Republished from my original blog with some slight corrections. This is a serial, (in terms of this blog) and an unfinished book that I need to return to, but this is one of my more difficult works. I hoping that republishing it will inspire me to finish it, and make it ready for a book.
Anyway, here it is.
Chapter 4 – Change of Scene
She is real. She is real. She is real.
How can this be? What has been happening to me?
Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me….
I come to and Hicks is sitting on the edge of the bunk with a glass of water in his hand. In deference to my condition he offers it to me first.
‘We think you’ve been contacted. What happened?’ I look at him numbly for a moment and take a sip.
‘You’re a bit of a bastard, Hicks, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about.’
‘Girl in the mirror.’ I throw the water over him.
I’m not sure why I did that. I’m angry enough to want to punch him. He takes a hankie out of his pocket and wipes his face. ‘She’s having an influence already I see. You need to resist that.’
‘So, are you going to tell me what is going on?’
‘Briefing in an hour.’ He moves to rise, but I grab him, he merely looks down at my hand, but I don’t let go.
‘Now, Hicks.’ I can kill him three different ways from here, all of them crude, but my curiosity gets the better of me. ‘You’re a liar Hicks!’ I’m shouting suddenly, ‘You told me, you told me…’ I pause. What has he told me, nothing, only that I have to be on board. He reaches casually down and pinches my hand, and involuntarily I let go. I sag on to the bunk.
‘I told you nothing. I told you nothing because I cannot lie.’ I look at him blankly.
‘What are you talking about Hicks? You’re a psychologist, you could be the best liar in the world.’ I rub my hand which gradually starts to come back to life. I realize that Hicks was never out of control. He could have killed me three different ways, or thirty.
‘Because I could be the best liar in the world, I cannot. Life is too complicated and I can’t keep track of lies. In any event, lies make me less trustworthy. I need you to trust me. Make a choice. You either trust me, and obey; or your life ended in that Hong Kong fall. Think about it. You have less than an hour. Meet me on the bridge.’
I shower, hot and good. It’s hard to think, it seems like a conspiracy. I’m confused again, I thought I’d got on track, but now I’m confused again.
A rating comes to take me to the bridge ten minutes before the appointed time, and it takes exactly that long to get there. Behind the complicated control room there is a meeting room, much simpler with a large wooden table. Sat around it are the Captain, Lieutenant Sweet, Charles and Hicks. Hewey and Dewy are there too, standing to a rough attention on the inside of the door.
Charles and Hicks have folders open in front of them. I sit. Hicks commences.
‘The, uh, other side, has no-one like you, but they have a problem. A political problem, and a humanitarian problem. You’re going to solve it for us.’
I wait. Nothing further is forthcoming, I’m being pressured to speak. I speak.
‘I’m only qualified to help in one way.’ I say, ‘and there are caveats. I don’t leave the innocent without any means of support.’
‘We noticed,’ says Hicks. ‘That’s why you have been chosen, by both sides.’
‘So it’s real.’
‘Yes it’s real.’
‘And I’m not going mad.’
‘You might me. No guarantees.’ He turns a page and pulls out a sheet. There is a hesitation, a brief glance around, and then he pushes the sheet to glide across to me. ‘That’s your target.’
I study the picture. It’s not a photograph, but a fine drawing, finer than any I have seen before, giving an almost photo-realistic effect; it’s of an old man, he looks like King Arthur, a doublet, hose, a codpiece for goodness sake.
‘The past. Not ours.’ I look sharply at him. Sweet speaks.
‘The girl is, as far as we can tell his descendant, but he lived almost five hundred years ago. You have to kill him.’
‘Then she will die, never have existed.’
‘No, she exists, she will exist, with another to replace him.’
‘That isn’t possible.’
‘You will see, Jessop, that what is possible is beyond your ken,’ she says curtly. ‘You must do this thing. Since you will be beyond our control you must do it willingly.’
‘Not totally beyond.’ Says Hicks. She looks at him. The Captain rises and moves to a filing cabinet. He coughs apologetically.
‘You’ve been ordered to go with him, Sweet.’ She looks shocked, I guess she was not expecting it. I get a little warm glow inside. ‘He’s not fully stable.’ Thanks. ‘And Charles and Hicks think someone should be with him. That’s you.’ So saying he pulls out a file with all the markings of secrecy on it, and flops it down in front of her. I can just see as she opens it that it is a single sheet of paper with a letter, or I assume, orders, on it. Her face is like thunder now, but she pulls in her obvious irritation.
