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Artwork by Jeff Conway @pushingnormal

Every instinct told her to get out of this place immediately. She ran back along the row of offices, and in her haste bumped right into Archie, who was exiting the office swigging from a now full bottle of booze.  

“Whoa there, what’s the hurry?” He registered her expression. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s going on?”

She wiped her face clean of emotion. Her instincts were telling her to trust him, but she wasn’t sure if she should rely on them in this place. “I found something I thought you’d like. Come and see.”

She led him to the first office, the one containing the menagerie. On sighting the cat, Archie became what could only be described as gooey and started talking to it in a high pitched, babyish tone. 

“Pusscat! I has missed you, I has! Did you miss me? What has they been feeding you down here?” He immediately produced his keyring and let himself into the lab. The cat was by now miaowing piteously, pushing its face right up against the bars of its cage. It seemed far too small to contain such an animal. “Pusscat! How has they kept you in such a horrible place? Does you want to come with Daddy?” He started to open up the cage with another key. 

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Archie? Won’t someone notice?” Jessica considered telling him about her gruesome discovery. As he fussed over the animal, she peeked down the corridor in the direction of the corpse. She didn’t detect any trace of a smell. If he knew, it was probably best he didn’t find out she had discovered it too. If he didn’t know, he was probably better off not knowing. There, that was decided. 

“I don’t care if they do! I didn’t sign up for animal cruelty. It’s all very well for a gerbil to live in a cage. It looks quite happy down here, don’t you think? But this pussycat is miserable. Almost as miserable as you. I think I’ll take him upstairs with me.” He lifted the cat out of the cage and placed it on his shoulder. It immediately began to purr and nestled its face against his. “Come on, pusscat. We’ll find you some decent food upstairs. None of this cardboard rubbish. Would you mind taking the bottle? I need to concentrate to balance, and Finn’s going to have to stay up there to get past the cameras.”

As she took the bottle, Finn hissed at her. She had never been too keen on animals, and it seemed that the feeling was mutual. They made their way out of the laboratory, Jessica clutching the bottle to her. He continued to chat gleefully, mostly to the cat. She, on the other hand, was suddenly not at all in the mood for continuing their conversation. As they traversed the corridor, the cat remained perfectly perched on Archie’s shoulder. As they passed her cabin,  Jessica took the opportunity to retire, miming sleepiness. Archie seemed not at all bothered, continuing on his way with the cat. It was only after she entered her room that she realised she was still grasping the bottle of liquor. 

Never mind, she thought. He had quite plainly drunk more than enough. 

The moon shone in through the porthole as she cast off her clothing and collapsed on the bed. It had been a long night and she was desperately in need of some rest. It had been one of those days where she remained unclear what had truly happened and what was, in fact, a dream. This time no eerie hum was needed to lull her to sleep. She passed out instantly and slept soundly until the morning. 

She woke with the sun, as was her habit on land, and felt more herself despite her hangover. She took twenty minutes to practice her forms. Flowing through the well defined patterns helped her to feel more focused. She wished that she had not drunk so much last night. She was not at all sure how much of what she had seen had actually happened. Certainly the scan had been a figment of her imagination. 

As she practised, she made a plan. She must get into the laboratory again, alone this time. That seemed the best way to find the answers she desperately needed. 

After checking on Amy, she made her way down to the dining hall, hoping to be early enough to avoid anyone she knew. In an attempt to eat off her hangover she helped herself to a full English. She was just contemplating trying out the waffle maker for desert when Ant and Patricia strolled in, deep in conversation. She immediately turned away from them, hoping in vain to avoid notice. 

“Good morning, Doctor! Lovely to see you at last,” Patricia cooed. 

“Hi,” Jessica croaked. It turned out her voice had not survived Archie’s potent liquor unscathed. She sounded like an old crone performing necromancy. A skill she may well need before the trip was over. 

“Good show last night, wasn’t it? I so enjoy a good knees up. Soul food, it is. Absolutely divine music. I feel quite renewed.”

Jess took a large gulp of her coffee, hoping to loosen up her vocal cords. She was rewarded with a scratchy whisper. “Oh yes,” was all she could manage, forcing a smile. 

Ant had her number immediately. “Late night was it, Doc?” 

On hearing his words, Jessica felt a wave of nausea come over her.  She didn’t think she could hold it. Spluttering, she made a dash for it. On arriving back in her cabin, she made a beeline for the bathroom and found herself hugging the toilet vomiting up all of her breakfast. 

Not the best start to the day. 

