Jessica awoke groggily to the sound of a large gong.
“Breakfast is served!”, it seemed to be saying, and her stomach was loudly agreeing with it.
She could still vaguely recall making her way back to the cabin last night after the unexpected discovery of Amy’s pregnancy. Ant had given little away by his reaction as she remembered; he had perhaps seemed a trifle put out, but had no idea of the identity of the father. Whoever that might be, he should of course be informed of Amy’s condition. Jess intended to make finding him her number one priority.
Hastily dressing in black linen trousers and short sleeved button up shirt she grabbed her bleep before exiting the cabin and following her ears round the corridor to the left. On her way she passed the now familiar door to the clinic. Feeling better orientated, she popped in and checked that all was well with Amy, adjusting drip rates and ventilator settings. The swelling had reduced somewhat but she would still need some help with her breathing for a while yet. Even the smell seemed to have lessened.
Carrying on to her left, Jessica reached the wide, imposing white wooden spiral staircase, the centre of which was covered with a thick purple carpet. She remembered the vibrations of the music through the carpet last night. It looked perfectly ordinary now, although the gong was now so loud that the banisters vibrated slightly with every beat. She descended.
At the foot of the staircase a set of wrought iron double doors swung open and as they did so, the sound of the gong immediately ceased.
Before her was a large hall with windows looking out onto the sea on either side. No land was visible. A large number of people were seated at a rectangular central table, being served by bustling green velvet clad waiting staff. Surrounding this were numerous smaller round tables. She spotted Ant at one of them, and he beckoned her over.
“Morning, Doc!” he chirped. Jessica managed a forced grin. “How are our patients doing?”
Jessica looked from side to side sharply. “Ssh! I can’t discuss it here. Confidentiality. But yes, they’re stable.”
“Great. Have a seat, Doc! You don’t mind me calling you Doc, do you?” Ant carried straight on, paying no attention to her obvious irritation. “This is Patricia, Doc. She’s the ship’s chaplain. Thought you might have something in common.”
Patricia was a kindly looking black lady in her mid fifties clad in a plain grey sweater and jeans- no dog collar in sight, but she managed a godly manner all the same. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. Ant’s been telling me all about your heroics last night. What do you prefer to be called?”
At least someone had some manners. “I’m Jessica,” she replied.
“May I ask, are you a person of faith?” Patricia intoned.
Another box Jessica preferred to keep firmly closed. “Let’s just say that I’m familiar with the Bible and leave it there, shall we?” she joked.
Eyes boring deep into her, Patricia continued inexorably. “You know, this ship takes people in many ways. Sometimes, after taking some time to reflect, people seem to feel the need to get closer to the Almighty. I want you to know that I’m here for you, Jessica, should you need me, and so is God,” she smiled contentedly.
“Patricia’s right, Jessica,” Ant chimed in. “Do you believe in Heaven?”
If there is a God, Jessica pondered, He is not on my side right now. “I wouldn’t want to get into theology over breakfast. I’m sure you get it all day long!” As if that would stop them.
Ant looked disappointed. “Well, I do hope you’re a Christian. After all, if you’re not a Christian you’ll be going to Hell, and it simply wouldn’t be Heaven if you weren’t there!”
Jesus, this was the last thing she needed at breakfast- sarcastic Antipodean with a side of God botherer. A voice from her childhood piped up, telling her to stop all this independent thinking, and she squashed it fast. Last time she’d checked God had been none too keen on either her military or her medical exploits. Smiling her thanks and making noises about checking on her patient, Jessica grabbed herself a bread roll to go. Intriguing as the steaming platters on the top table looked, she thought on reflection she’d rather be hungry in clinic than preached at in here.
As she got up to leave, her pager vibrated abruptly, giving her the perfect excuse. Glancing down, she saw a blinking bright green message scrolling across the display.
ORDERS: Report to Captain immediately.
She looked over at Ant to gauge his reaction, but he was busy chatting to Patricia about his next Confession of all things. She would not have had him pegged as the religious type. It crossed her mind that a lot of convicts found God in jail, a depressing thought which she put firmly to bed.
The device buzzed once more.
LEAVE THE DINING HALL AND CLIMB THE SPIRAL
As she stood there, the buzzing became more and more insistent. She took a single step in the direction of the door, and the device calmed. Clearly this bleep was a little more advanced than it had first appeared. Shrugging (after all, hadn’t she wanted nothing more than to meet the mysterious Captain just a few short hours ago?) she advanced to the spiral staircase and climbed. She wondered if she would get the chance to investigate the surreal concert hall space in broad daylight. She was pretty sure she must have imagined most of that, and was looking forward to grounding herself firmly in reality where she felt most comfortable.
