Ship of Fools by Mjke Wood
Illustration by José Baetas.
“Warren,” says Angie, our beloved Starship Captain, “Luis is missing.”
It’s lunchtime and I’m in the mess hall. I look up at her, mouth full of meat substitute and mustard. I chew, slowly, letting her words sink in. Luis is missing.
“Missing?” I say, spraying her crisply laundered uniform with salivary meat products. “Missing what? Home? His Teddy?” I’m being sarcastic- deliberately obtuse. I know exactly what she means but I don’t want to face it. Not again.
“Missing, as in: not on the ship!” she yells. She’s all aggressive. Almost like this has something to do with me.
“What’s this got to do with me, Angie?”
“You were captain last time.”
And there we have it, folks. She’s dropping this bag of turds right in my lap.
Because I was boss the last time it happened.
You see, we rotate the captaincy. There are only twenty-one of us on Calypso, and forty years is a long voyage. People burn out. My turn was eleven years ago. And, of course, that was when Tasha disappeared. That’s what Angie means when she says ‘last time’ in that pointy-finger way of hers.”
“You’re captain this time,” I say. But Angie’s obviously been rehearsing this speech so she’s no way going to be cheated out of using it.
“You’ve had experience of this kind of thing, Warren,” she says. “When Tasha disappeared you were the man. What happened? It was a big deal at the time. Then it just kind of went quiet.”
“Just kind of went quiet, yeah. That about says it all,” I say. “It just went away. Tasha just went away. Did you ask after her? I don’t recall. We all forgot about her, didn’t we? Well, all except for Tobias. But then we’ve kind of stopped talking about Tobias, too, haven’t we?”
“Tobias is okay. He has his painting,” says Angie. She knows as well as I do that Tobias is a problem. He paints endless portraits of Tasha. Same canvas. Same recycled paint. Over and over. He heard Tasha’s voice once, late at night, calling him. He ran up and down the ship screaming. He went totally pumpkin-head on us. Not the first to go but certainly the most spectacular. He’s completely out of it, now. No one can talk to him. He dribbles a lot. And he paints.
“You must have done something, Warren!”
Ahh, hysteria now. An edge to her voice.
Well I did do something, bloody right I did. What the hell does Angie think? That I’d just ignore a thing like that? We had twenty-two crew members and suddenly, poof, on my watch, one of them’s gone. I mean, bloody hell, It’s not like we can just step outside for a smoke, is it? The airlocks are controlled by Dad. There’s sure as hell no place inside the ship to hide. And if one of us had topped her and turned her into stew, well, then the bio-recycling systems would have detected the increase in proteins straight away. And believe me, passive cannibalism was one of the scenarios I looked into.
The facts: it is impossible for anyone to leave Calypso. It is impossible to hide on Calypso. And yet Tasha was gone. It happened.
And now it had happened again.
Luis was missing.
“You’ve spoken to Dad?”
“Of course I’ve spoken to Dad... Dai.” She says, rolling her eyes. “He’s useless.”
This I can confirm. Dad, properly named Dai, is useless. Dai or Dad. Digital Artificial Intelligence or Digital Artificial Dickhead. He is our guardian– our minder. He looks after propulsion systems, guidance, bio-recycling, life-support. He talks to us and advises us. And he’s an idiot. We all wondered, when we woke up on Calypso: how come the ship has AI when nobody on Earth had ever mentioned AI? Artificial Intelligence, real AI, was always ten years away, waiting for new physics. And then we met Dai and realised this wasn’t real AI, it was untested AI, beta AI, AI that doesn’t bloody work. We started calling him DAD. He thinks it’s a term of endearment.
“So, what did he say?” I ask.
“Just Dad-speak: ‘The design parameters of the ship prohibit the opening of any outer hatch... blah, blah.’”
“Yeah, that figures. Believe me, I tried asking him when Tasha... you know.”
It felt wrong talking about it, even now. We’ve given up. We’ve shared the guilt but none of us know what we we’re supposed to be guilty of. And now we have to go through it all over again.
“Warren, I’m putting you in charge of the investigation.”
“What? Jesus, Tasha, that’s not...”
“You said it, Warren, I’m captain. It’s my call. I’m delegating.”
Again, folks. Crapped upon.
