Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

‘The Companion’: chapter 28

James Holt here again.  Doctor Stark asked me to give another little talk to mark the fact that we have now started decelerating.  I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.  Believe me, I find this more distressing than you do. 

Assuming that everything continues to go as expected, we will enter the Achird system in just under two Earth years from now.  Our ship will first take up orbit around Achird-gamma, before launching a number of small craft containing satellites.  We will also be able to communicate with the satellites left behind by the previous, unmanned mission. 

The satellite network will provide the same services that they do on Earth: astronomical observation, weather-prediction, mapping, global positioning, and, should we ever need it, surveillance.  And, of course, communications.  There won’t be mobile phones on the new world, but we expect that each major colony and maybe a few of the smaller ones will have a satellite phone.  There will be an Internet (everybody gets to keep the workstation in his or her cabin) but we expect it will be a long time before we are able to manufacture electronic devices in large numbers.  The second generation might have to inherit a workstation, rather than buying one or receiving it as a gift, as they would do on Earth. 

After the satellites have been launched, every person on board will be assigned a position within the ship based on where he or she wants to land.  Those who express no preference will be assigned a position by the drawing of lots.  The ship will then undergo a complex process, the details of which I won’t go into, which will break it up into a total of 114 manned and unmanned craft.  These will then splash down in the planet’s ocean – if everything works.  The manned craft are designed to operate as waterborne ships after splash-down, and navigating them should be straightforward if the satellite system is working.  When they make landfall, it will be up to individual colonies to decide if the ship is more valuable as a going concern, or whether it will need to be broken up to provide scrap for other manufactures.  They will be using nuclear power plants to begin with, which are designed to just “burn out” after a few years and never need de-commissioning, but there will be diesel engines as well.  The unmanned craft will stay where they are, just drifting, until they are towed to shore.  They all have radio beacons to enable them to be located. 

I can see a few people yawning at the back and so I will finish there.  If there are any questions, please don’t all shout at once.  I would prefer to go back to my cabin and do something I enjoy more than this, such as banging a blunt, rusty nail into my right knee-cap by butting it with my head.  


I have started having anxiety attacks and recurring nightmares about what might go wrong.  This is very irritating, because it is not in my nature to worry about things that I have no control over.  I find myself touched by the simple serenity of my fellow passengers.  It is my fault that they are all here, and do not have ice cream, or chocolate, or rice, or red meat.  In my nightmares, I see hurricane-force blizzards, sulphurous eruptions, solar flares which blast us with deadly radiation, floods, droughts and failed harvests.  Sometimes I look helplessly around myself in the refectory, watching people innocently spooning fish stew and dumplings into their mouths, and I try not to imagine them frail, hollowed-out, helpless and just waiting for the end, too weak to kill themselves.  I would be lying if I were to say that I like all the people on board this ship, but I do not know of any among them who deserves to die a premature death, not even Cerise Vallance or that idiot, Colin Turnbull.

The two things which distract me from these unhealthy thoughts are occasional visits to Anna’s women, and the daily routine of work.  I am determined to know everything that can be known about the new planet, and to plan the development of the new colony so that it will be able to grow as quickly as possible. 

What the hell is that?  It sounds as if the hull has been struck by something.  Where is my pressure transducer? 


I was walking along a corridor when I heard the noise.  The pressure started to fall,  but not catastrophically.  I flipped into anaerobic mode in a matter of seconds, and investigated for perhaps longer than I should have done.  I went up several decks.  The passengers have no access to either the very bottom or the very top deck: these are the province of the crew only.  I saw and heard a few members of the crew pounding down the stairs and shouting to each other.  They were talking about some objects having breached the hull.  That was consistent with my pressure readings.  I decided to look for Kelvin. 

I checked the cams in his cabin, and saw that he was there.  He was clearly agitated, but appeared, to my relief, to have realised that, whatever was happening, there was not a thing he could do about it.  He was seven decks below me.  I ran down.  I mean I ran at my speed, not human speed. 

By the time I got down to Kelvin’s cabin’s deck, I had to slow down, because of crew members coming up the stairs against me.  An alarm sounded.  An announcement issued from the public address system.  We hardly ever hear anything over this public address system, other than warnings that, should we ever hear anything, we are to follow the instructions as if our lives depend on it. 

‘Attention please.  Attention please.  Ladies and gentlemen, attention please.  A number of objects have made holes in the hull of our ship.  We are losing oxygen.  I repeat: we are losing oxygen.  Go back to your cabins.  Each passenger must go back to his or her cabin, immediately.  Shut the door as normal and stay inside.  No cabins that we know of have been breached.  The oxygen and water supplies to each cabin are working, and you will be safe inside.  If you pass one of the trolleys dispensing emergency food rations, please pick up one portion – one portion per person only.  If you cannot, then the crew will deliver one to your cabin.  The ship’s intranet should continue to function.  If you have any fears or concerns, email them to the support team as usual.