Before she could explore further, she found herself at the top of the spiral and in front of another large set of double doors, in wood this time. They were ornately carved with a netting pattern reminiscent of her bedspread. On closer inspection, the strands were composed of a multitude of tiny spirals. Peering closer at the intricate work to appreciate the detail close up, Jessica’s nose was only an inch from the door when it shot open, sliding away in either direction to nestle behind hidden panels. She almost fell forward into the room in surprise and had to catch herself physically on the doorframe to prevent an undignified entrance. Flustered, she flicked her eyes across the room to locate the door opener.
A large stone desk took pride of place before gleaming glass panels extending from floor to ceiling. Jessica could see over the prow of the vessel and right out to sea. An array of computer screens containing various readings and nautical hieroglyphics took up most of the desk space. The Captain sat in a silver chair which was suspended from the ceiling above the centre of the desk.
Jessica was not sure, looking at the Captain, whether they were a man or a woman. They had not a single hair on their head. Startling blue eyes contrasted with pale, translucent skin. They wore a plain blue suit, matched with unexpectedly high heels. They nodded at Jessica to sit, which she did with alacrity. As she sat, she observed that the desk appeared to be formed of sections which glistened very slightly and appeared irregular in form. She had seen it somewhere before. Searching her memory, she realised that the desk was in fact a giant ammonite, and following its coils around she could not exactly tell where the desk ended and the glass walls began. The reflections from the glass were a little too bright for her to see the Captain comfortably from this angle, and she found herself squinting slightly.
The Captain looked her straight in the eye for some time. After several minutes, Jess looked down. She didn’t want to seem disrespectful. The chair she had sat on had initially felt firm, but the longer she sat there, the more it seemed to encase her, as if she was sitting in a giant bean bag. Her body began to tingle slightly and she started sweating.
The Captain spoke. “So. Tell me about yourself.”
This one she could do. Jessica was an expert at producing sanitised, corporate bullshit. She launched into her pre prepared spiel. After she had finished, the Captain merely sat and looked at her.
Jessica waited to be asked another question, but the Captain was the very essence of stillness. Something about their expression precluded her from saying a word. Immediately, before she had a chance to react, the Captain was standing right beside her. For the first time Jessica noticed extremely long nails with sharpened tips on both their hands. Head tilted slightly to one side, the Captain raised their hand and cocked their little finger. When they saw that Jessica was fully focused on it, they began to slowly move the fingernail closer to Jessica’s right eye. It was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Jessica immediately felt a great sense of dread. She instinctively shrunk back, but found to her horror that she was quite unable to move. The chair had coalesced around her to form an immovable object with the consistency of concrete. She was quite trapped. She could only watch as the nail came closer and closer.
A loud knock on the door cut through the air. Instantly, it seemed, the Captain was seated back in that strange, silvery chair. Jessica blinked, unsure of what had just happened. Before she had had time to process it fully, the door was opening, and a man had entered. Unable to turn, Jessica nevertheless recognised the accent. It was Ant.
The Captain spoke in a high pitched, gentle voice quite at odds with their severe appearance. Jessica was taken back, but assumed that the Captain must be a woman.
“I believe you have met Ant. He is here to give you your induction.”
It was the first time in her life that Jessica had received these words with a sense of relief and reassurance. Usually medical inductions were turgid affairs, full of tedious bureaucracy with the occasional wiseass fire safety video. She held great hopes that Spiral Dial’s would not disappoint her. She could do with a bit of boredom, it would form a respite from the frantic imaginings of her quite clearly deranged mind.
Ant crossed the room and tapped on the left hand side of the curved glass, which immediately darkened and displayed the topic list for the morning. Jessica looked at the Captain, expecting her to leave. She remained.
The first section was labelled:
Induction: An Induction
- All personnel shall be inducted into the induction upon entering Spiral Dial.
- The Captain shall be present for all inductions.
- The Captain shall be responsible for monitoring all inductions and ensuring their successful implementation.
- Ownership of the induction process shall remain with the Captain and shall be reviewed at the end of the operation’s first year.
- By proceeding to Step 2 of Induction, crew consent to participate in the Induction process.