As she stared down into the toilet bowl, she watched, fascinated, as the chunks of tomato and mushroom collided with each other. On no account should she ever over indulge in moonshine, either literal and figurative. Saying that, perhaps it wasn’t the liquor to blame. Ant’s presence was becoming more and more nauseating to her. 

Emerging from the bathroom feeling strangely refreshed, she noted with pleasure that the housekeepers had been. Her bed was perfectly made, pillows plumped. There was even a little something on her pillow. A small, shiny green box. Thoughtful of them. She had not realised that she would have the benefit of cleaners on this trip. 

Coming closer, she saw that the box was made of textured stone. It was larger than she had first thought, and clearly not edible. A sinking feeling hit her. Reaching out, she saw that it was larger than her palm and solidly made. Before she could lift it, the box opened and revealed a glinting replica of the very watch she had jettisoned the previous day.

The display immediately came to life. Blinking green letters read:

WEAR ME AT ALL TIMES WITHOUT FAIL 

AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS

Gingerly, she lifted it from its case. As she touched it, she felt a sharp tingle prick her fingertips. Examining the strap, she realised that it was of a different design to the previous model. If she was not mistaken, once on her wrist, the watch would not be easily removed. She could not see any sensor on the case, although there must be an internal one, otherwise how would they have known that she had thrown it away? Thinking hard, she grabbed her suitcase and found the one piece of jewellery she owned, a plain silver necklace. She put the necklace on and snapped the watch into place around it. The strap shrunk immediately to fit, as if it had always been one with the chain. The necklace was long enough that she was able to lift it from her chest to read the display, or take it off completely, should she wish. Feeling very pleased with herself, she sat down on the edge of the bed. As she did so, there was a familiar knock on the door. 

Ant entered without being invited. Clearly he could go where he pleased on board and didn’t care if Jessica knew it. The instant he entered, he saw the necklace and she saw a faint curl of contempt on his upper lip, as if his mask had slipped momentarily. It was only for a second , but it was long enough to put her on her guard. She jumped to her feet. 

“Exactly the person I hoped to see,” she blagged. “You can help me do my rounds this morning. If you don’t have other duties, that is.”

“Sure thing, Doc. See you found your new timepiece. Captain asked me to give you a personal message. They’ll be taking the cost of the other one out of your pay packet. So consider yourself on shaky ground until it’s paid off.”

“Yes, of course. Such a silly accident. Would you mind telling the Captain that the old watch gave me the most terrible contact dermatitis? I’ve never had such a thing in my life. It was absolutely necessary for me to take it off.  Please do tell her though, that it won’t happen again. I’ve found the perfect solution- have a look.” She showed Ant her custom necklace. 

He nodded, expressionless. “Dermatitis, eh? Want me to take a look?” 

She was suddenly grateful that she had chosen to wear a long sleeved shirt to breakfast. “That won’t be necessary, thank you. I’m the doctor, after all. Let’s get started. There’s an awful lot for us to do today.”

There actually wasn’t that much for them to do that day, as it turned out, beyond continuing to nurse Amy, whose condition remained unchanged. Jessica’s clinic was devoid of clients, so she decided that they would have a proper clear out of the clinic. She enlisted Ant’s aid to index the supplies cupboard, counting every last glove. She even insisted he colour code the labels.

When he squawked, she told him that this was how the Army did it. Now she was ship’s doctor, she would have things how she wanted them. If he didn’t like it, he was welcome to discuss it with the Captain. And he didn’t seem at all keen to do that. Complaining under his breath, it was fortunate that he didn’t have a chance to oversee what she was doing in the drugs cupboard. 

Attempting to show enthusiasm for on board life, she asked Ant what time the performance would be that evening. She had no intention of going, but she did have some plans for after the show. Sitting in her room armed with some industrial strength earplugs, she sat back and waited for the show to be over. 

Despite the earplugs, the vibrations had a strange effect on her, and she ended up passing out, waking half slumped off the bed onto the floor.  Jumping up, she grabbed Archie’s liquor bottle. It wouldn’t do to forget that. Catching sight of her reflection in the polished door, she glanced downwards. She was deeply ashamed of what she was about to do, but could not see another way forward. She gently removed her necklace and hung it from the coat hook on the back of the door, taking care to point the display inwards in case anyone was watching. 

Copying Archie’s odd step pattern from the previous night, she zig zagged her way across the corridor, emerging into the fresh air. The moon was absent tonight. Clouds obscured the sky. The swimming pool no longer glinted, its depths hidden and murky. She stepped softly as she made her way up to the top of the deck. As she rounded the corner, she saw that all three band members were already there, and engaged in some sort of group hug. She took a step back. Hugging was not her style. Reassuringly, there was no sign of the cat.

