Jessica sat in silence, hands trembling, staring at the static on the screen. How could this be happening again? Once more she was responsible for the death of something precious. It was her fault. Her fault for not insisting Amy was evacuated from this hellhole. Her fault for putting herself in a position where she could be easily blackmailed by the Captain.
She slumped backwards. The music had stopped, but what had happened to all of the people? She heard no footsteps, no voices. A flicker of curiosity rose within her, and as it did, she realised that the screen had returned to normal. The baby was before her, just one baby. It looked completely normal. She blinked rapidly, screwing up her eyes and refocusing. How was that possible? As she did so, she felt the baby move beneath the probe. Her relief was instant, a sudden wave of gratitude flooding through her. She had been redeemed. God had chosen to give her another chance. She would not waste it this time.
She resolved to keep her meeting with Archie. The thought of returning to her cabin alone made her feel a little queasy. She would go straight to the rendezvous point. As she exited the clinic, she expected to see evidence of the celebration, but not a single trace remained of the party which had finished only moments earlier. The white deck was spotless as always. If anything, it appeared freshly polished. The ship seemed to be dormant somehow, at rest, yet coiled and ready for action. It seemed appropriate to tiptoe lest she trigger some further catastrophe. Instinctively she glanced at her watch, then remembered that she had jettisoned it over the side of the ship earlier that afternoon. Oh well. He had said to meet after the concert, and the concert was most definitely over.
The pool was equally deserted. Its glistening surface reflected a perfect image of the full moon. A soft breeze blew, creating ripples on the surface of the water, instantly shattering the reflection into a million shards. She knelt beside the pool and watched the distorted image coalesce, exactly as Amy’s baby had done only moments earlier. The water moon was perfect, every crater visible in exquisite detail. She reached out to stroke its pitted surface, but the moon seemed to flee from her fingers as she dipped her hands into the pool. She cupped her hands and lifted them, offering the water to the sky. As her hands glistened it seemed that the moonlight was infusing the water with its spirit, cleansing her and giving her strength.
She climbed up and around the corner to the hidden nook where she had encountered Archie earlier on. It was empty. The tartan rug remained though, carelessly discarded in a heap. She sat down on it, crossing her legs underneath her, daring to relax for a moment, and glanced upwards. The moon cast a reflection from the gleaming rails onto the deck. Thinking about it, a full moon made sense. Although it had not occurred to her that a ship full of devout Christians would have been a likely venue for a Moon Dance. Imagining the Captain participating in some wild bacchanalian ritual, she let out an involuntary chuckle.
As she did so, a disembodied voice came from just over her left shoulder.
“Do you mind?” Archie said. “That just happens to be my favourite rug. You can park yourself somewhere else.”
He whisked it out from under her even as she started to rise, and arranged himself on it, carefully placing one leg atop the other and tilting his chin at a slight angle. Eyebrows raised, he was the very picture of righteous outrage.
“I beg your pardon, Madam,” Jessica replied. “Didn’t realise I had to reserve a seat up here too.”
Archie huffed and began to slowly roll a cigarette. He was accompanied by two other individuals, one tall, one small. Jessica thought she recognised them from the concert. As she looked from one to the other, Archie said,
“ I suppose I should introduce you. This is Dustin, our bass player, and Jeffrey, who hits things. Sometimes. Everyone, meet Jessica.”
Jeffrey smiled widely. “I hear you’re rather more of a hurler than a hitter. Congrats on winning the watch throwing championships earlier! Archie told us all about it.“ His accent was BBC World Service, circa 1944. He was a stocky, cheerful young man with improbably white teeth and tanned skin who seemed to be continually tapping his foot. He perched on the edge of the hidden area, looking out over the deck.
“Great,” Jessica replied. An ideal first impression. “I suppose you’ve told the Captain about it too?”
“Oh no,” Archie said. “We’d never rat on you. Well, I wouldn’t. And Jeffrey sounds more of a twat than he actually is in reality. Dustin really doesn’t talk at all, I’m afraid. More of the strong, silent type. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve ever actually had a conversation. But he’s great at playing exactly what I want him to and shuts up at all the right moments. Isn’t that so, Dustin?”