- Any injury, intended or otherwise, sustained during the Induction process shall be the responsibility of the individual crew member.
The page ended with a small picture of a smiling cartoon penguin suspended over a large hole in an iceberg.
“Very funny,” Jessica muttered as she signed the electronic waiver which appeared on the section of the ammonite immediately in front of her chair. The moment she had done so, a prompt popped up asking her to provide her fingerprints, which she did, impressing the pads upon the cool stone surface. Something sharp pricked the first finger of her left hand, and she withdrew it rapidly. The stone appeared as smooth as before, but on the tip of her finger a drop of blood remained. She looked at Ant accusingly, and he shrugged imperceptibly. ‘ID’, he said. ‘It’s a very high tech operation.’
Ant tapped the screen and a monotone voice intoned, “Welcome to Spiral Dial- investing in the future of tomorrow, today!” The presentation went swiftly downhill from there.
Spiral Dial, she was told, was the brainchild of a secretive charitable foundation. The strong implication was that the money came from someone extremely famous who wished to make a lasting contribution to the wellbeing of the world, while simultaneously deepening their own pockets. How better than by building a state of the art research vessel playing host to some of the most talented scientists on the Earth today, brought together in one place in order to find a permanent solution to the environmental problems facing the human race? Researchers from the fields of climatology, geology, energy production, genetics, biology and all of the other -ologies were represented in the ship’s large team of engineers.
Actually spending any money on supporting -ologies was not part of the founders’ plan. That was where the paying guests came in. There were thirteen luxurious cabins on board hosting adventurous souls in search of a year-long exclusive break from the world. They were mostly elderly, all extremely rich and they had been promised the finest medical care on the planet. That, of course, was where Jessica came in. She idly wondered how many million they had persuaded each of these idiots to part with.
She could feel herself nodding off as Ant continued talking about the precise responsibilities of her role. Luckily she had taken the precaution of keeping a sharpened pencil in her suit pocket, and was able to deploy the tried and tested pencil point over the thigh technique- guaranteed to prevent embarrassing lapses in concentration. As the sharp point dug into her leg for the tenth time, she was pleased to be distracted as a large silver old fashioned timepiece appeared on the rock in front of her. The screen proclaimed that she was to be issued with a standard issue wristwatch instead of her pager, and she was to wear this wristwatch at all times. She put it on her wrist, and noted the pearly reflection from the slightly opaque screen. It really did look like an antique.
“You know, Captain, I must say that I am so impressed with the exquisite design of the ship. Who is it who thought of all this divine touches? This watch is simply stunning.”
The Captain purred. Flattery was a universal language, and one Jess was fluent in, when she wanted to be, at least.
“I’m so glad you appreciate it. I always say that the devil’s in the detail, wouldn’t you agree?”
Jess thought it best to nod silently in agreement in case the Captain also turned out to have Heaven on her mind.
The rest of the induction went quite smoothly, with a brief summary of each one of the ship’s 13 areas of research which Jess paid the minimum possible attention to.
Finally, Ant paused and asked, “Any questions?”
Jess had a lot of questions, but most of them were directed at her own state of mind. One burning question, however, she felt she was on safe ground with.
“What is the ship’s policy should a crew member require medical evacuation? For instance, if they need medical care which we are unable to provide on board?”
The Captain turned to her, one eyebrow slightly curled in surprise. “Medical care which we are unable to provide on board, did you say?”
“Why yes, for instance, if we had a patient requiring emergency surgery, or somebody requiring a transplant. Unlikely I know, but I’d like to be fully familiar with the procedures just in case. In fact, we have a critically ill patient ventilated downstairs as we speak who would benefit from a medical evacuation.”
Was it Jessica’s imagination, or did she see the shadow of scorn and derision flash across the Captain’s expression?
“Doctor, we must be very clear on this point. Spiral Dial is a state of the art vessel. There should be no question of us not being able to provide any medical care needed on this ship. Those on board expect the highest standards of care, as do I. I was under the impression that you were fully qualified in a wide range of emergency situations, am I correct?”
“In fact I spoke with Colonel Black about you, just before we took you on. He had some very interesting information for me on some of your…military activities. It seems that you can be quite motivated when a project interests you. Including going, shall we say, above and beyond the call of duty.”
Jessica’s eyes widened, and icy fear pricked her skin. There was no escape, then. Not even here.
