3-17: Lailah

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I

There was a bit of an issue next door and Nikki and Hugh could hear it. Sam needed his nooky, babies or no babies but Sophie was tired. Would she go through with it for diplomatic reasons or would she ask him to desist?

She sighed this time and went through with it but the sorts of words passing her lips showed that the other two might have to have individual words next day. Plus there was a tone, an edge if you like, to Sophie.

Nikki and Hugh looked at one another and thought they recognized it.

Sophie had told Nikki that the old nausea had returned a few times and certain things were stirring in the back of her brain, things she’d thought had finally disappeared but they clearly hadn’t. On these occasions, apart from that once she’d told Nikki, she’d had to distance herself from them because they’d pick up on it quickly and then the whole comfortable existence they currently had would be dashed.

She didn’t want that for Big Nikki, as she now called her, or for Little Nikki, she had to keep herself under control. Sam was the issue. Not a nasty bone in his body and yet he could be obtuse and stubborn and when he was, he was in increasing danger – he had done nothing to deserve this danger but there it was.

She’d snapped at him earlier in the evening and had hoped the other two hadn’t heard.

.o0o.

Hugh moved closer and whispered to Nikki, ‘Problem girl reappearing.’

‘I know, should we warn Sam?’

‘Might be counterproductive – what if I take Sophie and talk it out with her?’

‘I don’t want her becoming dependent on you again.’

‘Then you take her for a walk and talk it out.’

She sighed. ‘No, it has to be you … do you think you can?’

‘I have no idea. I’ll try tomorrow, at the spring. And Nikki – you don’t need to tell me, you don’t need to fear. It is you and you only. Well, Jean-Baptiste too. OK?’

‘OK. Don’t forget Little Nikki in that. And don’t forget Sophie,’ she smiled. ‘You’re going to be busy.’

.o0o.

11:12 a.m. saw Nikki approach Sophie and ask for water.

Sophie took the tub and loped away on those lithe feet but approaching the entrance to the outer cave, she sensed Hugh was there and she propped.

For fully one minute she paused, sorting it all out in her mind. He made no move on the other side and she knew he knew she’d hesitated and there’d only be one reason she’d hesitate.

She had no choice. She couldn’t grab the water, make small talk and disappear because this was such a close and closed foursome. She had to let Hugh talk to her but she feared dependence again. She hoped Hugh was well aware of that.

Stepping through, she put down the tub and turned to face him. ‘Do you want me on your hands again?’

‘We still need to talk it through. How far has it gone? What’s come back? Are you still capable of telling me?’

She deflated and leaned her bottom against the wall. ‘There seems to be something right at the back of the skull, something you never completely took away, we spoke of it. It’s even hiding from me, Hugh. It knows I know.’

‘Only the one?’

‘I’m not sure – yes, I am actually sure, there’s just the one malevolent person in there. That whole side of things has been dormant – I thought it had died. There might be other horrors I don’t know but I do think it’s just the one. This personality I am now – mine – has lasted a very long time by itself – it’s quite strong.’

‘Perhaps the time we’re moving into now – in the cosmic way I mean – means that that sleeper must awake.’

‘Then you are all in danger.’

‘Yes. How far can your love for Little Nikki, even for me, prevent you?’

‘This is another personality altogether – the two don’t know one another. They know of one another but they don’t actually know much about the other.’

‘Understood.’

‘This is probably one where I’ll have the battle inside my own head. The religion we had on the island – that helps, that might be the difference. My child, Big Nikki, you, your child – you’ll not stop this other personality – it will hate all four.’

‘Would it hurt Little Nikki?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Sam?’

‘If he was seen as a threat – yes. I know you’re thinking of warning him but I’d say it would be unwise.’

‘Big Nikki and I had already decided that. Can this other personality hear this now?’

‘Of course. It uses the same sensory apparatus but it doesn’t have access to the same memories. You need to know, Hugh, that that is not good for you. You’ll see me in front of you but it won’t be me in the head. That’s almost impossible for most people to get their heads around.’

‘I can. Will this personality harm Jean-Baptiste?’

‘Especially him. You don’t need to worry for now – it’s just that I know it’s there and it’s hiding. It came back a few times on the island too but I never recognized it then – it was only observing.’

‘Your recommendation?’

‘Sophie wants none of this going on in her head. Sophie wants life to continue the way it was and is now, with the children growing up and all that. Yet it can’t continue. It might be better if Sam and I go somewhere else, Hugh. You do understand that, don’t you?’

‘Yes. Do you mean that if it was just Sam and you here and we weren’t there, then the danger fades?’

‘I’d say it would disappear. It’s not just you, Hugh, it’s Lailah.’ At that she fell back against the wall and hissed, ‘Don’t touch me.’ She recovered and said, ‘You might have to do something … terminal … to me. Hugh?’