Dustin was a tall, angular man who looked to be in his mid fifties, with blond hair pulled back in a low ponytail. As he leaned against the side of the ship he inclined his head downwards very slightly in acknowledgement while continuing to gaze at the moon.
“Between you and me,” Archie whispered loudly, “I think he had a few too many pills in the nineties. Something’s not quite right in there. Two sandwiches short of the proverbial pic-nic, you know.” He pronounced picnic as two separate words, pic and nic. Perhaps those were the two sandwiches he was referring to, Jessica thought, and immediately wondered whether she was going slightly mad. Jeffrey continued to tap his foot in time with several different beats all at once. No wonder their music was so confusing.
Archie glanced over at him and said, “Can’t you keep watch further down, Jeff? All that fidgeting is driving me crazy. “ Jeffrey immediately withdrew around the corner and the tapping noise faded.
“Is that really necessary? To have someone on watch?” Jessica asked.
Archie leaned closer to her, eyes wide. “Necessary? I’m not sure if it’s necessary, but I’m not taking any chances whatsoever with all of these weirdos on board.” Jessica raised her eyebrows at that, but he didn’t seem to notice. “After all, we kind of knocked off early! We’re skipping our post performance nap. Didn’t you wonder where everyone is? They’re all tucked up in their hammocks, enjoying the after show snooze. We’ve got private hammocks in our dressing room, of course, but to be honest, I’d rather come up here and have a fag. Would you like me to roll you one?”
Jessica hadn’t smoked in years, but the danger posed by tar and nicotine seemed to pale in comparison to her current situation. “Actually yes please, go ahead, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Anything you say, Doctor.” He rather laboriously rolled two cigarettes. He was surprisingly slow at this for a confessed nicotine addict. They smoked together in a companionable silence for a while. Eventually, Archie flicked his glowing cigarette butt directly at her in one fluid movement. It landed on her shoe, making a dark mark on the leather. He looked pointedly at her as he did so. No reaction. He wondered what he would have to do to provoke one.
He dangled the packet of tobacco in front of her. “So, Doctor, can I trouble you for your views on lung cancer and heart disease?”
“No, but you could roll me another one. I’m off duty, remember.” Archie raised his eyebrows and lifted the tobacco just out of her reach. Irritated, she rose onto her knees and easily grabbed it from him. Within fifteen seconds she had rolled two cigarettes. Lighting them together, she passed one over to Archie, who was looking seriously impressed.
“I see you do have skills after all. I’m sure the Captain will be delighted to have such a dedicated medical practitioner holding the fort.”
“Fuck the Captain.”
Archie breathed in sharply, letting out a long, low whistle. “Well, rather you than me, if you know what I mean. She’s not really my type. Most I’ll do is drink to her. Not in her presence, though, you understand….”
He produced a large bottle of clear, slightly viscous looking liquid and two shotglasses. “May I propose a toast? To the Captain!”
Eyeing the oily concoction, Jessica figured it was strong enough to erase memories of almost any unpleasant person. They drank. Coughing, Jessica spluttered “That is some seriously strong shit you have there. What is it, moonshine?”
Archie cackled. “If we have a few more I might show you where it comes from! But before I do, you’ll have to tell me all of your secrets. You promised, remember? Deal?”
“I’m not sure that’s exactly what we agreed. Tell you what, though. I’ll swap you. Question for question. I ask one, you ask one. Honest answers only.”
He considered this at some length. “And how, pray, will I know that you are being honest with me?”
“You can trust me, Archie. I’m a doctor.”
He nodded, lip wobbling slightly as he did so. “Fair point. By that logic, why on earth would you trust me?”
“I have a theory that you’re far too fond of demonstrating your own intelligence to lie.”
He shrugged. “I hate separating women from their….theories. One condition, though. Every question you ask, you must take a drink. Ladies first. Fire away, Doctor.”
“Right. What can you tell me about the Captain?”