“I am sure that you will find plenty of opportunities to go above and beyond here, too. Of course, Colonel Black is a close friend of ours. I’m absolutely sure of his discretion, especially where your family are concerned. And he has absolute confidence in your abilities to meet our needs. Would you agree? Or should I perhaps contact him and let him know that you are not quite the right person for the job?”
Jessica understood her perfectly. “No, ma’am, that won’t be necessary. I’m sure that I have the skills needed to keep things running without outside assistance. Provided you have all of the equipment, that is.”
“You’ll find that we have prepared for every eventuality. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we are done here, and I do believe you have a patient to see to.” She rotated the chair so that her back turned and they found themselves summarily dismissed. They made sure they got themselves out of the door in short order.
Ant noticed that Jessica was visibly flustered. “What was that all about?” he asked.
Jessica shot him an icy look and walked swiftly away from him.
Trotting, he caught her up. “Hey. We have to get to the medical quarters. Or don’t you need my help any more?”
“What are you talking about, engineer?”
‘It’s just…things seemed a little tense back there. Look, I’m sure it’s none of my business. Just let me know how I can help. The Captain can be a tricky customer, you know. ‘
Jessica ignored his protestations and stormed off. Her instinct was to run, as fast and far as possible, but she had no idea where she could go to. He didn’t try to follow her. She must have taken thirty steps or so before she found herself back at the large double wooden doors. Backing away swiftly, she looked around for Ant, but he was nowhere to be seen. She must have gone around in a complete circle. Taking care not to get too close to the Captain’s office, she looked closely at the surrounding space. The walls were glass, floor to ceiling, looking out onto the ocean and the deck below. To each side of the double doors a corridor extended. She wondered where the concert hall was. She could have sworn that it had been on this floor, and the staircase extended no higher.
She took the left hand corridor, and shortly ended up once more in front of the Captain’s office. She had to get out of here, get some space, decide what to do about her situation. Just at that moment her watch buzzed and flashed bright green.
CLINIC: 15 MINUTES
Jumping to attention, she swiftly descended the stairs one flight and covered the short distance to the clinic at a trot. There must be some clue there, something she could use to work out the connection to Colonel Black. She was taken aback to find a slender, dark haired person with stooped shoulders flicking intently through a well worn book outside the door. He was clad in a voluminous orange cardigan and seemed to be reading and re reading a single page, turning it backwards and forwards every few seconds and shaking his head as if he were deciphering some great secret. His hands shook slightly as he traced a sentence with his finger. He seemed shy.
“Please do come in. I’m Jessica, the new ship’s doctor. It’s lovely to meet you.”
He lifted his face and Jessica looked into his eyes. Suddenly she was rooted to the spot, unable to breathe or move. She had seen these bright blue eyes before, although she couldn’t quite recall where. All thoughts of the Captain and Colonel Black flew instantaneously from her mind. His gaze dropped slightly and he spoke.
“It’s Archie, before you ask.”
“H-have we met?” Jessica stumbled over her words in confusion.
“I don’t think so. But you probably know me. Everybody on board does.” Arrogant, not shy. She made a mental note not to make that mistake again. “I’m in the band.”
A flash of memory came to her, a deep hood and silvery strands of hammock.
“Don’t think about it too hard. It’s best if you let it wash over you. It’s like an out of body experience, isn’t it? A spiritual epiphany. A musical extravaganza of the highest order! There’s nothing else that comes close. I should know. I created it.”
Jessica hated to agree, but from her limited recollection this seemed quite an accurate description. “Well, I have to say that you’re right. I’ve never been to a concert quite like it.”
“And you won’t! We are here to provide the finest entertainment. You will never require any other distraction for as long as you live. Say what you like about them, the Company have excellent taste in music. That’s why they hired us, after all.”
“I see.” Jessica thought it best to move on from this topic swiftly. “Well, how can I help?”
Archie gave her what could only be described as a pitying look. “Help? I don’t need your help. I’m only here to measure up.”
“For the speakers,” Archie tutted.
“I heard about Amy. Terrible. I know she wouldn’t want to miss the concerts. Now she’ll be able to hear every note. And so will you, of course!”
Jessica wasn’t too sure about this as a general concept. “Oh. Well, that’s very kind of you but I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary. We need to keep this area spotlessly clean, you see.”
“And I suppose you’re concerned my music is dirty- is that your problem? Well you don’t need to worry your head about it. The Captain is a very erudite person and believes whole heartedly in the healing power of music. I’m here on her explicit orders. Maybe we’ll convince you too in due time.”