‘A little time to prepare wouldn’t have gone amiss, Sir.’ The Captain sits down again.
‘I realize that. We’ll forward on a communique to the relevant people about your continued absence.’
‘Don’t tell them I’m dead, Sir, or I will have to take steps on my return.’ He holds up a placating hand.
‘I’m aware of your history, Sweet. I can assure that it will be handled,’ He glances over at Charles and Hicks, ‘sensitively.’
‘Yes, Sir. If you’ll excuse me then, I am aware of the mission, but I have some personal preparation to do.’ The Captain nods, and she comes to attention and salutes him, which he casually returns.
‘What about me,’ I say.
‘You have no family, in fact you are not officially alive.’
‘And you want me to kill this fellow.’
‘Then how do I get there?’ Hicks nods at the Captain.
‘Come with me.’
We descend in to the bowels of the ship again after the Captain gives some orders in the control room. The way is long, and I realize that we have had to work around another large space in the ship. We come to a door, guarded by more of the sailors with their sense of humor surgically removed, and the Captain shows them a pass, as do Charles and Hicks. They do not challenge me in any way.
The door that they are guarding is at least thirty feet high, I wonder how they can even have room for it in the ship, and then in the gloom I note that is suspended in mid-air with hydraulic beams to support it. They are not moving at all at the moment. It’s at this point that I notice the ships movement seems damped, we’re not moving along with the waves, or even up and down as much. It feels very strange, and I get a sense of being out of reality again. Charles puts his hand on my arm.
‘It’s a special ship, think of it as a giant tug.’
I look at this gigantic door, it is reinforced for stiffness in every way, there are triangular constructs over every inch of its surface. When the guards operate the opening mechanism, the door does not open, but the hydraulics pull it away from the other side of what I will soon learn is a cube, and pull it smoothly up while a crossing gantry extends from our side. I hadn’t even realized that there was a gap.
When the door starts to rise, I see that the floor is shone to a mirror shine and light pours out. It does not take long for me to realize that the floor is a mirror, as the walls and ceiling. The whole thing is a giant cube of mirrors. We see ourselves reflected again and again we stand there.
The guards require us to step into soft soled outer shoes as we go to cross the gantry, and we walk within.
I can honestly say that I have never been more disoriented in my life, and that includes falling to my death, practically.
After a while I get tired of the sensation of falling that I get, and actually look around. There are some holes in the mirrors. Hicks sees me looking.
‘Well done. They are for alignment.’ He nods to the outside, and a little mechanism starts whirring, the holes are filled with glass, which disappears. ‘Don’t ask me how they make it work, that’s for boffins who know about light.’ I walk over, I can’t see a join or distortion. It is this too that makes me realize that there is no distortion in the mirrors. I can see reflections of myself from where I am. Strangely I don’t see her.
Lieutenant Sweet appears in the doorway. She has a large case with her, on wheels, which have been absolutely silent on the floor.
‘I’m ready Sir.’
‘We’re not.’ The Captain gestures and one of the guards come forward. ‘The infirmary.’ Hicks looks surprised. ‘I don’t care what you say Hicks,’ he says, ‘this man is getting immunized.’
‘I might remind you, Captain,’ he puts some emphasis on the word, ‘that I am in charge of this mission.’
‘That might be, I’m sorry, that is so, you are, but this is my ship, and on my ship we do not send men into battle without the proper equipment.’ Hicks holds his hands up in submission. ‘He’ll be quite well immune once he gets there.’ The guard has been watching, and Hicks carefully does not catch his eye.
‘Your ship, Captain.’ The guard gestures and we start to walk away. I hear behind me..
‘You can report me for insubordination, Sir, if you so wish.’
‘No, Captain, I would be more worried about you if you didn’t care…’
The immunizations take some time, the old Doctor is a southern gentleman and I wonder how he came to be serving in the British Navy. He talks nearly all the time about how medicine has advanced, but that the old skills are lost. It’s a familiar refrain.
We in the mirror room once more. Sweet has opened her bag. I see that there are winter clothes, serious winter clothes, within, some for me and some for her. She strips her dress uniform off without being the least little bit self-conscious. I look and then look away.
‘Look now, if you’re going to look, because it might be your last, or worse, you might have to rely on knowing me.’ That wakes me up from my sudden shyness, which is in the event an unfamiliar action on my part. I look.
She is frankly very attractive in that trim sort of way that graphic novels fantasize about, there isn’t the least trace of fat about her and the swell of her breasts seems just too large for her waist and even her hips. Her neck is classically long and as she turns about once I catch a glimpse of a rose tattoo on her shoulder. ‘Remember the tat. We think they don’t have that.’
