker hands or Beatles' records.

"Is there any way" asked the captain "that we can programme in giant sharks now? Or is that going to cost another hundred million quid of tax payers money to put right?"

"I've already done that captain" replied the sound engineer, who had written a piece of code quick and dirty Ada (the navy programming language) which roughly said 'if it looks like a shark, swims like a shark and grins like a shark, then it probably is a damn shark, no matter how big it is.'

"Good man" commended the captain. "Well at least we tracked down that problem." He started scratching himself and decided that if he couldn't have a swim over the side, then he ought to go and have a shower.

"Carry on with the tour Number Two. See you later Alexander."

Number Two was also feeling a slight itch, but had been bought up in a respectable working class home where people didn't do their scratching in public. It would have to wait till later.

Although the navy ran their own system of rosters on board, he realised that in the real world it was very late at night, or very early in the morning. Not the kind of time that a young child should normally be up and about. So he asked "Would you like to see some more gizmos, or would you rather go and get some sleep?"

click to  expand Map of Privett etc

Alexander had had a good sleep, just before being woken up the searchlights when the attack party from the Iron Lady had boarded the pirate ship. But that was many hours ago, and he was feeling a tired again. On the other hand, he was interested in seeing more naval gadgetry and didn't want to miss anything. So in the best traditions of all children who stay up late at night when something interesting is happening in the adult world, he replied.

"I'm not tired a bit" and stifled a yawn. Alexander's goblin minders had fallen asleep during the tail end of the shark sonar recognition demonstration. But they woke up with a start and followed him and Number Two through a maze of dimly lit cubicles. None of them seemed to have anything interesting on their screens.

"This is our weather radar" said Number Two stopping suddenly. Alexander stopped in time, but the goblins were still dopy and collided into each other. " Leutenant Nimbus here will tell you all about it. I'm just going to get some drinks from the vending machine in the corridor round the corner. What would you like? Coffee, tea, soup, or hot chocolate?" He took their orders. Leutenant Nimbus didn't want any. He had a long trail of half empty cups along his workstation which he sipped at from time to time. "OK four hot chocolates, and one coffee for me. I won't be long."

His itching was getting quite bad now, so once he was in the corridor and out of site, he raced past the nearest vending machine and into the toilets where he had a really good scratch at his itchy back.

"That's better" he thought. "Must be too much starch in the ironing this week."

Leutenant Nimbus was explaining how, using a mixture of civil and military satellites and an onboard Cray computer, the Iron Lady could get superbly accurate pictures of the local weather systems , and could predict the weather upto three days in advance with an accuracy of apporaching eighty five per cent."

He seemed to think that was good. So Alex asked him if it was written by the same people who had written the Hawkeye sonar recognition software. Nimbus replied that his software was written by the same company, but this was a different more advanced package called the Weatherman version 5.0. It was related to the weather packages used by the Met office in Bracknell for TV weather, but it was much more advanced and specially adapted for weather at sea.

"And this" he said proudly, clicking his trackerball "is a picture of the local cloud formations above our current local horizon."

The screen came alive with a series of spidery trails which walked all over the screen and didn't look like anything to Alexander at first.

"Oh my gosh." Leutenant Nimbus didn't seem too happy with the results and he clicked again to reflect and rotate the wandering trails. Alexander's mouth fell open, and the goblins moved into a tight huddle. Just at that point Number Two returned with a tray of cups which he dropped on the floor when he saw the screen.

For there, written in the cloud patterns in letters five miles high was the message.

"Hello Alexander. I've come to take you home. Love Mum."

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