I’ve been amongst the crew, asking questions, using all my charm. Now I have no friends. They all think I’m a bastard. All except Tobias. Tobias just paints and dribbles. He’s oblivious to everyone and everything. I could accuse Tobias of two murders; he’d be none the wiser. We could lock him away and erase the collective burden of guilt from our minds. But Tobias didn’t do it – what ever ‘it’ was. He’s the only one on Calypso I can be sure of. And even if it was him, even if he boiled Tasha, then Luis down for... for what? For oil-paint? Well, Dad would know. It’s a closed system. He monitors protein levels. It would be easy to implicate Tobias in the Tasha thing because they were close – close like sausage and roll - too close. We’re not supposed to get up to anything, sex-like, in case of ‘accidents’. The bio-recycling is designed for twenty-two crew. They put bromide in our tea, metaphorically - it’s not really bromide and we don’t drink much tea. Angie reckons it’s an antiandrogen in the life-support. Whatever. But a crime of passion? Unlikely. There hasn’t been passion on this ship since we climbed out of our hibernation cots, and that was the ‘in-the-heat-of’ kind that usually accompanies knife-fights.
So Luis? As far as I can tell, Tobias doesn’t even know that Luis exists. There’s no connection, nothing.
I need to accuse somebody, though. Soon. Of something.
Here’s a thought: What if I manage to nail someone? What do we do? Do we lock them up? How? We’re all locked up anyway. Okay, so they wouldn’t get to see the rest of the ship, but then they’d get to skip all their chores – canteen, laundry, latrine... Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Maybe I should just stage a confession.
Here’s something to think about. Unlikely as this may seem I have found a connection. I don’t know what to make of it but it’s going in my report to the boss lady so she knows I haven’t just been sitting on my arse.
It’s to do with the air. Before Tasha disappeared she thought the air smelled funny. She went around sniffing. Getting on everyone’s nerves. ’What’s that funny smell?’ Nobody else could smell anything. Tasha said it made the food taste funny. Well, we all thought the food tasted funny but there’s a difference between ‘taste’s funny’ and ‘tastes like crap’.
So did Luis smell something? No. But he did have a thing about the air. He thought the air temperature was different. We reckoned he’d been sniffing too much dried plankton, but we checked with Dad anyway, and Dad confirmed the air temperature never varied. Luis kicked off, saying it was the temperature of the air coming out of the ventilators that was changing, and we all laughed at him and explained about the rudiments of thermostats.
It wasn’t the same issue. Tasha’s mania started just days before she went, while Luis had been banging on about his temperature thing for years. But there’s something in this. I’m going to think on it some more.
We were each trained for the mission separately. Trained is perhaps too grand a word, it was more like a half-hour orientation session in Milton Keynes. I was chosen for my skills as a farmer, which would be invaluable to a small community trying to carve out a life on a new world.
Then they injected me with some shit, put me in a box, and I woke up here on Calypso with the rest of them. We’d been snoozing through the galaxy for fifteen years. It was the first time any of us had met. We were compatible, we were told. We’d been ‘psychologically profiled’. Psychological, my arse. We fought, from day one, like starving dogs outside a sausage factory. But that’s another tale.
The thing that always struck me, though, was this: We had farmers, me; and we had steel-workers, but no mining engineers – so where would we get the ore to make steel? And even if we had steel - no tool makers.
Look at Angie. She’s a pharmacist. A useful skill for a colonist, yeah? But she’s always worked from little glass bottles of powder and liquid. When we get to our New World she’ll have dirt, and, if she’s lucky, a few weird bits of alien flora to work with.
We have an electrician, dribbling Tobias, but there are no power workers, so no electricity. I know some text book stuff about coils and generators. I suppose most of us do. But none of us could build a power station. We’d need copper wire. How do you make copper wire? We’d need electricity pylons – but could you build one? From rocks and sticks? It’s like we are a crew that was selected by local government committee. All the key elements are there but the support structure is missing. We are a ship of experts and a ship of misfits. We are a ship of fools.
Best of all is Sergei, our token Cosmonaut. His job, supposedly, was to navigate us to New World. Only it turns out the ship is controlled automatically. There are no controls – none at all. Not even light switches. We don’t have windows, so we can’t even see out and check we’re going in the right direction. Sergei was supposed to provide mental stability on our deep space voyage, yet he was the first to go loop-dee-loo. He urinates. On everything. All the time. You see, Cosmonauts and Russian engineers have a... ritual. A good luck tradition. They have to piss onto the space ship before lift off - or the launch pad, or anything else that’s mechanical or has rivets. I think it goes back to pre-Sputnik days. (I used to drive an old Volga when I was a student at Ag College in Hereford, so I’m guessing it explains the funny smell in damp weather.)
Anyway, the first nail for Sergei was being denied the opportunity to empty his bladder over the rocketry before we left. Then he finds out he’s redundant as a cosmonaut. It’s an insult to his manhood. He’s been misled. We’ve all been misled. So out go the lights of sanity.
None of us have been told the whole truth. The voyage, they said, would be long, but relativity and hibernation would keep us young. We should have arrived five years after we came out of hibernation. Five years became ten, then fifteen, then twenty. Why is it taking so long? Dad tells us we’re still ten years away. I’ll be forty-six and I’m one of the young ones. We won’t just be fools, we’ll be old fools.