‘Have you been there before?’
‘No, but have had some preliminary, well, contact.’ She dresses, thick woolen tights, blue, old fashioned dress over a layer of under-dress. Then a jumper that comes almost down to her knees, and a modern Arctic winter coat with three layers, and gloves, and goggles, darkened. My clothes are similar, except the dress, I have thick double knitted hose and a tunic with layers underneath and similar Arctic gear. I notice that she puts a flask into her coat, and I find one and do the same. ‘It’s not a drink.’ She says. ‘Get undressed.’ I look at the Captain and Hicks, they nod. Hicks clears his throat.
‘We’ll, er, leave you to it then.’ He says. ‘Good luck.’ He shakes her by the hand before she is indecently undressed again, and so does the Captain. They reach out to me, and I accept Hicks hand slowly, then the Captains’ hand too.
‘Hicks, ‘I call as the gantry starts to pull back. ‘Tell Charles I said, e4-e5, check.’ He nods, and the door starts coming down.
It’s forty-five minutes later.
‘You’re just not getting this are you? If you don’t dress in less than three minutes, you’re going to die, of hypothermia. End of story. Do it again.’ She’s looking pretty cross, and no amount of nudity can distract from this. Beside, I’m used to her now, and she to me. She was a bit horrified by my network of scars, at first.
‘OK, ok,’ I say, and finally, ten minutes later I satisfy her. I can dress from naked in under three minutes.
I have stayed looking at non-reflecting things as much as I can.
We’re standing in the middle of the room, I realize for the first time that Sweet is wearing a wig, and has no hair anywhere, she notices, ‘It’s a side effect of the immunization.’ We’re close together and the case, fully packed now is just behind us. I see the little post open and light glinting from each, but I can’t see a beam, so it must a be a laser. The room rocks a little, and it’s quite a start to hear the Captains voice coming over a speak from one of the holes.
‘We’re at station keeping.’ I get a sensation of movement, then it stops, and I realize that the ship must now be moving around us. I give in and look properly in the mirrors at this woman and I reflected into infinity, every flaw in me picked a million, billion times as a I stand there naked and cold. Unexpectedly I feel her hand slip into mine, and I find myself surprised to be returning the squeeze.
‘They said you don’t like to touch, it’s in your profile, but I’m betting you’re scared, or going to be.’ She says, I go to loosen my grip, ‘So am I.’ I tighten it again, and as if this is some signal the mirrors suddenly start reflecting another reality, the laser light sparkles in lines as it catches some dust or smoke or mist, and I see us shift about, I sway, but Sweet stays upright and hangs on to me, pulling me into position. I see the girl, and even though I’m expecting it now it’s a shock. She is holding a notice saying ‘STAND BY’ in five-foot-high lettering.
We experience a moment of acceleration, very slight, but then we are in the middle, as far as I can make out, of the cube.
The worlds collide and part again as the room struggles to align with the world reflected in the mirrors, the lasers spark and shine as they burn the air, and the room moves. There’s a wind, and more light, and I realize for the first time that there has never been light in here, so where has it come from? The lasers burn and burn now in each corner of the room and I see the room wave about, the mirrors moves trying to align the red light with another green light. They seem to cancel each other out as we hang suspended in mid-air, and there is a moment, no not a moment, a microsecond when the lights all align and the holes are filled perfectly.
I cannot move or breathe and yet this is not alarming, it is a moment in time where I live, remembering everything about my life everything. The world turns white, and it is cold, cold cold cold cold cold…
…and we are thrust into snow, fine white powdery snow, I feel it, it is real and as far away from the room of mirrors as we could get suddenly. I am gasping with cold and Sweet is urging me to get dressed, but I still see the room of mirrors, and I know she does too. The girl is there shouting something, but I cannot hear her above the wind and the roaring of the sea and something else. The girls try to tug me, get me to act, and then there is the explosion, the sound of glass shattering, a sound like the end of the world and Sweet reaches out for me as the girl grabs my arm and the noise is intense, unbearable, loud so loud and I see the missile just before it explodes and then we are thrust forward again, and I feel hardness under my knees, and it is colder than I have ever known.
We dress quickly.
It’s cold beyond words, I can feel my extremities turning blue as we dress, and I find thick gloves in the trunk. The girl is with us, and she is turning blue also, but she seems to be doing so slowly, and is much more active than Sweet and I even after we have gotten dressed. She is running around the room opening doors and cupboards, and after a short search she calls out, her breath puffing and crystallizing in the freezing air.