Archie immediately spotted her and called her over while still managing to continue the hug. She approached rather sheepishly. 

“Group hug! Group hug! What a show! Jessica, you simply must come and join us! What a vibe! They simply loved us, darlings. Amazing, wasn’t it?” Smiling, Jessica lifted the bottle high. The hug broke up immediately. Alcohol was a sure fire way of distracting Archie’s attention.

“I thought you guys deserved a treat after all your hard work tonight. So not only have I brought your booze back, I’ve added a little something from the drug cupboard to give us all an extra kick.” At this, even Dustin perked up. 

“You star, Jessica. I told you, didn’t I? Told you she was the best doctor so far.” Archie was delighted. He didn’t even bother to ask what she’d added. Which was just as well, under the circumstances. 

“I even brought enough glasses for all of us.” Jessica produced four tumblers, snagged from the dining hall, and poured a generous measure into each of them. Handing them out, she stood next to a large decorative palm tree. “Bottoms up!” 

Jeffrey didn’t even wait for her to speak the words, he had already downed his and helped himself and the others to a second glassful. Archie was busy holding his tumbler up to the moonlight and observing the strange patterns it cast in the oily fluid. It was almost too easy for Jessica to pour hers into the plant pot and repeat with her second helping. 

After a few minutes, the whole band were sitting on the floor, staring up at the moon with their mouths wide open. Dustin had started to drool. Jeffrey, meanwhile, was muttering something under his breath about taking time off to see the dolphins. Jessica had tried to discourage him from having a third glass to no avail. Still, none of them had had enough to be fatal, she told herself. Besides which, technically she hadn’t even drugged them. They had all absolutely consented without even asking what she was giving them. As she had suspected they would.

Jessica leant back, opened her mouth, and did her best impression of spaced out. She was none too talented an actor, so she was quite anxious for the drugs to hurry up and work. Interminably slowly, all three of them slumped backwards. Jessica slowly opened one eye and peeked. She prodded Archie’s forearm. No response. She gently tapped all of their eyelids. 

No one at home. Perfect. 

She put all three of them in the recovery position and proceeded to go through Archie’s voluminous trousers for the keys. The contents of his pockets were eclectic to say the least. She sifted through a dog eared copy of ‘Yoga for Dummies’, several congealed Chewits, a mouldy satsuma and various small packets of unlabelled multicoloured pills before locating the keys. Maybe it had been just as well she’d dosed them herself.  Curious, she flicked through the yoga book. She had always meant to learn but had never got round to it. On the first page was inscribed ‘To my darling Archie, with love, A xxx’ She felt a twinge of jealousy. Ridiculous. Glancing down, she considered why she felt drawn to someone who was her complete opposite in almost every way. Someone who she had just given a large dose of what was, effectively, a date rape drug. Shuddering, she placed all of the items, including the satsuma, back in his pocket and leapt to her feet. She planned to find out exactly what was going on in that laboratory. 

She retraced their steps from the previous night easily enough and negotiated the hidden entrance to the laboratory. The ship remained eerily quiet. The band should be out for a good few hours, but Jessica didn’t want to take any chances, so she moved swiftly through the plastic rainforest and entered the laboratory. 

She deliberately put the grim discovery of the previous night out of her head. She would leave it until last, when she had found out exactly what research they were doing here. 

Taking the opportunity to snoop, she slipped on a spare pair of gloves and sat down at one of the desks. The computers were all password protected. She started going through the desk drawers, hoping that some idiot might have written their password down on a scrap of paper, but had no such luck. Gazing across the laboratory, she felt drawn to a large desk decorated with a pentagram sticker. It seemed to draw her attention. As soon as she had settled herself in the chair the computer came to life. The screen stated in a clean white font:

SIMULATION BOOTING

The armrests of the chair suddenly felt warm beneath her fingers. She tried to get up, but found that she was firmly fixed in place. The computer screen seemed to enlarge in front of her eyes until it took up her whole field of vision. It showed marvellous pictures of cascading purple and green spirals, shimmering and luxuriant. She could not quite work out what the image represented. It seemed both artificial and at the same time strangely organic. Each spiral broke down into many parts and seemed to continue endlessly. She felt calm. The screen was her only focus now. She registered that her hands were still warm, but did not try to move as the chair pricked her left index finger. 