‘Yes?’

‘Do you still love me?’

‘You know I adore you but you know my priorities – save Jean-Baptiste, Big Nikki, then Little Nikki, then Sam, then the old Sophie if possible. You’re on the end of that because you’re the most capable inside yourself of any of us.’

‘What would you … do to me? How far would you go?’

‘I’d do nothing to Sophie, I love her. But if this creature becomes you, takes over, then we’d both do whatever it took, my love – you know that. I’d try, with Sam, to get you tied up, as you were on the boat Sophie-Fleury. You know that’s the most humane way.’

‘Yes. I’m grateful that that happened and I regret nothing. I love you, Hugh. This is Sophie saying and doing this now.’ She wrapped her arms around his waist, his went around her shoulders and they kissed for about a minute. She pulled her head back and stared through his eyes. ‘You must go, Hugh, take Big Nikki and your child.’

‘How can they do that, Sophie Magdalena?’ asked Gabriella, softly. They were no longer surprised at these reappearances.

She touched Sophie’s forehead and addressed both of them. ‘You are wise to part because only through this will the children be safe – this is the ultimate love between the two of you. I shall take care of Samuel during this process. Both of you, Sophie and Samuel, plus the one you call Little Nikki, will be in a form of trance, Albus and his family will not be here when you both awake. You will explain to Samuel that I will then be coming for both of you too and you must be ready to leave.’

‘When?’ asked Hugh.

‘Today, Albus for you. For the others – after that. Prepare Lailah and her child.’ Nothing happened untoward with Sophie at this mention of that name. She touched both their foreheads and Sophie nodded her understanding.

‘Handy having an angel about,’ he grinned and Sophie relaxed.

.o0o.

‘Well?’ asked Nikki. ‘That took a long time.’

‘It generally does when Gabriella appears.’ Nikki was startled. He told her all that had happened, every word, even the deep kiss, saw her blanch at points but finally nod her understanding and relief.

She noted, ‘Gabriella was in with Sam before, I did know she was there. I think it’s best it’s happened this way. Better to know, don’t you think?’

‘Yes, Moineau.’ She smiled at that and took his hand.

.o0o.

When they eventually went out to the living area, packed, Jean-Baptiste papoosed, cleaned, fed and watered, as were they, Sam and Sophie weren’t there but Gabriella was.

She explained. ‘At five epicentres in these islands there will be seismic damage five days from today. Those who are doing this are not your concern but the safety of Jean-Baptiste is. It will not help you either to go deeper into the mountain because it is situated along a fault line. This retreat has kept you safe until now but it has served its purpose.’

She stopped speaking. ‘And?’ asked Hugh.

‘The only place you can be is airborne and the only way you can be airborne is in a dirigible with thermal cloaking and the only way you can be in one of those is if it comes to this hill and the only way it can come to this hill is if the men working for you in the towns and huts are to cast one loose from its moorings and travel here in it. It will not be missed as it was secret in the first place and the people in charge of its oversight no longer are. There is no infrastructure now.’

‘Thermal cloaking?’

‘Yes and radar cloaking. Do you wish to know about this, are you still all right to stand, perhaps lean on the armrests?’ They both nodded. ‘Radar and light waves require two separate systems with coherent 360 degree spherical control and a refresh rate that does not allow a fully formed wave to occur if reflected. You only need know that under certain circumstances, you will be invisible to the enemy. The airship was already invisible to radar but the addition of silver thermal cloaking made you susceptible to radar again, which in turn meant that radar cloaking was again necessary.’

‘But we can be seen by eye.’

‘Yes, that will always be so and thus you must needs travel by night and set down during the day. The design is based on the Year 2000 Cargolifter and there were ten built. You will be collected by one of these an hour from now.’

‘The other three?’ asked Nikki.

‘Magdalena’s child by Samuel will seek to destroy the child by you, Lailah and also your child by Magdalena, Albus, once he finds out but this Star Child, as he will be known, will not find either, we will ensure this by our moves from conception onwards, just as with you and your conception. All of this is for another dimension.

Little Nikki, as you call her, will seek for you, Albus, Hugh – one day but not in this dimension, so put that out of your head for now. She will eventually find you and that will be good, it will be joyous. Don’t ask me to explain further because you have not the capacity to understand.’

‘This is like something out of science fantasy,’ muttered Nikki.

Gabriella ignored that and continued. ‘Magdalena already knows these things and has known them since the days of the Seven. She was always going to become the enemy one more time, when the time was right. You, Albus, have already had your discussion with her and you both know everything now.’

She turned to Nikki. ‘You have told Albus all and he has told you all. Despite you coming to terms with them, you both bitterly regret those sexual episodes, they were so terribly damaging to your souls. You still need a time together where Jean-Baptiste is minded by a good woman for an hour and I am close at hand – that will come in the next phase now, it is necessary for you both so to do, to have this discussion, to clear all the issues in your minds, to reaffirm each other.