Archie remained silent, gesturing toward the shot glass. Jess downed the bitter spirit, thanking God that the military had done such an excellent job of teaching her how to beat posh idiots at drinking games.
“The Captain? Is a psychopath, if you ask me. I’m really not sure what else I can add.”
“What makes you say that?”
“That’s two questions. But I’ll give you this one for free. When we came aboard, there was a ship’s cat and a ship’s gerbil. Noisy buggers, but cute, if you like that sort of thing. One day, our furry friends simply…vanished. Word in the crew was, the Captain doesn’t appreciate hair on her upholstery. “
The Captain’s gerbil bashing escapades were not precisely the kind of dirt Jessica had hoped would be dished. Before she could ask more details, he jumped in with a question of his own.
“I’ll start you off with an easy one. Who’s the dishiest sailor you’ve met so far?” Eyebrows raised and the drink vanished. Clearly there was a correct answer here.
“Well, it’s funny you ask, but technically, I don’t think I’ve met any actual sailors. Except for the Captain.”
He curled his upper lip in disgust. “I think it’s best you ask me another question now. I don’t even want to go there.”
“Fine. Tell me about Patricia,” Jessica shot back.
“You know this is about asking questions, not barking orders, don’t you?”
She gave him her special patented evil look. Her mother had told her that it would wilt begonias at twenty metres.
“Ok, ok, ok, don’t look at me like that! It’s freaking me out. Patricia. Patricia is quite something. I’d say she’s even more badass than you are. Did you know that she was the world’s first woman to be ordained as an Orthodox minister? First ever. Not that she lasted long. Only been in post for a month and they dumped her out here. I’m reliably informed she is on an enforced sabbatical.”
“What on earth for?”
“Oh, some article she wrote. Evidently she’s in favour of women taking multiple husbands, moon worship, levelling up, something like that. Anyway, they couldn’t fire her, you see, after making such a big deal about how feminist they all were, so they got her the job on here, said she could do whatever she liked with the place. And she has! Believe me. But you’ll find out about that later. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.”
“Is it the kind of surprise I’m likely to enjoy?”
“Of course it is- it’s my question,” he beamed. “I’d really like to know if you’ve ever wanked off with a pencil?”
Shaking her head, Jessica dead-panned, “Hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid pencils give me dermatitis.” She swigged back another shot. “Since we’re asking personal questions, I’d like to know. If the ship was sinking and you could only take one person or possession with you, and you knew for certain that everyone you left behind would drown, who would you take?”
“What on earth makes you think I’d want to spend my final days stuck on a small boat with another person? No thanks. Does this count as one item or two?” he quipped, holding the bottle in one hand and his cigarette in the other.
She wasn’t letting him off that easily. “Two, and the lighter’s extra.”
“Damn. Well, maybe I’d better take a person after all, in that case. Better be a fat one, though. I don’t think we’re anywhere near land right now, and I’d hate to die hungry.” He seemed quite serious.
“You’re disgusting,” Jessica remonstrated.
“I’m a musician, not a doctor. You’re meant to be the compassionate one, remember?” He reached out for another shot. It looked like it was going to be a long night.
At least twenty questions followed as they downed shot after shot. Jessica asked him about the ship, about the research, about Amy, and was met with answers which were both evasive and uninformative. By now, the bottle was nearly empty. The moon shone bright in the sky above them, mocking her with its clarity. The only ray of hope was that Archie was quite clearly extremely drunk. Taking the bottle by its neck, he held it up to the moonlight, chortling.
“Looks like you’re all out of questions, Jessica. But I’ve got enough for one more. Better make it a good one.” He tipped the bottle upside down, sucking the very last drop out of it. “What was your favourite birthday party?”
“I’ve never had a birthday party, Archie.” It was the truth.
“Tell me, which religious cult were you raised in?” He was obviously joking. Jessica didn’t find it particularly funny, especially at her current stage of intoxication.
“Oh I see!” Archie was triumphant. “You were raised in a cult, weren’t you? Now if only I could remember which one that is. No birthdays? Let me think. Wait, wait, wait, I’ll get it. Just give me a minute.”