Tossing his hair, he tucked the book away in the folds of his giant cardigan, turned his back and flounced off. Jessica called after him, “Don’t you need to measure up?”
“All done, darling.” Archie didn’t bother to glance back in her direction. “I’m off to soundcheck. See you tonight at the show. Don’t be late.”
“Soundcheck? I thought you played there every day.”
“We still soundcheck, darling. For at least three hours every morning. You think you doctors are the only ones who work hard? Well, think again. It’s a new show every time. You just wait and see,” he cooed as he strutted off.
Gritting her teeth, Jessica entered the clinic. Her patient remained as she had left her, with the small addition of no fewer than six large white speakers attached to the ceiling and walls. Evidently nothing less than full on surround sound would do for Archie. Sighing, Jessica thought that she might need a sit down to recover before clinic. Walking over to the rest area to the side of the room, she realised that there was no longer any chair available to sit on. She was about to retreat when she glimpsed a flash of silver. Reaching to investigate, she felt first a tingling, then the texture of a rope under her hands, and realised that it was a hammock identical to those she had seen at the concert hall the previous night. As she ran the strands through her fingers, the speakers started emitting a faint hum. Automatically, she unrolled the hammock and folded herself into it. As she did so, she felt her eyes closing.
She found herself with feet unexpectedly planted on solid ground, shivering. The moon shone full and bright, crimson red in a pitch black sky. The moonlight seemed to drip from the eaves of the church which lay deserted before her. She had been here a thousand times, when she had been in the Army, celebrating the lives of fallen colleagues. The church seemed to drip with their blood. A cold gust blew and the iron church doors swung open in slow motion, inviting her in.
She felt compelled to enter. Her feet moved without her permission, one step after another. The familiar surroundings seemed cold and stark, pews bathed in the red moonlight. She saw a hooded figure at the altar, arms outstretched, as if to bless the open coffin at the head of the aisle. Her eyes were drawn to the shadow at the mouth of the hood. Closer, closer, until she caught a glimpse of bloodshot eyes. As she approached the coffin, the figure lifted his face and for the first time she recognised her old Colonel, deep shadows beneath his eyes, long white fingers tinged with red. His dead gaze met hers, unblinking. She was unable to look away.
Suddenly she found herself at the top of the aisle, the gaping mouth of the coffin before her. The Colonel slowly lowered his gaze towards the coffin, and Jessica felt hers drawn inexorably downwards. The coffin was covered with a veil of white gauze, the outline of a body only just visible beneath it. Advancing closer, she lifted the flimsy fabric to reveal a pathetically tiny corpse, a naked infant laid on her back with icy skin and vacant eyes. She reached out to close her eyelids and all at once those eyes came alive and shone blood red. The child’s tiny hands grasped hers and dragged her down with an incomprehensible strength. She tried to resist, twisting her feet against the coffin’s pedestal, but to no avail. It pulled her down, millimetre by millimetre. “Help me, for God’s sake,” she screamed at the Colonel, but he had turned his back on her and was lying prostrate before the altar as if participating in some dark ritual. Desperate, she pulled at the child’s fingers with her other hand, and as she did so the flesh of her arms bubbled black and purple, rotting before her very eyes. As her hand disintegrated, the child grew until it was a full sized demon with crimson eyes and she realised with horror that she was looking into her own face.
She fell backwards away from the coffin, stumbling until she was once more outside the church, and collapsed on the icy ground. Her hands had gone. Only two ragged stumps remained, dripping putrescence onto the paving slabs. All at once the ground was rocking uncontrollably from side to side as if it might split open at any moment. She heard a voice, distant yet still recognisable. She tried to reach out her hands to them, forgetting that they no longer existed. All she could feel was tingling, shadow sensations where the fingers had been.
Reaching again, she felt that same tingling sensation, as if brushing away cobwebs. She tasted blood in her mouth. Ripping the cobwebs apart with her phantom hands, she hit the ground hard. Opening her eyes, she found herself back on the sterile floor of the clinic, the hammock swinging above her.
The dream had served its purpose. It had reminded her of something she had forgotten, perhaps deliberately hidden from herself. She could remember now where she had seen them before, those bacteria she had found in Amy’s Petri dish. On a corpse. The corpse of a human child. A child she had killed.
Written by Liza Bec
Artwork by Jeff Conway
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
©️BMV Records 2021