Then there will be no reason for you not to become one flesh and it is necessary because very difficult times are ahead – you must both work as one. Your main task now is is to protect your child but a secondary task will be to continue the fight for what you believe in, just as you did in the Section. The reason for that is partly your results but also what it does to you, psychologically, to your souls. Souls are still malleable in your dimension, your actions do count.’

‘Well, that’s quite clear then.’

‘Now,’ concluded Gabriella, ‘both children have been sleeping, as have Magdalena and Samuel. The time is nearly over. If you are ready, then please follow me.’

She led them out, the door opening and closing behind them as if by remote control, which in fact it had done, they slipped through the fissure, turned right and started climbing the hill, it was not an easy climb for a human.

They were simply not expecting the stench and the dull yellowish light filling the hills and valleys, the smoke, the noise of an earthquake building up, building up. They saw the dirigible hovering and didn’t know how the hell but it moved towards them, two lines shot into the rock.

Hugh tried to shake Gabriella’s hand, much to her amusement and she laid her hand on his shoulder, then on Nikki’s, then on Jean-Baptiste’s, two harnesses came down the lines, they both strapped in, Jean-Baptiste now in his arms and up they went.

In the metallic undercarriage where they’d crunched to the floor, they now stood up and unbuckled, closed the hatch below, ran for a rivetted metal ladder and climbed up into the main room.

The area was large but fairly sparse, carpeted, with seats here and there bolted into place. Of people, there were none to be seen, Nikki made ready to feed Jean-Baptiste at the first table, Hugh sat on the other side.

They heard a noise, looked at one another but she decided to continue anyway – it was an older chap with military gait, all bonhomie.

‘Welcome, welcome. Charles Seward, ex RN. Probably wondering why I’m in this thing, eh? There are others. This is a pickup run right now and you’re the last.’

‘Destination?’

‘We’ll be told. No light, no communication, nothing electronic please. When you’re ready, make your way to where I just came from and your quarters are up the gangway.’

He turned and went back. Nikki was ready, they made their way to the upper level, Seward reappeared and just said, ‘Number 11.’

They found it down the right corridor. If they thought it would be some sort of sanctuary, they were mistaken because at the end of the four metres by three cabin was a long, thin, horizontal window with no curtains and everything out there was eerily visible. Hugh went over and looked down, then beckoned her over, with Jean-Baptiste. She glanced down, then looked away and lay down on one of the two berths.

‘It’s … horrible,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean the ship, I mean out there. I’m so tired,’ she added. He cuddled them both.

Someone knocked on the door and a female voice called out to them. They said to come in and it was a smartly dressed young woman, not particularly friendly.

‘Food,’ she said, placing a tray on the dresser. ‘I shall come for you tomorrow morning, at 08:00, with breakfast. At 08:30, I’ll take you to the cockpit. You’ll find the toilets without any problem. Is that all right?’

They nodded and went over to tuck into the light repast.

During the night, the dirigible flew on, the night became darker out there and they finally thought they could get some sleep.

II

It was Sophie’s and Sam’s turn as they struggled up the hill after Gabriella.

The smell from the valley was appalling and she recognized rotting flesh – it had been part of her so-called ‘training’ all those years ago, she thought Sam might know about that too in his profession.

Little Nikki set up a constant howling, Gabriella stopped, stepped back some paces and touched her forehead, then continued climbing. ‘Make haste.’

Then, from above, something came down – two cables embedded now in the ground.

.o0o.

They found much the same onboard as the Jensens and about half an hour later, Sophie found herself with a bit of time to herself. She went downstairs to the landing deck and sat on the floor, against the wall, Little Nikki with Sam for now.

Now she turned inwards towards her intruder, the one who hid and popped out when she wasn’t concentrating. ‘You will not win this,’ she spoke in her head. ‘You will not because my new me is too strong. I know you can hear me. You are programmed but now you are out, you have only so much time to do as you must, then you must die or leave.’

Suddenly, in a rage, a rage she now remembered from the sessions, the personality stormed into the open in her brain and threatened to consume her. She fought it, as real to her as if she were fighting physically, the personality was trying the flood approach, filling every nook and cranny and yet she kept mouthing, ‘Sophie, Sophie,’ and then ‘I, Sophie, I Sophie, I Sophie.’

It withdrew, then just as Sophie relaxed, came back worse than before, she gave a slight scream, she was now prone on the floor, kicking and thrashing, repeating, ‘I Sophie, I Sophie, I Sophie,’ over and over and a change came over the battle.

She knew she was winning, the personality knew she was winning and in that, it lost power. It needed her anger to feed off and that anger Sophie was not allowing, for dear life.

