Sky Pirates is an urban fantasy about ancient sins and new beginnings, set in the subconscious mind of coma victim Maggie Drupal. 26-year old teacher Maggie has a serious climbing accident whilst on vacation in New Zealand but instead of dying is taken to a magical ocean of stars and inhabited islands known as the Seas of Time where pirate ships trade in human souls. Maggie is lying in a coma in Christchurch hospital as New York cop Jack Smith searches the Seas of Time for her on board Captain James Splinter’s ship Starfarer. Maggie’s abductor plans to open a tunnel between the Seas of Time and Earth for returning to his own time, but to do so Maggie must die.
The novel takes Jack and Maggie to a world of 18th Century frigates warring for supremacy over a trade in human souls, whilst competing for a way to return home. There they must survive ice, storms, sorcery, fire, slavery and Space Travel as they seek each other. On Earth, there is also a race to discover where Jack and Maggie have gone, and how to bring them back. Oblique references exist to Peter Pan as story lines set in modern day Earth and the Eighteenth Century Caribbean are woven together.
The Seas of Time are one of a number of magical places that exist between life and death, strung like beads on a string. The string joining the worlds is known as the Well of Worlds. The Well is a giant vortex that can suck down ships, people and even aircraft and take them to the Seas of Time. None who arrive are safe from the pirates who sail the Seas of Time, stealing and trading souls so they can live forever. Power is maintained through the use of sorcerers and black magic.
Sailing the Seas of Time in 18th Century ships takes great skill. It is even possible to use sorcery to go beneath the surface, where water gives way to endless space and stars. Battles are raged amongst asteroids and the remains of old spacecraft, using the opposing forces of cannon fire to control the ships and travel at great speed. Only the most skilled captains can do this and it is easy to become lost and never return to the surface. A map of the principal islands (below) shows the territories and power structures of the Seas of Time.
Maggie Drupal believes she is about to die. The rope groans as it strains against the quivering gunmetal-blue piton. It’s is all that supports her and Lizzy as they dangle from a vertical rock face, five hundred feet above a growling leaping ocean. Seawater whips her face, the New Zealand sky is almost black with rage and Maggie knows there will be no mercy this time. Her body is already ice cold, losing the fight to stay conscious and as her eyelids flutter and droop, Maggie pictures her cottage back in Cornwall. Above the hearth rests a large whiskey bottle containing an Eighteenth Century frigate complete with one hundred guns, storming through a frozen sea. She wonders if death might be the same, a single moment forever frozen. There’s a pale-faced unshaven stranger in her cottage and yet she feels she should know him. He takes down the bottle and examines the ship with an expression of wonder but it is her he peers at through his magnifying glass, an insect trapped in a web of time. The world tilts. Maggie shivers as the ocean roars up the cliffs in an explosion of white and she has never been more awake.
“Lizzy,” she yells into the wind. “Lizzy, can you hear me?”
She can barely hear herself. She yells again until her voice cracks but Lizzy can’t hear. Lizzy Jagger, ex-cruise ship dancer and recently separated from her long-term and uninteresting partner Don, is trying to swing herself against the cliff so she can find a hold, but each swing loosens the piton a little more. Lizzie finds a hold and the pressure eases, but their situation is precarious and Maggie can see no way out. In desperation, she fills her lungs and yells for help and as if in answer, a monster wave rears out of the sea several thousand feet out. It reaches up ever higher as the smooth green curved back rushes onwards and there’s something riding inside.
Maggie forgets her terror as she tries to see through the increasing gloom. The wave seems to be alive as it slides through the choppy sea and there are flickering lights deep inside as if she can see stars in a wave of night. The lights are growing brighter and clearer as the wave billows upwards and an immense bulk bursts free. The wave is almost alongside as the side of the monster grinds along the cliff face. A forest of masts spear the sky in the blackness and Maggie gets the impression that the ship is very old, an endless series of sails tightly furled against the countless yards, bow-string rigging singing in the harsh wind. There are three decks at different heights and haggard men are hard at work pulling on ropes, manning the wheel, tethering the rows of cannon whilst looking upwards at the cliffs, seemingly unaware of their submarine existence and the water rushing about their naked feet. They sign to each other in silence, men with dead-white faces and haunted eyes.
The piton tugs free and Maggie plunges downwards as a figure swings away from a yard-arm on the end of a rope. She plummets towards the frenzied water and jagged rock, but the figure reaches her and an arm whips around her waist with crushing force. She has time to register how cold her rescuer is and how thin the arm. She thinks there is a face within the ragged hood but all she can see are golden eyes as remorseless as the sea and they seem to be triumphant. A sudden, brutal impact smashes the air from Maggie’s lungs as her world shrinks to a point and is gone.
When Maggie awakens, she is lying in a hammock and lulled by the gentle swing. She has been dreaming about the inexplicable death of her parents so long ago and the feelings have never dimmed, as if she too is sinking into the cold black ocean with them and there is no way back to the surface. The dream runs its illogical and hurtful course until a plaintive creak brings her fully awake and her eyes snap open. The canvas hammock has been slung across the corner of what appears to be a large cabin with oak-panelled walls stained almost black with age. She absently notes that there are no lights or light switches, only candles in a swinging candelabra and the meaty smell of the place is distinctive, reminding her of the village butcher’s shop when she was a child growing up in Polperro.