All of a sudden, she woke with a start. She was suddenly cold. The computer screen was just a normal screen now. Confused, she gathered her thoughts. Inspecting her finger, she saw a small mark. She rubbed it. It was sore. So, it had happened. 

Something about the desk was different. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a small piece of paper which had extruded from what appeared to be a label printer. It looked like something a lab might use to label samples. Tearing it off, she was astonished to read her own name. 

BARTLETT, Jessica

DOB 13.03.1986

Below that were printed two small graphs. One was in the form of a bell curve. A normal distribution. It seemed ironic, in the circumstances. The horizontal axis was labelled ‘Kbs’ and the vertical axis was labelled ‘f’. The second graph was unlabelled. The horizontal axis was labelled from 0 to 100 and plotted on it were several sloping lines. One of them had a small cross marked at its centre. 

It made absolutely no sense to her. But what did make sense was that she had already been down there way too long. She glanced at her watch, and clenched her teeth in annoyance. Jumping to her feet, she scoured the walls for any sign of a clock. There was none. Who knows how long she had been down here? She had better go. Stuffing the small sheet of paper into her pocket, she made for the exit. As she walked, she passed by the door she had seen the previous night. No smell remained. She saw no sign of any residue at the foot of the door and within stood a pristine white table. 

She considered going through the keyring to investigate further, but decided to err of the side of caution. She could always come back some other night, as long as no one cottoned on to what she was doing. That had to be the priority. 

It was a great relief to see that the band were exactly as she’d left them. The sky remained dark. It couldn’t be later than 2am. She could have stayed longer. She considered going back in, but as she did so Dustin shifted slightly in his sleep and she decided against it. Easing the keys gently into Archie’s pocket, she lay down on the deck for maximum authenticity. It was going to be a long, cold, uncomfortable night. 

The sunrise woke her. Screwing up her eyes, she took in the splendour of the sky. It was a true tropical sunrise. Rich shades of red, orange and yellow contrasting and blending together with the bright blue sky. Distracted, she failed at first to notice an unexpected warmth on her waist and back. That warmth pressed against her and nuzzled her neck. Her heart sank. Glancing backwards, she realised that Archie was pretty much on top of her, with one arm around her waist and legs hooked into hers. Not only that, he was snoring. Loudly. The whistling sound must have been audible across the whole of the deck. Thankfully the other band members were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully they had made their way back to the safety of their cabins to sleep it off. 

Jessica reached down to disentangle herself. To her horror, she realised that her trousers were loose, not pulled down, but gaping, and Archie’s hand had made its way a little lower than was decent. Usually she would kick a man in the balls for less, but given the amount of sedative she’d fed him she supposed she should excuse his unconscious groping. Not that it made it less creepy. She shuddered. She was in the process of extracting his hand when she heard a crisp, familiar step on the deck. There was no time to get up. 

Ant’s familiar voice rang out. “Well, well, well. Just look what the cat dragged in.” His tone was quite the opposite of his usual chirp. He looked down at the pair of them, his lip curled in contempt. 

Jessica was, for once, lost for words. Archie on the other hand, had roused and pushed himself up onto his forearm, beaming a welcoming grin at Ant. “Well hello.  Welcome to the party!” He was slightly slurring his words. “Let me offer you a drink!” Pushing himself up onto his knees, he reached for the bottle and ended up collapsing, his chest resting on Jessica’s face. Mortified, she pushed him off. He started making a strange snuffling sound, and momentarily she panicked, checking his breathing, before realising that he was in fact laughing uncontrollably, head in her lap. Ant kicked the bottle into the palm pot in disgust. It shattered, the pieces skittering across the deck. He bent down and swiftly picked up the broken neck of the bottle. Grabbing Archie by his shirt, he threw him against the side of the ship with a force that belied his slight build. 

Holding the broken bottle close to Archie’s eye, he screamed, “I’ll fucking kill you, you filthy….” pulling his arm back, ready to strike. Archie made no attempt to resist. Jessica leapt to her feet, grabbing Ant’s arm. He resisted with all his strength. Jessica couldn’t believe it. He seemed a hundred times stronger than he had in their previous tussle. The bottle only narrowly missed her arm as they fought.

Jessica threw him back against the palm, knocking the pot over and sending him sprawling onto his back, landing right on top of the rest of the fragments of the broken bottle. The tree itself had landed right on top of him, preventing him from rising. Foiled by a palm tree! Ant cursed. Jessica was preparing to restrain him further but before she could do so, Archie grabbed Jessica’s arm. “Let’s go! We’ve got to get out of here. Sun’s nearly up. Come on!” 

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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