The personality, the creature, whatever it was, made one final lunge at her mind and she went into convulsions, not even able to chant her mantra and yet she kept her mind on the mantra, over and over.

With a silent scream, the creature kicked this way and that, as if trapped, Sophie opened her mouth and it was gone. Totally gone.

She knew it, she knew it was over but also that she was totally exhausted.

That’s how Sam and Little Nikki found her, in the middle of the landing deck. Thank goodness no one else had.

III

In the greasy, early morning suggestion of light, the dirigible with the Jensens set down in a valley not far from Sadevaag in the Faeroes, mainly on the strength of the co-pilot’s family being there, they hardly being likely to shop them to the authorities.

The majority of the passengers got off here – presumably to go to other redoubts.

They felt the ship lifting off again and there was just the diffused light from faraway towns. The weather was kind at the moment and the buffeting minimal.

At the window, they looked down below but could see nothing. To their surprise, not twenty minutes into the trip, they seemed to be descending again, it was clear they were going to land … and then they didn’t.

They silently settled into what seemed suspended animation.

A polite knock at the door saw the woman from last night addressing them, using their alter-egos, entreating them to come up to the command centre. Nikki picked up Jean-Baptiste and they followed along to the front of the ship. A knock on the door, they were summoned through and had to duck down to fit through the hatch.

They didn’t recognize either crew member but the introductions were made and then an extraordinary thing happened. The captain began to explain the controls, the mechanisms, how to do this and that, how to restore pressure, how to feed helium into the sac, it went on and on.

.o0o.

The pilot said it was time for lunch, they all went down to the dining table on the second stage, the whole place looking remarkably empty and forlorn.

Over the lunch of fish and salad, he explained the situation. Hugh and Nikki were now the keepers, pilots and crew of the ship. They’d be taught navigation and the handling of the ship over the next two days, plus coordinates to emergency destinations.

The last thing they would be taught, on the last afternoon, the thing which would keep them alive, was how the cloaking worked and heaven help them if they ever let it slip.

‘Now, food supply,’ said Captain Rantall. ‘It will come in from Faeroese. They themselves had a failure of the fishing fleet some time back – sabotage most like – and they’ve only just started getting back on track. The rations are going to be meagre but there’ll be enough for 12 initially.’

‘12?’ asked Hugh.

‘Ah, you haven’t been told yet. You’re the northern redoubt for the most wanted, one of the key hubs giving refuge to those the enemy has been hot on the tails of. Don’t worry, they only get here via a most convoluted, circuitous route.’

Actually, they hadn’t been thinking this at all. ‘The weaponry is largely in place but the ship is not yet rearmed. Two other chaps will come in on the last day –’

‘Last day?’

‘In two days – before we depart and leave you to it.’

‘Ah.’

‘You’ll be self-sufficient but in your hands will be the rations, the discipline and the safety of these people. Any questions?’

Nikki, smiling, shook her head and Hugh did too.

‘Great. Now,’ he turned to Nikki, who was feeling she needed time with Jean-Baptiste, ‘do you need time to deal with the baby or what?’

She returned to their room and took time to ‘deal with the baby’. Hugh stayed in the cockpit and went through some more drills. ‘I take it we’re hovering over the stream now?’

‘It’s four metres below the basket – not for security because an enemy could easily burst the sac – it’s all to do with visibility, overall safety and ease of lift-off.’

They went over many details.

.o0o.

Nikki and Jean-Baptiste reappeared, bemused how far Hugh was into it all and eminently happier, she joined in through to supper time, with one break for refreshments.

IV

By dawn, the dirigible with Sam and Sophie aboard descended to what was apparently called Ubekendt Ejland, an island with virtually no redeeming features, no sustainable food sources and no security. Its main claim to acceptance for them all was that it would be one of the last places that anyone would wish to hide in, these people below had had a rough time with the authorities and just such a history as well – they were a closeknit community and very much onside with this mission, just as with Nikki and Hugh.

What was not immediately apparent to the outside world was that there was a small boat connection in an emergency, again – just as with Nikki and Hugh. The dirigible had settled down between two cliff faces, a tenuous connection but one bringing rations to the eight people on board from the mainland, from the handful of fishermen there.

The second stage of the dirigible had been given over to horticulture – grains and fruits – and the intent was clear but in the meantime, it was necessary to rely on rations already stacked onboard. The Captain, Jannick Boesen, a wanted man in his own right for smuggling, explained the rules and they were all straightforward.

So this was going to be their home for a long time.

The other five on board were an altogether too young girlfriend/helper of the Captain, a very quiet couple of the name Entmussen and two seemingly separate people, a Jan Olifiers and a Margarita Canne.

While there’d be little drama onboard, there also looked to be no bonhomie, no possible connection between these people, and what was worse – the Captain’s eyes were already poring over Sophie.