There’s a large table in the centre of the cabin, made of oft-scrubbed wood and deeply marked by grooves as if used for carpentry. The floor bears a confusion of markings that whisper to her words of black magic. The pentagon has been carved deep into the wood, curious symbols and signs of the zodiac branded into the planking as if it were alive. The ceiling of the cabin has been painted skilfully and depicts an island seen from above, with three smooth round rocks jutting out of the sea. The centre of the island has a volcano and the bay on the opposite side from the round rocks reminds her of the head of a stuffed Great White shark she once saw whilst on holiday in Florida. The hammock rocks and she dozes, trying to remember. She sees the tough-faced dark-haired man peering at the model of The Starfarer, her most prized possession. His eyes are visible through the magnifying glass, both puzzled and wounded – he is a man searching for something he has lost and cannot regain. She can’t hold onto the memory for long as her head hurts too much and eventually Maggie is forced awake, but she remembers the troubled man quite clearly. She takes in her surroundings and the sense of shock comes on slowly as if she is slowly drifting into insanity, and she feels that Lizzie is gone forever.
The shutters along the back of the cabin are open and she watches an aquamarine world sweep by. She is not under water exactly, although she can see a dappled ceiling far above that might be where sea meets atmosphere. The blueness is empty, an endless void that stretches on for ever and far below sparkle tiny lights, amongst them spheres of the coldest white. The impossible ship travels through no world that she knows – perhaps no world at all. And yet a monstrous seagull floats alongside and peers in at her with a wicked little eye before it drifts upwards and peels away with an indignant squawk, feathers ruffling. The gull is as impossible as the ship and whatever rules are at work lie far outside her own existence.
Maggie closes her eyes to shut out the terrors but she can still hear them. The ship itself is filled with countless noises that combine into a discordant symphony. There is a deep and endless groaning from somewhere below that is vaguely arthritic in nature. Feet pound the deck above as they scurry to and fro. Waves slap the outside of the wall beside the hammock as if urging the ship onwards when there is no sea, and there is a strange and intermittent thudding from deep inside. The shutters rattle and chafe, one swinging with an intermittent squeak, but there are no human voices. Above the other noises comes an occasional thunder and crack, the sound of vast areas of canvas catching whatever is driving the ship.
There’s a polished mahogany desk below the window, the large leather armchair behind facing the door. A telescope is rolling to and fro on the desk, sometimes reaching the edge and see-sawing there before rolling back. An inkwell slides across the gleaming surface, gets half-way across the drop before returning whence it came. A pen actually makes it off the edge before flipping back acrobatically as if alive. A roll of charts remain prone across the centre, unmoving. This strange and unnatural dance bothers Maggie more than anything else. She lies back and closes her eyes, and hears a different noise that she does not understand.
Someone is breathing. The breathing retreats and there is a sucking sound somewhat like the hoovering up process carried out by dental assistants during procedures. The breather returns and Maggie can hear a song being hummed very quietly. It seems to be ‘Phantom of the Opera’, but it’s hard to tell because someone else is speaking in the background. The hummer stops.
“Just watch the pressure, Hal.”
“Jesus H, how many years have we been doing this for, Jan?”
An intermittent bleep cuts through the mix. Maggie opens her eyes with a small jerk but there’s no one else in the cabin and no source of such an automated sound. She struggles out of the hammock and examines herself for injuries but seems mostly unscathed, despite scrapes on her hands. There’s a mirror swinging against the wall within a worn arc and so she teeters across the cabin and grabs hold of it. Darkly anxious eyes look back from a young-old face, her skin patterned by an equal mix of freckles, dried salt and dirt. The straight fair hair is stiff with salt, the neat chin with its shallow cleft smudged with something greasy. She looks down at the spare body, still clad in Lycra climbing leggings and a black tee shirt, but someone has removed her rubber-soled climbing shoes and placed them neatly by the wall, and her Gortex jacket is missing. The reflection is wrong. There is a tattoo on her left forearm where no tattoo should be, a string of text in reverse characters that she can read in the mirror.
Fear not the dark if they heart is pure
It’s something that Crazy Aunt Kat used to whisper to Maggie and Helen when they were afraid of the night, lying in their bunk beds in Lightning Strike cottage. Try as she might, she could not visualise Helen at that time – just herself, the dark, Kat’s grin and the lit-up slightly crazy blue eyes. It was impossible to be scared when Kat was there. But now Maggie is alone, she is hungry and thirsty and needs the toilet, and she does not want to know what is on the other side of the cabin door. An impossible ship arose from a raging sea on a day forecast to be serene and blue, and Lizzie disappeared. But Maggie is a teacher of primary school children, on holiday in New Zealand whilst she sorts out her life and Lizzie is probably in her hotel room drying her hair or doing her make-up before going out on the pull, as she likes to call it. And Maggie is about to wake up from a nightmare, she prays for the first time in a long time, but she can almost imagine God laughing.
