Jessica followed Archie, against her better judgement. This time they turned right, descending a rough, spiral metal staircase much less imposing than the other. The construction reminded her of a New York fire escape. She remembered staying in New York briefly, for a conference. She’d been presenting her research, before things got ugly. They’d even got a prize. Best Medical Presentation, something like that. It seemed like an alternate universe.
“Crew quarters,” Archie said, by way of explanation.
She followed him down into the bowels of the ship and into a small cabin. On arrival, he slammed the door shut and applied the chain. Immediately he threw himself down on the bed, beckoning for Jessica to join him. Finn appeared from a cupboard and curled up on the bed beside him, purring. Jessica was surprised yet reassured to find out that the cat actually existed.
She remained standing, arms folded, shaking her head. “You have to be joking.” Archie just grinned, unperturbed. “Ant just assaulted you. With that bottle. He nearly killed you. We have to report it immediately. He should be court martialled.”
“Court martialled?” Archie began snorting and snuffling again hysterically. “Court martialled? You are precious.”
“Aren’t you scared of him? He looked like he’d be back for you. Is that what you want? I might not be around to look after you next time.”
Archie sat up in bed, suddenly stony faced. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, he wouldn’t have come for me if you hadn’t been there. Who’s worried now?” He started snuffling again.
Exasperated, Jessica sat down on the only available seat, a plain white plastic chair. “Fine, you may have a point. So what should I do, then?”
Archie continued laughing. Eventually, Jessica got up, intending to leave.
“Oh, come on, hold your horses. I’m sorry. It’s just too funny. I do enjoy newbies.”
“Enjoy it? Enjoy nearly having your eyes gouged out, did you? Next time I swear I’ll enjoy watching him do it.”
“Next time, eh? Yes, let’s! Let’s do it all again. For sure! It was a fabulous night, don’t you think?”
Jessica ignored him.
Archie continued, more gently. “He won’t remember, Jessica. I don’t get how you don’t see. It was the big show last night. Everything gets wiped after sunrise. It’s a new cycle.”
“Why can I still remember it, then, Einstein?”
“Because you’re with me.” He beamed at her.
“Right.” Jessica sat down again.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s how it works.” His voice was getting slower and more slurred with every word. “Anyway, I have really got to get some rest. You are most welcome to join me….” He passed out.
Jessica sat in silence on the cold, hard, plastic chair for some minutes, watching Archie breathe. Right now, she definitely preferred him when he was asleep. Besides, it was currently just past seven in the morning, which meant that she had time to think, and this was the one place on board no-one was likely to look for her.
She took the opportunity to have a quick look around the cabin. It was pathetically bare, with a small heap of clothes in one corner. The walls were uneven and unadorned. There was no trace of the luxuriant decor which was standard on the other side of the vessel. Not even a window. The floor was already adorned with a generous helping of cat hair. She didn’t want to think about the kitty litter arrangements down here.
At least the band seemed to have suffered no ill effects from her carefully concocted cocktail. In fact, last night could perhaps be considered a success, of a kind. Nearly being bottled by an irate engineer was at the very least a reaction. It was the first time she had seen Ant do anything which seemed remotely genuine.
Now that she thought of it, he reminded her of an officer she’d worked with once on a covert operation. He had been a wiry little man, affable, on the surface. She remembered being present when they’d cleared a small house, suspected of harbouring dissidents. The young couple there had been defiant. He’d shot them both dead without a second thought. It was the smell she remembered. They’d been cooking. There was a fry up steaming on the kitchen table, still untouched. Just as they’d entered, a small boy had peeked out from the cupboard under the sink. The officer dragged him out and casually kicked in his skull with a single blow. As his head hit the ground she saw a pool of black blood spreading out, more than she’d thought possible from such a small child. While Jessica watched, horrified, the officer proceeded to grab a spoon and chow down on the family’s uneaten breakfast. He had even complimented the dead woman’s cooking.
Strangely, in this small, windowless room, she felt clearer headed than she had done for the whole voyage so far. Every time she had tried to recall any memories from her past up till now, she had felt rising panic and dread. Here she felt slightly detached from everything, as if those events had happened to another person. It felt like memories of a past life. Not that she believed in all that hokum. That sort of rubbish was even worse than the religion she’d been brought up in.
It would soon be time to face whatever awaited her up on deck. She considered reviewing the small piece of paper she had retrieved from the lab, but decided that it was not worth the risk. Archie might wake up, and knowing him he would be sure to guess something was up.