Ever the bold spirit, she marched straight up to the cockpit after luncheon and confronted the man with her accusation and demand that he desist. The girlfriend was bemused but the Captain was not, his protestations were loud and long.

What immediately struck Sophie about this bunch was that they did not appear, any of them, to be saints, which one would have expected, had Gabriella had anything to do with it. Maybe this was the ship for sinners – it was certainly a mixed bunch.

Mollifying her somewhat was the Captain’s now more conciliatory attitude, they began to speak about this and that, about how they’d all got there and she now saw that he was a wanted man indeed – he’d been stealing state secrets and feeding them to resistance groups, or so the charge went.

The girl had been a rescuee and when Sophie eventually went back to Sam and Little Nikki, it was with the girl in tow.

Strangely, Sam, not usually averse to a pretty face, did not immediately take to Letti and when she departed, he asked what had gone on up in the cockpit. Sophie gave him chapter and verse and he mused on it, stroking his chin.

‘That girl’s not straight,’ he said. Sophie looked at him, rocking Little Nikki to sleep and knew what he meant. She was too careful, too smarmy even, too calculating and both were of the opinion that the girl ran the Captain, not the other way about.

They’d keep an eye on her.

V

March, 2013

The last afternoon of the outgoing crew was upon them, Hugh and Nikki both had a fair idea how to fly the craft, not that that was going to be needed, they understood the thermal and radar cloaking, they understood the black boxes, they had the supply lines sorted and knew the couriers well enough, they knew how to test the incoming food – in short, they were as ready as they were going to be.

The food supplies were mostly grain and dried meat plus the remains of the cans they’d brought and there were no more of the latter.

One wing of the second stage had been given over to horticulture and row upon row of seedlings had been planted. If anyone knew how to grow such things, it was the Faeroese and two girls had that task more or less permanently – others had been required to look after their own sustenance at ground level.

The ship had been armed with its own nasty little surprises, ablution was the last matter dealt with and they were virtually ready. The crew of three came to them and saluted, command changed hands, the ladders went down from the access door of the basket and through the hatch, Hugh could see some boats in the stream directly below them.

The people in the boats below climbed up the thrown down weighted rope ladders, one after another, until all 10 were assembled in the main room, sitting on chairs or standing to one side, all obviously waiting to be told what was next.

Hugh addressed them, running through their situation, getting them to adjust to the new realities and allaying their fears.

One lady standing to one side asked a bizarre question, ‘Will you sleep on the divan or will I?’

It was Sarah.

Nikki glanced at Hugh’s dropped jaw but he finished the welcome. Now it was a case of allocating rooms – couples and the one family called the Hutchings, with a seven year old girl – and then the others.

They were given time to sort themselves out and finally reappear in the main room, Nikki also went back to their room because it was time for Jean-Baptiste to awake.

Hugh did some things and appeared there ten minutes later.

‘Sarah Retton,’ was all Nikki said, Jean-Baptiste at her breast.

‘Even when she was younger, she was never enough, Nikki. What did you think of her this time round?’

‘She looks awful.’

‘Why is she here? Last thought I had was that she may have become one of them, as Marie did not seem to share everything with her or rather, made sure that Sarah did not hear what they said but that may have been just procedure. My first thought now was that she’s a plant, my second thought is how to keep her out of your bed.’

‘My bed?’

‘Yes, my love. She’ll be aware that you’re not averse to closeness with other women you know. She can’t risk coming through me because she knows you’ll be observing, so she’ll come through you.’

‘I’m not sure I like that.’

.o0o.

About twelve minutes later, there was a knock at the door and it was indeed her. Nikki invited her through and introduced Jean-Baptiste.

‘May I hold him?’ Sarah asked and she gingerly took the baby in her arms. Nikki watched the conflicting emotions in the woman, she was clearly fighting herself and the feel of the baby was powerfully unbalancing whatever she was about.

For Jean-Baptiste’s part, he was wary and though he didn’t cry, he didn’t quite know what he had here. Nikki thought a buxom woman like Sarah might have been what Jean-Baptiste liked, she took back the proferred baby and Hugh asked, ‘So tell us about Marie.’

Sarah sat in that manner she always had – feet thrust out in front, hands clasped between the open knees. ‘They took her, Hugh, Nikki. She was summoned for a planning session and didn’t come back. I never saw her again.’

Hugh nodded. ‘I hope it was quick but I suspect it wasn’t.’ He waited for tears from Sarah but they didn’t come. To give her the benefit of the doubt, he put it down to her being drained of any further emotion. ‘Tell me what happened to you subsequently.’

‘It – it’s hard to speak of that.’ They remained silent, forcing her to continue. ‘Why they let me go is beyond me but it didn’t help because I couldn’t get work. Then I got a receptionist’s job but only stayed two months and left after I told the boss what I thought of him.’