The faint bleep continues. The woman called Jan is now humming ‘The first time I ever saw your face’ with particular poignancy before she begins to sing the words in a low and husky voice, and Maggie senses a great sadness. She listens to the song with her eyes closed, trying to understand what it can all mean. The singer ends her song and a different man says something too low to be heard. There is laughter, but not from the singer. Things clink metallically. The new sounds end when Maggie opens her eyes and is still in the lurching cabin. The ship is heading upwards towards the light, leaping forward in slow surges that send her staggering across the dark pine planking. The mirror hangs at forty-five degrees. Maggie is back at the desk, unable to fight the slope as the ship erupts through the surface and the nothingness around them seems to boil, a million silvery bubbles exploding against the non-existent window. She sees living things zip past with flashes of light as the empty place falls away into darkness, grabbing at the outside of the ship as if trying to pull it back.
The groaning and creaking reaches a crescendo as the floor levels quite suddenly with a roar of water. The seagull is back, this time floating serenely against a heavy sea. The sky is the purest blue that Maggie has ever seen and the air blowing into the cabin is warm and salty. She leans on the deck and hides her face, eyes squeezed shut. Insane images swirl in her mind as she hangs on to the only thing she knows to be true, the ship is real and the desk she leans on is also real, the inlaid leather top bearing the memory of quill pens and copperplate. The feet pounding the deck are real too, even the silence.
Maggie puts on her shoes and goes to the desk with its gravity-defying occupants and peers out the sloping rectangular windows with their pinned-back shutters. The sea is brisk and scudded, the wind is tangy with salt and ozone, and a flock of gulls follows in the wake, landing for scraps and squabbling. There is an island in the distance, a blur painted onto the horizon. Maggie wrestles with what her brain is telling her and cannot accept it. She chooses to believe that she has been rescued from the sea and is now on a boat returning to New Zealand, blotting out the overwhelming evidence that spoke otherwise. She unrolls the topmost chart and holds it open, expecting to see a hydrographic chart like the ones in her parents’ old yacht before it went up in flames with them inside. But this map has been hand-drawn and depicts a circular sea with five islands set on the perimeter with exotic names – ‘Despair’, ‘Treachery’, ‘Diablo’, ‘One Way’. The centre of the circular ocean is a swirling shape called ‘the Well of Worlds’ below which someone has written,
Thys be notte here. The Welle moves where it choosest.
The ocean itself is named ‘The Seas of Time’. There are dotted lines marked between some of the islands with inscriptions such as ‘Tenne Souls Lost here’, or ‘Fifteen Souls Takene’. The meticulous copperplate script suggests great age but the paper feels new. The thing that bothers Maggie is what lies outside the perimeter – no world exists within a circle. The scroll seems to pull itself free and curls back up defensively.
There’s another mystery in the cabin, a large and very elaborate hookah standing beside the desk, the mouthpiece on the end of a copper-plated tube within easy reach of the chair. The glass bowl is the size of a football, encased in a filigree of copper tubes and the small pool of liquid within glows with a fierce blue light. The air in the globe is filled with a swirling mist and as she peers inside, Maggie seems to hear many voices calling her from far away. She senses desperation in the distant cries before they fade and the light within the hookah is gone. The desk drawers contain little of interest other than the central drawer, which holds an ancient and faded diary with gold edging and bound in leather. She opens it carefully. Inside the flyleaf someone has written with great precision,
The diary of Captain Maximilian Devereux (Rev.) 1787.
The diary seems to tell the story of a ship’s chaplain with a secret love, a man driven to betrayal and tormented by his conscience. Maximilian Devereux evidently became obsessed with magic and someone called Nottehole, who seemed to be the expert in that particular area. There is a separate sheet folded and held in the centre of the diary, dirty and creased as if unfolded and read many times. Maggie reads it.
There is a way to the Outworld in my time. A seventh descendent who is there and who is here and they must speake the words in the Outworld when they finally believe in here and abandon there, but they must have great magick. I will wait for eternity for this person…Godde will send them to me…
There is much more rambling of the same nature and it speaks of someone tormented, disturbed and perhaps dangerous. And yet this someone sought her out with great care, appearing at just the right time. The ship and the diary are both ancient and new, and the impossibility of what she’s reading makes Maggie nauseous. She has to get out of the cabin and its memories, but only then does she notice the shallow cupboard against the wall beside the door. Located opposite the desk, the cupboard is some three feet square. Like the rest of the cabin it is made from dark oak but the doors are covered with writing in the meticulous hand of Captain Devereux. She traces the words with her finger but only one sentence makes sense.
May Godde forgive me for my sinnes, and bring her backe to me
She hesitates before taking hold of the bronze knobs and opens the doors. Inside is a painting, dark with age. A woman and four children are seated on a fallen tree outside a cottage she knows all too well. The sun is setting and the woman’s face is captured beautifully but the children are seated in her shadow, all but the boy at the end, dark-haired and pale. The woman is Maggie.