‘Here, come and get these on.’ I look up and I happen to be looking out of a window, which almost kills me, because the shock of it is so great that I just stand there, freezing to death. Sweet pulls me away,
‘Not now Jessop, you’ll die.’ And she clamps her hand over her mouth to stop herself coughing. The girl is already clambering into the back of a, of a, well, space suit. It looks a lot like an old Russian model, with a single door in the back and room to move, but there are a few differences. One is that there is a script on the suit that I don’t recognize at all, and the other is that there is a big red button on the front with an arrow pointing to it, which the girl hits, and then comes towards me grabbing another suit and shoving it at me.
‘Get this on you fool,’ She says, ‘Time for amazement later, you’re dying.’ And it’s true, I am. Sweet has shed the dress again and climbed inside a suit and sealed it and she is also coming towards me with the intention of getting me in one. I’m not averse to the idea and I let them shove me in, seal me up and slap the button.
The suit immediately warms up.
I return to amazement. I review the events in my head, I seem to recall a snowfield, a damp; not this place, and then we were thrown, I remember seeing a missile, but it couldn’t have been right? Or we would be dead.
We were very nearly dead anyway.
The suit warms up my toes and fingers slowly. I turn to see at last what I thought I saw, but did not believe. Sweet and the girl are already looking.
It is a large window, in panels, I can see the glass is thick, inches thick. Outside two contrasting scenes, one the night of the sky, stars twinkling at the edge; the other is the bright curve of the planet below us, covered in white, covered in snow.
There is a crackle on the radio.
‘Hello? Is this working? Can you hear me?’ One of the other spacesuits is pointing to its ear, fat gloved hand moving awkwardly. I nod, then, realizing the futility of this, I draw my hand out of the sleeve and start to fit the suit to me, there are buckles and straps that fit it to my shoulders and waist so that I don’t rattle around in it. There is a smell of leather inside, and I begin to observe the immediate environment.
The suit is outfitted like as if some mad Victorian inventor has been let loose in it. There are flexible hoses, brass switches, incongruously covered in a fine film of plastic where meant to be tongued or nudged with the face, but plenty of room to remove my feet and hands. The arms and legs fill with air bags when I insert them and when I withdraw the air bags collapse. There doesn’t seem to be an air tank, and I worry about this, then I realize that this is also futile, because if the suit were not working I would be dead already.
There are tiny brass labels, and I see that they are in English. This seems odd to me as well, but I do not have time to ponder it because the girl has come over and touched her helmet on mine. I can just hear her yelling at me and asking if my radio works. I look for the controls and find a little needle meter and a switch which just switches the system on. I test it and hear the last of her yelling as she realizes that I have got it to work.
‘I’m Ellie.’ She says by way of introduction. ‘I thought I was going mad seeing you all the time in the mirror.’
‘But we’re not.’
There is a pause. I consider my situation. I’m in a spacesuit in an orbital satellite, looking at a planet which is more or less, apart from a band around the a equator, covered in snow and ice. It occurs to me that I’m not floating.
‘I’m not floating, and we’re not spinning.’
‘It’s later than you think.’
I don’t know what that means, and I’m not sure what I’m doing here at all. I’m mad, my mind has snapped, and she is a figment of my imagination.
But how far back does that go? This suit is heavy, really heavy, that seems real.
Sweet is a new person, she could be in my head.
But Ellie, I have lived with her for months in the mirror. Here, she seems real.
I’m unsteady on my feet again. I have to sit, to think.
I can’t think.
It’s not real.
‘It’s real, or we’re sharing a dream.’ I look up. ‘It’s real, because this is not my place either.’
‘Is it not?’
‘No, it’s hard to explain.’
‘I bet.’ She reaches up and pats me on the shoulder awkwardly, there is a little kick from that part of the suit.
‘What has Sweet got to do with it?’
‘I don’t know; you’d have to ask her. I’m not even sure who she is, I was just expecting you.’
We turn and walk towards Sweet’s spacesuit which has not moved in ten minutes or so, realizing that we have not heard from her. We raise the sun shield and look in as best we can, her lips are moving slowly and she is blue, very blue. Ellie catches on before I do.