‘Back to the outspoken Sarah.’

‘I drifted into dancing but wasn’t all that good. Customers were willing to pay and I kept it with high class clientele, never on the street.’

‘No rooms rented by the hour.’

‘None of that … not for the first year.’

‘It’s been rough, hasn’t it?’

‘There’s no outlet, Hugh, no love. There’s no place for me.’

He looked at her and decided to try it on spec. ‘When did the drugs start?’ Nikki looked across at him.

‘Not at first. I never shot up because I hate needles.’

‘Poor Sarah. But why did they collect you and send you here?’

‘Two of us heard that they were going to take us in and we went to ground. One evening, they took her but I got away and made contact with some old Sophie-Fleury contacts. I was hidden until the ship came and here I am.’

‘Sarah, let’s not talk about this any more. We have to take care of JB now.’

She took her leave, he waited until he could hear she’d gone and turned to Nikki. ‘You don’t buy it either, Moineau?’

‘No.’

‘I wonder if it could it be a triple ploy. We’re expected to buy it. We don’t and they think we’ll not buy it, as we have not. Then they think we’ll be clever clever and close off our suspicion, a triple play, but in fact she’s not OK at all.’

‘You have the mind tortueux, Bebe.’

VI

Sophie was at the door to their room, Little Nikki in her arms and in the distance, back towards the gangway, sat Sam and this Letti.

Sophie had given Sam virtual carte-blanche to find out about Letti and the best way to do that was through an attempted seduction. She was well aware that Sam was not exactly reticent in this but it still seemed the best option.

Every so often, the girl would look over in the direction of their room and then she’d whisper something.

The Entmussens were occupying the lower end of the table and Jan [the passenger, not the Captain] was reading over by the window. Of Margarita there was no sign, perhaps on her own bed, reading a book.

Letti got up and went to the gangway, down to the landing bay. Sam went to the loo, which was up near where their room was but on the other side of the walkway, Sophie stepped back inside, as Sam went past.

He didn’t come back.

She waited a reasonable time and then did something quite daring. With Little Nikki now out like a light, she went straight to the male loo and entered. She tried a few hidden exits, or rather where they might be, pressed the mirror, tried to pull it back, examined the floor, examined the walls, sat on the bowl.

Nothing.

She opened the door, cautiously peeped out, then skipped across to their room, shocked to find Sam inside. Sitting down on the bunk, she apologized for leaving Little Nikki for those minutes, explained in detail the sojourn in the male loo, then gave him that ‘please explain’ look and he obliged.

‘You didn’t look the other side of the loo,’ he answered her as yet unasked question. ‘Next time, go down there but be very careful because it creaks a little near the left of the rungs, the third one down is worst.’

She nodded, then the subsequent silence was an invitation for him to continue to the main story. ‘Yes, I was groping her in the corner of the supplies room. She’s tattooed on her right hip with a pink rose, there seems to be one on her ankle, her left arm might be punctuated with marks, looks that way but I couldn’t be sure. If so, it was some time ago. The captain might have rescued her and set her straight but he might also be playing the same game we are.

‘When do you see her again?’

‘After supper. I’ll make an excuse to you and I think you’d better make it awkward for me – don’t facilitate it too readily but don’t overdo it either. Maybe tell me it’s my turn for Little Nikki and I’ll quietly dispute it, dropping my voice so she can’t hear – but she will, of course.’

She nodded. ‘Take condoms. I don’t want you inside me without them, not after her.’

He was stunned. ‘I thought -’

‘If you hold back, it will be entirely out of character. I need to know.’

‘I’m not letting you have Jan.’

‘Is that your concern? Then you obviously don’t know me all that well, Samuel.’

‘I don’t want her, Sophe, she’s not clean.’

‘Was Miri?’ He didn’t answer. ‘I don’t think it will come to it. I think she’ll find a way out just before the end. She’ll establish that you would do it and then engineer something. That’s my reading of her.’

VII

In the Faeroes it was time to go through each passenger’s file and check and cross-check for anomalies or non-anomalies but first – the Big Meeting.

At the table, Nikki gave the welcome, then made it clear that the only food was either local and in season or whatever could be brought in, that there would be two meals a day, at around 10:00 and 16:00, and that would have to suffice. The days of snacking were gone, she was afraid.

‘We have bread type things to keep you going inbetween – plenty of those and no limit on coffee, we have a supply coming in, not of tea though, sorry.’

There was work to be done on preparing meals and everybody would take turns, from the peeling of the potatoes to the preparation of the occasional vegetables.

‘Any problems so far?’ she asked. ‘No?’

‘Are you the commander?’ asked Sarah.

‘Joint commander – the supplies are my field.’

Nikki and a Mrs. Hutchings would look over the incoming supplies and make a week’s menu which they’d present to the group, with a view to which foodstuffs would be eaten on which days and in which quantities, Nikki didn’t want anyone missing out or thinking that food was being hoarded when it wasn’t.