She was determined to face the consequences of her actions head on. She planned to go up to the clinic, check on Amy. After that she would address her two biggest lapses of duty. First, Confession. She must attend, if only to discover its significance. She would no longer allow herself to use her childhood as an excuse. She must also find Ant and resolve the situation with him, by force if necessary. Feeling a sense of purpose, she rose from the chair and exited the cabin. Climbing the fire escape, she felt as if she was moving through a dense fog as she rose higher and higher, as if the air pressure was rising with each step. Her fatigue settled onto her like a thick, weighted blanket.
Performing the daily nursing tasks was becoming routine now. Her patient made little progress and she had almost begun not to care. Throwing herself into the hammock, she slept. She dreamt of the computer she had met the night before. Met was not the right word for encountering a computer, but that was how she thought of the device. In her dream, the computer was by her side watching its own imagery with a strong sense of self appreciation. As it congratulated itself on its stunning graphics, she turned and realised that it had Archie’s eyes and hood. The hood extended and engulfed her completely, removing all sensation from her body. She was numb, floating in a void where no sound, taste or touch existed. She thought she would float endlessly before waking with a start. It was 11am.
Her first thought was of the piece of paper she had retrieved from the secret laboratory. She needed to see it immediately, to understand it.
She reached into her pocket. Nothing.
She tried the other pocket, but had no joy.
Maybe she had put it inside her bra? She checked there too, to no avail. She had taken all of her clothes off and combed them methodically for any evidence before becoming frustrated. She threw them on the floor and jumped up and down on them, cursing her stupidity.
Was it possible that the piece of paper had never existed at all? She checked her finger. The mark where the device had pricked her still remained. No. It had really happened. She cast her mind back. Where could it be? It could have fallen from her during the tussle, in which case it would be exactly where she left it, if she got back there quickly enough.
Dressing, she rushed down the corridor. The bright sunlight hurt her eyes. The pool area was busy with people enjoying lurid cocktails and sunbathing. She looked down, trying to appear unobtrusive. Up at their secret nook, the palm tree had been replaced exactly as it had been before the fight. The remnants of the broken bottle had vanished. There was not so much as a trace of soil or blood on the pristine deck.
Of course, the cleaners would have been round, so the paper was probably long gone by now. She had a bad feeling about its absence. It was evidence that she had been in the lab. Evidence against her. Evidence she could do without. She remembered only too well the evidence against her in the court martial before her discharge. It hadn’t been the real offence, of course. They made sure to keep that well off the record. The official cause of her discharge had been intentionally allowing the escape of prisoners. No one had thought to enquire why hundreds of pregnant women had been kept prisoner on a remote military base in the first place.
Most people would have been terrified of their family’s reaction to such shameful news. Not Jessica. She was more concerned about her family finding out she’d ever been in the Army. Now, on this remote vessel, she had a sudden yearning to contact them. The obstacles which had separated them no longer seemed so great. She even remembered the long hours traipsing from door to door in the rain delivering unwanted pamphlets with some pleasure. At least back then she had had a sense of purpose. A sense that what she was doing mattered. Now she was no longer convinced that anyone or anything mattered. She felt like a piece in a puzzle, waiting to be placed.
Bracing herself, she retraced her steps. The pool area was clearing out as people headed downstairs to the dining hall. She joined them. She planned to confront Ant head on. He would be unlikely to be violent over lunch. Besides which, she could do with a decent meal if she would have to fight him again. She was absolutely famished.
Ant and Patricia already sat at their usual table, deep in conversation. Ant immediately beckoned her over with a cheerful grin.
“Hey Doc,” he said.
She detected no trace of aggression in his manner. His eyes appeared as friendly as they ever had previously. She would class them as sunbathing crocodile rather than enthusiastic puppy today, but that was just because she was better informed. He lifted a large container of water towards her and Jessica instinctively flinched. She felt more than a little foolish as he proceeded to fill her glass, smiling. It seemed that against all odds, Archie had been correct.
“A bit jumpy today, aren’t we, Doc?”
She smiled as if he had made an excellent joke. “I didn’t sleep so well last night. It seemed a lot of people were celebrating. How about you?” As she spoke she kept half an eye on Patricia, who was leafing through a hefty bunch of papers and paid the two of them absolutely no attention. She was dressed formally today in a long black cassock. Her neck was adorned with a plain golden crucifix.
“Oh, I went straight to bed after the concert. Always wipes me out, it does. Besides, I like to be up early in the morning,” Ant replied.