“You’re out of questions, Archie.”
“I’ll get it, though. I’ll guess it. Is it the Mormons?”
Jessica shook her head.
“Not the Mormons. Ok then. Is it that lot who killed themselves because they thought Jesus was coming in a giant spaceship powered by talking ants to take them to Paradise?”
Jessica shook her head. The movement made the deck rock in an exaggerated fashion. Maybe she was a trifle less sober than she had hoped.
“No? Hmmm. Scientologists? Amnesty International? Sea Shepherd?” He paused, chewing the tip of one finger. “Oh I know, I know, this is definitely it for sure. The Labour Party!”
“Only someone with the Christian name Archibald could ever classify the Labour Party as a cult.” It wasn’t just the name. Not even the shabbiest of clothing could disguise his upper class origins. She had half expected him to curl his little finger as he drained the bottle.
“I don’t know what you’re even talking about. I’m not bald. What I am is drunk, and I want to be even drunker. Luckily there’s plenty more where this came from.” He leant exaggeratedly close to her. She gulped. “Would you like to accompany me to…the laboratory?”
Jessica could hardly believe her luck. “Absolutely. Can we go now?”
“Oh yes. Immediately.” He wobbled. “Just as soon as I remember how to stand up straight. Give me a hand, won’t you?”
Jessica attempted to stand up, but the deck was not playing ball. She staggered, falling against the side of the ship. As she did so her left foot caught Archie’s ankle and he immediately collapsed on top of her. Momentarily they were eye to eye and embarrassingly close. Laughing, Archie linked his arm with hers and pulled her after him, carelessly. “Come on!” he said. “We’ve only got another few hours before those fossils wake up.”
They pushed past Jeffrey, who was now lounging by the pool playing noughts and crosses on a napkin, and Dustin, who remained unmoving, save for his ever-shrinking cigarette.
“Keep watch, keep watch,” Archie whispered forcefully at Jeffrey. “I’m off to get more booze.” Jeff didn’t bother to look up from his napkin. Clearly this was not the first trip of this kind, nor the last, by the looks of things. Archie started off at a trot, dragging Jessica with him. She very nearly lost her footing, which would have sent both of them for a midnight swim. “Come on, slowcoach. I don’t like to sober up after a show.” As they came to the entrance of the corridor which led to her cabin, Archie abruptly stopped, turned to her and placed one finger on his lips, miming the words FOLLOW ME. He then proceeded to tiptoe down the corridor. He did not proceed in a straight line. Instead he walked diagonally from one side to the other. On the first diagonal he would walk upright, on the second he would crouch down low. Jessica thought he looked more than a little ridiculous. Any attempt to stand up on her part was met with frantic gesticulations and arm waving so she decided to play along. Finally they reached the staircase. Instead of taking the staircase, Archie slipped around the back of the arch and disappeared. Following him, Jessica realised that there was a hidden alcove there, draped with a purple velvet curtain. She started to speak, but Archie placed his finger on her lips, stopping her. He produced a large bunch of old fashioned keys, the same as those Ant had shown her the previous day. Choosing a small, dainty key whose head was in the shape of a pentagram, he immediately sank to his knees, without using his hands, and started fiddling with something on the floor behind the curtain. Jessica bent to see, and realised that he had placed the key in a small lock which was only millimetres above the carpet.
On turning it, the carpet instantly dropped downwards, taking Archie with it. He fell forwards, banging his head on the newly revealed white walls as he tumbled down a short flight of stairs, coming to rest at the bottom.
“Dammit!” he screeched.
Jessica laughed under her breath, pressing her finger to her lips.
He brushed aside her concerns. “It’s all right, there are no triggers here. Don’t think they want any of this recorded. I wouldn’t if I were them. Damn stairs! Every fucking time!”
Was she imagining things, or was he blushing? She heard a metallic sound, and realised that the hand holding the keys had begun to shake. He looked down, suddenly fragile. She had an uncharacteristic urge to look after him and started to reach out before stopping herself. Best not to get involved. Composure regained, he straightened up and walked straight forward, placing one foot in front of the other with obvious concentration. It was almost a convincing impression of someone who was sober.