People nodded around the long table – all knew they were lucky to even be alive and they appreciated this patient explanation and Nikki was coming across well.

‘My last task for now is for us all to introduce ourselves. Would you be ready, not now but at our next meal, to give a one minute rundown on yourself, just so we all know where we are.’

Nods all around.

‘For now though, just names, please, so we know who to address. At least, Hugh and I know but … well, doesn’t matter, you understand. So please, from my right over here?’

‘Eleanor Hutchings, Ralph beside me and that’s our Kelly – she’s seven.’

‘Chloe Mathis.’ Well, that was abrupt.

‘Frank Innes, not married to anyone here.

‘Sarah Retton and I wonder if Frank has deliberately sat between two ladies now.’ She smiled but no one took her up on that. Sarah had been trying it from the first minute they’d seen her again.

‘Gavin Williams.’ Another abrupt one.

‘Captain John Davies, RN, retired, here on behalf of the organisers and reporting directly to them via the ship’s devices, the Jensens will monitor this.’

‘Roland Mathers, was in business.’

‘Cedric Smythe-Johnson, IT.’

‘Pamela Gest.’ Another abrupt one – right lot of fun some of this lot were going to be, thought Hugh.

‘Thank you … and now my husband will speak of security and rules.’ Nikki headed off to attend to matters. Hugh handed her Jean-Baptiste, a point noted by three people with interest, he now addressed them by sitting forward at the table and looking at each person in turn. His face was soft but his message was unmistakable.

‘You don’t even need me to say this but perhaps it’s best to anyway. We all have to live together, don’t we, with as few rules as possible. Some of you still have tasks out there and you’ll be leaving and maybe coming back. Some have already given great service to freedom and deserve a rest. As Nikki said, we’d like to hear each of your stories in that one minute summary at brunch.

Right, who are Nikki and I and why are we addressing you instead of you addressing us? I wish I knew. The crew who brought us here told us that we were to do this.’

He gave a brief rundown of Nikki’s and his antecedents and most were impressed. ‘On the island,’ continued Hugh, ‘we ran a quite laissez-faire arrangement, largely along the lines of classic liberalism. Do as you wish but have a mind for both your own situation and that of others.

There are two areas though on which we cannot compromise I’m afraid – one is food and sustenance, the other is security. And now let me get to the nitty-gritty, people, and this is going to take some adjusting, for you to understand that we are deadly serious, with the emphasis on the word deadly. That’s why I made sure I mentioned our antecedents in this area.

To endanger either of those two things on this ship is a capital crime. As in snuffed out and thrown off the ship. I don’t use the term lightly, good people, but the rule is – kill first and ask questions later. As you all heard just now, both of us have killed naughty people before and will do it summarily now. We are in an end-time scenario and though we’re generally benign, we must ensure that you are all kept safe and well, no one endangering you.’

There’d been gasps but also nods of approval.

‘Perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, that’s one reason we were shanghaied into these roles, I don’t know. I think Nikki and I are reasonable people and approachable, we will get up in the middle of the night to attend to your concerns if you need. But on this double point – food and security – I must stress again – we are merciless, sorry to labour the point. Who’s going to be first to test this out?’

He put on his best steely gaze, which was not all that pleasant, truth be told. They accepted that maybe he could be a right bastard, he himself would kill, but Nikki – that cherubic, slender woman with a child? Nah.

He saw this and softened his voice. ‘Look, we must seem heartless monsters to you but we simply cannot afford certain things, for the protection of all of us – that is our job, this is what the two of us must do above all else – ensure your wellbeing. You see, we’ve been through all the humanitarian arguments many, many, many times, we’ve been through all the ‘let’s give someone second chances’ and I’m sorry, but it never ever works.

We are not playing God, don’t think that for one moment, but let me say it again – the safety of you, this group, is our prime directive and if we do not attend to it with steely resolve, then we are the ones court-martialled for that later, providing anyone’s still alive that is.’

There were rumblings from some people but these were swamped by eight choruses of approval, nine with the child. They’d escaped grisly fates themselves and were appreciative that here was someone who really would act, not pfaff about.

Roland called out, ‘Does that mean we can never leave this ship again?’

‘No, it doesn’t mean that at all, Mr. Mathers. We all hope to eventually leave this ship but we have to do it in an orderly fashion. If someone wishes to leave, the pros and cons need to be talked through and voted on ahead of time.

Military rules apply here. It may be that we can’t take the risk at that time, it may be that we can. People, we’re not playing games here – we’re speaking of life and death. We might have a traitor on board even now as we speak. We simply can’t take the risk.