‘Shit the heating unit has failed. She’s been cooling down all this time.’ She lumbers off to the rack where another suit hangs, it is the last one. Dragging it off the stand she lays it down and un-dogs the door. ‘We have to take a chance now. Get out.’ We undo our doors, and cold hits, worse than jumping in icy water, but we need to be mobile to get Sweet out of her suit. My hands turn immediately icy and my breath steams so that it is hard to see. I notice Ellie keeping her mouth tight shut, turning her lips in to protect them, and I do the same. It’s already too cold to move really, and I have trouble knocking the catches open, I dare not grip them. Each breath feels like ice in my lungs. Everything is going dark and I see Ellie gesturing as she carries Sweet from one suit to the other and I get back into my suit and lock the door. I want to breathe deeply, but some instinct keeps me from doing this until the air warms a little. By the time I recover, I see that Ellie is climbing back into her suit. She is not the least bit blue.
The suit decides that I need some medical treatment and I feel a needle in my buttocks as it injects something into me. I can’t avoid it and I don’t try. Whatever it is acts to restore me, because I feel like I can breathe properly again at last. Ellie is looking at me.
‘You passed out there for a while,’ she says, ‘you’re a lot more delicate than I thought.’ I just look. ‘You’re going to need some help. But first, we have to get out of here.’
She is obviously an expert at this place, because she starts to waddle around and check things which I have no idea about, circuit board, computer systems, tanks, other things that are obscure, including at one point, a soft toy which she examines minutely before replacing it with crocodile clips into a computer system. The bear seems to wink at me as it goes in the cupboard, I’m no longer prepared to dismiss this as an illusion, but I can’t deal with it, so I ignore it.
After a while, she seems prepared to switch things on.
Lights come on, it’s a wonderland. I’m scared to touch anything.
She hasn’t talked much, and I have not wanted to interrupt her, but now, I feel it is time to know some things.
‘What is this place?’
‘Oh, I suppose, your briefing wasn’t very good was it?’
‘I’ve spent the last six months, I think, on a tug.’
‘Well in that case, welcome on board Her Imperial Majesties Orbiting Void Ship, The Hesperus.’
It is some hours later.
Ellie and I have removed our suits at last, and Ellie spent some time checking the operation of them. She showed me at one point what looked like a burnt out valve, this was what caused Sweet’s suit to fail. Sweet in the meantime has been stripped and put in the medical unit, which seems to consists of a tank and breathing apparatus. We have to rouse her before she goes in, so that she does not panic. It’s not easy. Her fingers and toes look very damaged, terminally so, but Ellie assures me that the machine will repair all things.
While she busies herself with Sweets’ recovery, I look around the space station, pardon me, void ship.
It’s like a space station in every respect that I expected, doors that seal with manual releases, computers, comfy chairs at work-stations, exercise machinery. There is an air reclamation plant that looks more modern than anything I have ever seen, but flushing toilets, which lead via brass pipes into a garden hung out of one side of the station with a huge dome overhead, and lights which I soon discover are dispensing a healthy dose of UV to plants which, well we’ll just say they are overgrown and leave it at that.
The rest of the station is mad with brass and wood; it looks like the inside of a steam age machine. There are little handles which turn to activate functions which are not always clear. The keyboards for the computer are complex affairs with bars at the top and sides tracing the position of smoothly running but mechanical pointers. I see the screens regularly turn into mush as some function is worked out, sometimes with little square remaining in corners where things that need constantly displaying reside, and once I see Ellie dip her finger into the screen and move something from somewhere to somewhere. I reach and poke at a screen.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ I pause and look over. ‘I’m a programmer by trade, ‘she says, ‘I know how to hack the machine.’ I put my hand behind my back.
I spend some time looking out the window again. I have been very introspective for the last few months, but this is not a good trait in my profession, well, one of my professions. I realize something for the first time, that all the emotional energy that I would otherwise put into life, and that would interfere with my killing. I don’t feel like that belongs to me anymore. I’m not sure who I am any more.
I was someone who killed for a living, professionally. I have been employed by corporations and governments, small and large. I kill cleanly and quickly, leaving no trace of my presence and existence, until now. I have made sure that the widows and orphans of those I kill are well provided for, and I don’t kill anyone powerless. I do not regard myself as a common murderer. That is for street people.
I write romantic novels of such passion and depth that I am called on to write more every month. I use a front-woman to sign for me, she, I am famous. And we are famously recluse. I tell my neighbors that I am an author and they leave me alone, most of the time. I have a barbecue in summer, and a foursome for bridge, when I am at home. I live in a modest house, because I have no need for anything more.
Ellie is listening to my history. She nods sagely as we are sitting and eating, she has found supplies, all dried food and vacuum packed, she says it is years old, but it will be ok. She has done remarkable things with it.
I have many questions, so many, but my first is simple.
‘Where are we?’