A stainless steel corridor extended before them, ending in a perfectly round door. As Archie approached it swung open, revealing a room full of luxuriant green foliage.
“That’s incredible,” Jessica said. It was gloriously warm and humid, like a Turkish bath. Moisture dripped from the leaves as birdsong ricocheted from side to side. A fragrant herbal scent filled the room, both sweet and exotic. She could not see the ceiling, although from the height of the palm trees it appeared incredibly high, higher than she had thought possible on a ship like this. Approaching a mossy wall, she reached out to touch it, and instantly felt that something was not quite right. It felt…tough, somehow. Brittle. Coming closer, she sniffed.
“Plastic,” Archie confirmed. “I know, I was kind of disappointed too. Especially after listening to all that environmentally conscious bullcrap in the induction. Follow me.”
He picked his way over several tree trunks and vines and started wading through a shallow stream. It appeared to wind its way into a cave which was overhung by thickly knotted vines. The water tinkled harmoniously as it flowed, as if its pitches had been designed to please. As they passed underneath the overhanging rock, instead of being plunged into darkness, the room transformed into a brightly lit, cool and sterile environment. Rows and rows of benches filled a large, rectangular room. Jessica inspected the equipment. She wasn’t a geologist, but this didn’t look like a climate change research facility to her. She saw multiple incubators, thermal cyclers, something which could have been a mass spectrometer. Many, many computers. A corner of the lab appeared to be restricted access only, with showers and overalls visible through its glass doors. Unless she was very much mistaken, this could only be a secure biological research facility dealing with some very dangerous organisms.
Archie turned back and grabbed her by the elbow. She was almost too distracted to register that his touch didn’t offend her. He felt familiar.
“Come on! We can’t be too long. Who knows what nasties they’re growing in there. The only experiment of any value whatsoever is right round the corner.”
He opened a side door boasting a ragged sheet of A4 paper and a thick red scrawl saying:
BiLL’S OFFiCE- KEEP OUT!!!!
“Bill’s a friend of mine- we’ve been working on a Spiral Dial special. Home brewed, it is. He says it’s the most notable discovery of the voyage so far!”
As he opened the door, Jessica caught a strong smell of alcohol. “You get the liquor. I’m going to take a look around while I’m here.”
He didn’t answer, so she carried on around the corner. Peering in through the window of the next room, she saw several cages. The first one contained a rather mangy looking gerbil, and the next, a sleek black cat, curled up in a ball and nonchalantly cleaning itself.
Smiling, she called out, “Looks like the Captain’s not a gerbil murderer after all, Archie. Archie?”
There was no reply. She continued along to the next door, which was firmly shut. Touching the door handle sent a chill along her arm, triggering the same tingling sensation she remembered well from the wharf. Shuddering, she moved on. All of these doors appeared the same, shiny metallic exterior, reinforced glass window. All securely locked.
As she continued along the row, an unpleasant whiff caught her attention. The same sickening smell which filled her clinic, by now familiar, but no less toxic. She inspected the door. It looked no different from the others, except that the window was clouded over, so that it was impossible to see what lay within. As she glanced down, she saw a faint trace of a stain at the foot of the door, dark and sticky. Squatting, she established that the fluid was the source of the smell. Standing up, she steeled herself and raised her arm, using her sleeve to wipe away the condensation from the window. As she wiped, the first thing to be revealed was a hole. There was no weakness in the glass that she could feel as she continued to clean. No weakness, but there seemed to be something pressed up against it. She could see an outline of the place where it made contact, but not much detail. Peering closer, she caught a glimpse of some tufts of reddish material, strand like. Hair, she realised. Her heart dropped into her stomach as she looked again, as if for the first time. The holes were sockets, eye sockets, and a mouth, lips pressed against the glass, decay dripping down the window onto the floor. Five streaks traced a ghostly palm print on the glass, as if the occupant had tried and failed to escape.
Frozen, she gazed into the pits which had once been eyes. Red hair, Michael had told her. Was this her predecessor?
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