I’d like now to bring in a question which throws all of this into sharp relief. Let’s imagine an innocent stumbles upon us from out there. You all know what you went through to get to us so imagine that this independent person manages to stumble upon us one morning. What do you think we should do?’

Cedric, the young chap with the glasses, offered, ‘Bring him onboard and get a message to his people that he is now stuck, like us, and can’t go anywhere.’

‘And won’t they send out a search party?’ asked Nikki, who’d rejoined them with Jean-Baptiste. ‘We bring them onboard as well?’

‘If we don’t, they send out a larger party in search of those ones.’

Pamela Gest, the mousy woman of about forty spoke. ‘We create natural dangers about a kilometre from here on all access routes. It might be quicksand or thorns or something which would injure but not kill. They would desist from trying to go further. But inside this, we have the real barrier, the lethal one – might be a gas or something else, as humane as we can make it.’

‘But that’s murder!’ remonstrated Mathers, into his 50s and yet still a bit wet around the ears, thought Hugh.

‘It would certainly be murder … of us … if he saw us, got away and told it.’

‘But this is pre-emptive vengeance. You’re killing him before he sees anything.’

‘What about this then?’ asked Hugh. ‘A series of barriers should prevent anyone getting in. If he does make it through by his own ingenuity, he’s shot with a dart which knocks him out. We remove the dart, of course. The toxin makes him very, very sick and should curb his desire to explore further. If he is very, very persistent and he sees us, we shoot him.’

‘No, no,’ said Mathers. ‘That’s murder, I’ve said that. It makes us no better than that lot out there.’

‘We can’t let him in, I’m afraid, we can’t let him go free,’ said Ralph Hutchings, quietly. ‘We must ensure he never gets close. To those more sensitive dispositions here – what distinguishes us from the enemy is that we are not malicious beasts, nevertheless we simply can’t afford certain things, as our leader here has said – this is a wartime situation we’re in. I know there are some amongst us here who vehemently disagree with that, politically, philosophically, but reality is a bastard, sorry, but there it is.’

Chloe asked, ‘What exactly is our current policy?’

‘The one just outlined,’ said Hugh. ‘The Faeroese are putting in these barriers even as we speak. We have those darts.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ said Smythe-Johnson, ‘and we’ve all seen the ship.’

‘Mr. Smythe-Johnson,’ said Hugh, ‘you’re on the manifest and provided for. Whether you’d talk is something the group would have to decide. For you to have got this far anyway, something must have happened to you in your life, something which put you in danger, which caused the rescuers to arrange for you to be picked up by this very dirigible. So you’re already one of us.’

No one liked it but equally, no one could see any other solution.

VIII

‘Well?’ asked Sophie as Sam came back and began playing with Little Nikki on the bunk, poking her tummy and getting squeals of delight in return.

‘As you predicted – she went all coy and said we should wait one more day, that she wasn’t sure.’

‘How far had it gone?’

‘I was almost there. Her name’s Letti Mayer, she’s from Schonebeck, near Magdeburg, 21 years old, left school at 15 and tramped around, did drugs, met the Captain a few years back in a bar, joined him in his work, liked the adventure but didn’t understand what she was letting herself in for.’

‘How many years back again?’

‘Four.’

‘Making him a paedophile.’

‘Hardly -’

‘Cradle snatcher.’

Sam sighed. ‘Then what does that make me?’

‘Also a paedo.’

‘I don’t understand you at times, Sophe. Do you want me doing this or not?’

‘You have your own mind, Samuel – why don’t you decide?’ She relented. ‘You didn’t get much, not that I thought you would so early. Trouble is, if she really didn’t want and it starts, it could backfire because you might fall for her. It’s been known to happen.’

‘And what would you do? Take Nikki and go and find Hugh?’

‘As you said, Sam,’ she ignored that one, ‘this Letti’s not straight. It may be that she’s just young, it may be something more. If we’re going to have any peace of mind on this ship, we need to sort her out. I also have my eye on one other potential enemy but I’d like to see if you pick up on it too, so I won’t comment at this moment. Sam, all right, yes, you have to try, but look at this first.’

She held out her hand.

‘Bug?’

‘I know the type. There doesn’t seem any organization around here who’d want to bug the cabins -’

‘But he might, for his own purposes and that makes him a former one of them.’

‘Or someone else on board is. Or else these bugs were already in and they don’t connect anywhere anymore, relics.’

‘Er … how long ago -’

‘Within thirty minutes of us first coming into this room. While you went off to wash. So, not relics at all.’

‘Therefore, assuming they’re live and you’ve removed all of them, they’re not getting this broadcast from us and they must also assume we’ve found them. What does that mean?’

‘A ship with devices in it is not straight, you’d agree? It’s a smuggling vessel, that may be true, it could use such things because you’d have to be sure that the people you’re smuggling aren’t going to turn you over.’

Chapter 3-16 hereChapter 3-18 here

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