“You must run into all sorts of people at that time of day. ”
“Oh no. People tend to behave themselves on board Spiral Dial. Else they don’t last long! Talking of behaving, it’s just as well you’re here. Patricia is giving a lunchtime lecture! I’m sure that you’ll find it most interesting.” A lunchtime lecture she could deal with, as long as she got a decent meal with it.
Jessica made her way to the centre of the room and helped herself to a full plate of food, braised salmon accompanied by chips and a crunchy green salad. Just as she was taking her seat, a bell rang and Patricia rose. The diners started hushing each other, gradually quietening. She walked solemnly to the very front of the dining hall. At that very moment Jessica bit into a thick stick of celery. The whole of the central table immediately turned and tutted at her in disapproval. Michael was among them. She really didn’t want to get on his bad side. She decided to suck her chips instead of chewing on them. It seemed like the safest option.
“We are gathered here today,” Patricia intoned. She paused, clearing her throat, until the silence was total. Not a soul moved. “We are gathered here today, to meditate on the Scripture. To ask God for His divine guidance. And to carry out His will.”
All those present crossed themselves and muttered “Amen”, pronouncing an elongated A as in hay. Jessica followed suit, hoping she had not lagged too far behind.
“Our text today is taken from the book of Corinthians. Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body, on the other hand, is meant for greater things. What is the body meant for?”
Those on the central table replied in unison,
“It has come to my attention that some of you, some of you present in this very hall, wish to deny the Lord. To deny the Lord your body.” There was a shocked intake of breath. “Not only that. I have heard that there are those amongst you who dare to give your bodies to a different master. Those who have been defiled. Defiled on this very ship. On this sacred voyage! This sacred vessel!”
She was really preaching now. Her pitch became higher and higher, and she spoke faster and faster. Her audience hung on her every word. One young brunette sitting opposite Michael started half rising from her seat with each increase in volume, as if she were trying to start a solo Mexican wave. Several members of the congregation had produced Rosaries and had started to fondle them.
“Believe it! Believe it! You must believe it! We are the chosen ones! We are doing God’s work! God’s own work! The work of God’s hands. And God knows. He knows all of us. He knows every hair on our head. He knows every beat of our hearts. He knows all that we do. All that we think. All that we desire. And all of our desires will be punished.”
The crowd on the central table seemed to light up at the mention of punishment. Michael began thumping the table rhythmically, chanting “Punish them! Punish them!”
“Evil has been done here last night! Evil. We must pronounce sentence. And we must do it speedily. The Lord has said, if sentence is not executed speedily, the heart will be set. Set to continue its evil ways!”
Jessica felt acid rise in her throat as she chanted. She risked a quick glance backwards at the doors. They were bolted firmly shut. Running through her crimes of the previous twenty four hours or so, she conducted a quick mental reckoning. Disposing of an extremely expensive watch in a watery grave. Rash, but hopefully more of an issue for the Captain than for the Almighty. Drugging three musicians with their enthusiastic consent- guilty as charged. Hardly a carnal offence. Meeting an illegal computer and unwittingly giving it her blood. Again, it didn’t seem very sexual. It was probably just as well under the circumstances that Archie had been semi conscious, otherwise she might have been worried. Such was the zeal of the chanting, the force of the will of the group, that she believed she would have felt compelled to come forward and give herself up had she felt herself guilty.
Patricia lifted her head and cast her arms out to the sides as if she were about to embrace all of those present. The room seemed to contract sharply. Every heartbeat of those present seemed audible, and beat as one. The floor began to vibrate slowly and then faster. The chanting got louder and louder until it was almost incomprehensible. It was one with the sound emanating from the floor, an all encompassing hum. Patricia lifted her arms still higher, robes billowing about her figure.
“THERE MUST BE A SACRIFICE!”
Immediately after she spoke, there was a dreadful creaking sound, the sound of metal on metal. Everyone seemed to be gazing at the floor by Patricia’s feet. Jessica peered, struggling to comprehend what was happening. Then she saw it. Three spikes were ascending through the floor, the tallest behind Patricia, two smaller ones on either side of her. They looked wickedly sharp. As they grew, they thickened. They were gnarled and tangled as if they had been plucked from an ancient iron forest. They grew and grew until they had firmly embedded themselves in the wooden ceiling, creaking to a halt.
“Behold! God shall have His sacrifice. And we shall all be reborn. Reborn in the Spirit!”
The room erupted in rapturous applause.
“Bring them in!” Patricia barked.
The curtains behind her opened to reveal three hooded figures, bound and kneeling on a raised dais. Jessica breathed in sharply. It couldn’t be them.