‘Remain in your cabins until further notice.  We will repair the holes and will continue safely on our voyage, as long as the crew are not distracted from their task.’

The message was repeated in French, Urdu, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and, eventually, every other recognised language on the ship, including Latin, Coptic, Nepali, and Welsh. 

Before the Spanish broadcast was over, I was at the door of Kelvin’s cabin.  I knocked, more loudly than usual. 

‘Who is it?’

‘Pamela Collins.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I need to come in.  The door of my cabin’s malfunctioned.  I need to come in.’

‘Oh. OK.  Two seconds.’  While I was waiting, one of the emergency rations parties ran towards me, with spacesuits on.  I pointed to myself and to Kelvin’s door, and grabbed two packets.  The emergency crew assented.  Kelvin opened the door.  I shut it behind us.  He was in his underpants.  I took a number of pressure readings and ran some gas chromatography.  The atmospheric composition was fine for Kelvin.  I re-opened the file which stores my gravimetry readings, which is the most boring set of data I bother to acquire.  I could see the flurry of recent high readings which indicated the arrival of whatever it was that had hit us, but nothing afterwards. 

Kelvin looked at the two packets of emergency rations.  We opened one of them.  It contained two tins of corned beef, two packets of vacuum-packed cheese, two tins each of baked beans and tomato soup which were self-heating, twenty-four tea bags, a packet of ground coffee, a bag of sugar, forty pieces of crispbread, a tub of margarine, a canister of dried milk, some jam, some yeast extract, a small bottle of lime juice cordial, a small bottle of blackcurrant cordial, some tissues, two sets of plastic cutlery, four paper plates, four paper cups, sachets of salt, pepper, tomato ketchup and brown sauce, and three bars of milk chocolate. 

Chocolate is one commodity that we cannot make while in transit.  The shortage of chocolate is one of the most frequent and most boring topics of conversation on the ship.  As soon as Kelvin saw the chocolate, he was delighted.  This was not because he eats it himself, but because he believed that its unexpected availability would lift morale during the crisis. 

I looked with satisfaction around Kelvin’s cabin, there as I was legitimately for the first time ever.  I heard the dying sounds of the protracted hissing of the door sealing itself.  We were locked in together.  Even if the crew fixed all the holes within five minutes (which they wouldn’t) it would take them many hours to pressure-test all the affected sections of the ship.  Kelvin was stuck with Pamela for a while.   

‘Are you all right, Pamela?’

‘Yes, I’m fine.  I’m absolutely fine.  Have you got any booze?’

‘Have I got any booze?  I run a brewery and a distillery.’

‘I know what you run, Mr Clever-clogs.  What I asked you concerned the wherewithal within this cabin.’

‘This cabin has plenty plenty wherewithal.  Open the fridge.’  It was one of those fridges that Kelvin and Holt have been selling, except that it was sixteen times the size of the ones they sell.  Inside, it had a full selection of Kelvin’s beer, plus wine (Kelvin downplays wine as part of the ship’s produce, but it certainly exists, and some of it is very drinkable), and some of his dubious spirits, as well as fruit juice and water. 

We each took a bottle of Black Mischief and I let it go straight to my non-algorithmic brain.  We took another, and another, and then we started to get somewhere.  When the bottles were empty, we carefully placed them in the recycling bin, as if suffocation and death were such remote possibilities that we need not worry about them.

‘How long do you think we will be in here for?’ he asked me.

‘Not long enough.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘I want to ask you some questions.’

‘Some questions about what?’

‘About many things.’  (The phrase “many things” was copied from Kelvin.)

‘Starting with what?’  He went over to the fridge, and opened a bottle of that throat-burning whisky.  I didn’t attempt to stop him. 

‘I understand that, back on Earth, you used to have a companion android.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Never mind how I know.  Everybody knows that.  Is it true?’

‘As a matter of fact, it is.  I am not ashamed.’

‘You are not ashamed of what?’

‘I am not ashamed of my companion android.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘I left her on Earth.’


‘Because she was so advanced that she would have upset the objective of this mission, which is to regenerate twenty-second century technology from a twentieth-century beginning.’

‘That is a technological answer.  How did you feel emotionally?’

‘I was devastated.’

‘You were devastated.’

‘Yes.  I still am.  I think of her every day.’

‘Then why did you leave her behind?’

‘We live according to rules.  The rules said that my relationship with Violet was no longer possible.’  It was at this point that Pamela started to get angry.  She necked another beer very quickly, and then poured one of those abominable whiskies. 

‘The rules.  The rules.  THE RULES?


‘OK.  It was the rules.  Right.  I want to know everything about your relationship with this android.’

‘All right.’


‘Can I drink alcohol while I am undergoing this interrogation?’

‘Of course.  I would prefer it if you would. It will make you more malleable.’

‘I’d like a bottle of Light Brigade in that case. ‘

‘How did you feel when you took her out of the box?’

‘She did not come in a box.  She arrived under her own locomotion.’




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