Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 11 (four-letter words)

Kelvin is going to hate this: he is scared of heights.  Small groups of us are taken up in a lift.  All we can see is the metal cage around us, and the grey, metallic, curved skin of the craft we are about to board.  The lift veers from side-to-side in the wind, which is uncomfortably warm.  The only illumination comes from flood-lights on the ground, which is just enough for me to be able to see my hand in front of my face, but destroys all sense of scale.  My internal aneroid barometer thinks we have ascended about 18 metres. 

We had been hurried into a hut by mute, uniformed figures.  Inside, we changed into our flight-suits.  We gaped at each other, trying to work out what we were supposed to do, and which fastening went where.  After the ascent in the lift, we are now hurried again to our “seats”, which seem to be covered in foam padding at least a foot thick.  We are strapped in.  The lift descends for the last time.  The door closes.  We are in virtual darkness and surrounded by the low murmurs of confined humanity.  We stay like this for what must seem to the others like hours, but which I know is just thirty-seven minutes, and then the engines are ignited.  The vibration is terrifying, but the take-off seems worse.  We rise with ponderous slowness, and then accelerate to the point where the force is crushing and any movement, including breathing, seems impossible.  I use one of my tricks and switch over to anaerobic operation for a while.  I go into a dormant state until we dock, by which time we are weightless. 

If the last craft we were on was a cattle-truck, the one we have just boarded is a hotel.  This is a good thing, because I believe we are going to be stuck in here for several years.  I can’t see outside, but gravity behaves normally: up is up, and down is down, and things which are denser than air descend if you drop them.  The passage I am being conducted along looks remarkably like that on a ship, with framed doors on each side, mats riveted to the floor, and lights in the ceiling.  I am escorted into a lift, with a member of the crew and nine other passengers.  There is a great deal of  metal in the surrounding structures, and so I doubt if I would be able to detect Kelvin now, even if he arrived still wearing one of my fabric microphone-transmitters.  One of my fellow passengers, who seems very nervous, is humming a tune which I recognise as “The Irish Rover”.  That is what I am going to call this vessel. 

I am now in my cabin.  It is small, but habitable.  There is a single bed and a desk, both fixed to the floor; two upright chairs; a bookcase; a chest of drawers; a wardrobe, and door which leads to a small bathroom.  The desk is equipped with some kind of computer workstation, which I have not tried to use yet, and on the walls are digital screens which seem to be showing some kind of tasteless slideshow, which I must see about changing.  First we have a picture of a camel with the Pyramids in the background at sunset.  Now we have a vintage car driving along a winding mountain road.  Now a lighthouse with waves crashing on the rocks below it.  I touch the screen and a menu appears.  One of the options is “Mirror”.  I choose that one, and it does what you would expect it to.  That is much better.   

‘My name is Pamela Collins.  My name is Pamela Collins,’ I say to myself silently into the mirror, over and over again.  I look at my reflection, and think, ‘Why doesn’t she put some make-up on?’ but that is undisciplined, and I must change.  I must put more effort into becoming Pamela.  Pamela is my friend.  Pamela is going to enable me to sneak right up to Kelvin without his knowledge (when he finally drags his arse here).

Since I have nothing better to do, I make an ultrasound and electronic sweep of the room, including the bathroom,  the ceiling and inside the chest of drawers and the wardrobe.   I find nothing, except some plumbing pipes and some wires which lead to the light switches, the air-con controller, the workstation and the towel rail. 

I’m bored.

I have been here for over two days now.  I know this partly from my internal clock, but also because the lights in the cabin and the passages work on a twenty-four hour cycle, which they have now been through twice.  I was doing a survey of every part of the ship I could reach, in order to check for restricted access areas that might not be marked on the maps, and I was on the deck which is the next one above where my cabin is, and I saw Kelvin.  All his outer clothes were new, and untouched by me, but his underpants were still talking to me: I got a kind of stereo effect from his footsteps along the passage, which I could hear both externally and internally from the microphone.  I was proud of Pamela: she managed to suppress the desire to run towards him.  I followed him at a discreet distance, with stooped shoulders and gaze directed at the floor, which is how Pamela usually walks.  He did not notice me, until he got to the stairs, looked at the map, realised he had gone the wrong way, and doubled back on himself.  I walked past him, but then executed the same manoeuvre that he had.  He went up several decks to the nearest refectory.  I waited until he had filled his tray and sat down, noted that he was on his own, and then went back down the stairs to the deck with his room on it.  There is a narrow screen on the outside of each cabin-door in which the occupant can display a message.  Most of them are blank.  A few of them are lewd, suggestive, or obscene.  Kelvin’s simply says, “Dr Kelvin Philip Alexander Stark, PhD”.  Some wag with untidy, masculine handwriting had stuck a label underneath which said, “The Alpha Male”. 

Life on board ship seems to be picking up as the passengers get to know each other and their surroundings.  We have access to an intranet, on which there are various forums and electronic papers, some of which have already sunk to the depths of salacious speculation and personal insults.  Forum moderation seems to have been replaced by a feature which automatically puts the cabin number of the author against all posted items.  You can sometimes hear the resulting thumps on doors and altercations late at night. 

Kelvin started an e-paper and announced a competition to find a name for it.  I suggested The Rover, explaining the reference to my pet-name for the ship and the Irish folk song, and I won.  Kelvin sent me a very polite email of congratulation, which demonstrated that he does not suspect who I really am. 

The Rover is a strange publication.  It is published, according to Kelvin, whenever he “has enough material” (for which read, “when he feels like it”).  A small part of it is devoted to an update from the ship’s navigator on how far we have got, which nobody ever reads.  Another covers any shortages, bottlenecks, breakdowns, or standing orders to do with the running of the ship.  This is useful but boring.  There is usually a feature article about something academic, often from art or literature.  I think Kelvin chooses the subjects for these, but gets specialists to write them.  Tabloid-style prurience he leaves to other publications.  Any column inches he has left over are filled by the main driver of the circulation, which are what purport to be computer-generated articles containing pure nonsense.  Here is a recent example.

Court News.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother yesterday attended Ascot, where she was heard to belch so loudly in the Royal Enclosure that several hats were blown onto the course. The oncoming horses trampled them to fuck, reversing several times just to make sure of a thorough job. This has fanned the flames of the recent, hotly-contested investigation into race-fixing, in which it has been found that the animals themselves have instituted an arrangement whereby the one with the silliest name will always be allowed to win.  The odds have shortened considerably on “Fanny Haddockbonker The Third” for the Derby. 

Kelvin has another paramour.  Her name is Dr Prudence Tadlow.  Apart from being a stuck-up cow, she is a hydro-geologist with a PhD from Imperial College, London.  They still seem to be at the stage of getting embarrassed and mumbling to each other when they “happen” to meet, but all the signs are there.  For some stupid reason, Prude always wears a boiler suit and a utility belt, the latter very powerfully accentuating the curves of her “fuller” figure.  Kelvin also seems to have noticed that she has thick, fragrant, chestnut-brown hair, green eyes, and a very attractive, intelligent and punchable face.  They are so ridiculously awkward together, sometimes Pamela just wants to throw a packet of condoms at them.   

I was behind Prude in a crushed queue in the refectory the other day and I managed to do a quick scan around her kidney area with ultrasound.  She seems to have disgustingly healthy ovaries.  I have a good mind to draw to her attention the standing order which says that passengers must refrain from getting knocked up before we reach our destination.


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