“Who will bind these men?” Patricia asked.
Immediately Michael, Ant and a stocky man with wispy remnants of grey hair and messy stubble rose. Each of them roughly grabbed one of the figures and dragged them each to one of the spikes. On pushing them against the metal, the iron seemed to come alive, twisting itself around their limbs and enveloping them in an intricate latticework. Their arms were forced back behind the spike, throwing their heads forward onto their chests. As their wrists were pulled back further and further, the sound of their laboured breathing began to be heard in the hall. Jessica felt she must help them, but she was powerless to move.
Patricia stepped forward and cried, “Do you believe in the Lord your God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth?”
All those present joined with her in unison. “I believe in Jesus Christ…” Jessica remained silent. She knew the words well, too well, but this time they would not come. As the prayer ended, Patricia stepped forward.
“Do you believe?”
“There is one amongst you who does not believe. There is one amongst you who has left the Church. What shall we do with our non believer?”
There were cries of “Sacrifice!”, mixed with “Trial!”
“Trial it shall be! Trial by blood. Trial by blood! Do you believe?”
Patricia started to circle the room, coming close to each member of her congregation and asking them that same question, peering deep into their eyes. “Do you believe? Do you believe?” Jessica concentrated on her breathing. She could pass this test. She would prove her faith.
Patricia came close to her. Jessica could feel her breath on her lips as she intoned the words, “Do you believe?”
The words would not come.
Her eyes dropped. She was found out. They knew.
The whole room erupted, jeering and catcalling her. “Trial by blood! Trial by blood!” they called.
Patricia jerked her head towards the stake, and Jessica found herself compelled to follow. The figure hanging above her was visibly gasping for breath beneath the cloak, struggling in vain against the iron stake. She could see traces of human excrement dripping down to the floor. The expanding puddle reflected the stake which appeared distorted, as if spiralling up to the ceiling. Jessica looked up, half expecting to see it curving above her, but it remained mercilessly straight. Michael turned her to face the crowd and lifted her left arm with his. They all cheered her now. He handed her a long silvery object. She realised that it was a long scalpel. Touching the edge with her finger drew blood immediately. It was deathly sharp. She let it fall to the ground with a clang, and as the sound rang out the room fell quiet.
Patricia bent one knee and lifted the silver instrument, holding the tip just below Jessica’s ribcage. Michael stood just behind her. She knew that even with all of her skill there was no hope of escaping them. She could not save anybody here except herself.
“Will you sacrifice this man, Doctor? In the name of Almighty God. You will sacrifice, or you will be sacrificed. Take it now!” Patricia reversed the instrument, holding the handle to Jessica, blade pointed at the floor. Jessica no longer hesitated. Her will to live was strong. There was nothing she would not do to survive. She lifted the scalpel above her head. The crowd cheered. They chanted, “Cut him! Cut him!” as Patricia chanted a demented plainsong, repeating one short rising refrain over and over.
Turning to the stake, Jessica focused on the scalpel. It was just another operation, that was all. This man was going to die, no matter whether she did it. She could at least make it quick. The chanting had seeped into her and she had a thirst for blood. She had always wondered what it would be like to have fought in battles in the olden days, back when guns and bombs and poison gases were nothing but a twisted dream. Roman soldiers died on their swords. She wanted to know what it would be like to slide metal into living flesh, not seeking to prolong a life, but to extinguish it. Now she would experience it at last.
The cloak had fallen open, exposing half the man’s body. Moving smoothly but slowly enough to enjoy every moment, she pierced his skin beneath the sternum, where the stomach was, before guiding the knife just underneath the ribs to the left, deep inside, where the heart was. Blood and bile trickled down the stake onto her face. She felt the warmth ooze down into her shoes, but she did not look down. She pushed deeper until the blood flowed faster over her and she was sure that the man must be dead. The scalpel scraped against bone, embedding itself in the muscles of his back.
He was surely dead, but the room was alive with the sounds of people praising God. Jessica herself felt more alive than ever before. She was powerful, she was loved. She lifted her eyes to the gaping wound and found them drawn higher and higher until she was gazing into the depths of the hood itself. It was impossible. Two bright blue eyes beamed back at her, cold and dead and yet shining at and through her, seeing her, seeing what she had done. Staggering, she fell backwards onto the floor in a pool of blood. Her last sight was of her own two hands, stained with blood, being held up by Patricia and Ant in triumph as they proclaimed God’s victory.
Written by Liza Bec
Artwork by Pushing Normal
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