Here’s what else we don’t know: We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s there. We don’t know what we’re supposed to do when we get there. Oh yeah, and we bloody-well don’t know what happened to Tasha and Luis.
Taj made a spacesuit. Said he was going out. He called me a dipshit, no offence, none taken, he has the right. Said I was doing nothing. Asked how many more we had to lose. He’s stressed.
Taj was a tailor by trade, so I’ll give him this – he looks real sharp in his spacesuit. Nice creases down the legs, double-breasted, pin-stripes. Materials were the problem, though. He didn’t have much to work with. Calypso comprises two modules, one at either end of a long cable that spins like a bolas around a central hub which is the propulsion system. One module is for crew and the other is for supplies for when we make planet-fall. We spin at one-gee. If we go out, which we can’t, we’d have to monkey-climb up a long wire to the hub, then we’d have to slide down the other wire to the supply module. There are no ladders. The door doesn’t open. Sounds like a dodgy deal to me. Taj wanted to go out and try; look around.
He has a theory. He thinks we’re already there. He thinks we’ve been there for fifteen years. He thinks Dad has forgotten what we’re supposed to do next.
Taj’s plan was always doomed. We tried to make him see reason but he wasn’t having any of it. So we dressed him up in his sharp, pin-striped spacesuit and we filled it with air. One of the arms popped off and flew around the cabin making raspberry noises. We all cheered. Taj cried. It’s a good thing he can’t open the door.
I know how to open the door. I’m not telling though. I’m certainly not going to try. When I open the door my way it’ll bloody-well stay open. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
But I think Taj is right. I think we’re already there. I think Luis thought so, too.
Happy Christmas! We had a party today.
Nobody’s talking about Luis anymore. We’re starting to forget. It’s only been three weeks. I’m not letting it go, though, not this time.
Angie’s given me Luis’ note book. Full of charts and tables - air temperature and stuff. I’ll look at it. After Christmas.
There is something about the air. Luis had this idea. The air coming in was at different temperatures at different times of the day. He graphed it. There was a 24 hour cycle. Why is there a 24 hour cycle, he asked? It bothered him, poor bugger. It’s obvious really, we work, we sleep, we hang out. We follow a 24 hour cycle same as we did on Earth. We create heat with our bodies. When we sleep we create less.
Was Luis wrong then? Maybe not so much. The air. Tasha sensed it, too. I don’t think they were wrong, just... I don’t know. And Taj? Could he be right? Have we been looping round New World for years? I wonder - did Luis and Tasha find a way to go out and look? I know how.
Captain Big Mouth sent for me today.
“You’ve done well,” she said. “But maybe you’ve gone as far as you can with this.”
She’s asking me to stop.
“I’m not stopping now.” I said.
“I’m not asking... I’m just...”
“Luis is forgotten, isn’t he?” I said. “Nobody cares any more. So now the whole reason you wanted me to investigate has gone away. You wanted me to take this on, not because you cared about Luis... or Tasha,” I said, “but to appease the others. You had to be seen to be doing something. And now you have been seen. Luis has slipped from the collective conscience, so now I should stop.
“Until next time, hey, Angie? Who’s it going to be next? But it won’t be on your watch, will it? So that’ll be fine then.”
You should have heard me. I was eloquent. I had her squirming – because I was right. But I didn’t say it to score points. I said it because I believe. Something is wrong. The others might not give a shit but I do. It’s the air. The air is the key. I’ve stared at Luis’ graphs for days but I can’t see it. I’m a farmer for Christ’s sake, not a statistician.
“Luis knew something,” I said. “Tasha knew something. Maybe Taj? Is Taj right, Angie? Are we there? Have we been going round our precious new world for sodding years? Well, if you think I’m walking away from this now, you’re off your bloody head.”
I was shouting.
“Remember who you’re speaking to,” she yelled back. “I am your commanding officer.”
“And I am your investigator,” I roared. I was right in her face, a centimetre from her nose. Spit was flying, both ways. It was great. It was drama. My heart was pumping, blood was racing. I thought about grabbing hold of her. Tearing her clothes off right there in the mess hall, and... well it’s been a while, and whatever it is they put in our tea or in the air or whatever, it soon kicked in. I went all eunuch once more. But for a minute there... Fwoar!
I’m thinking about that moment of passion, yesterday, and how quickly it went away. They don’t want passion. They don’t want babies. Not yet.
So what kind of reproductive condition do they think we’ll be in when we land on our new world? I’m thirty-six. I’m one of the younger crew members. According to Dad it’ll be ten years before we reach our new home. Angie will be the youngest female crew member. She’ll be forty-eight... ish. Okay, maybe after twenty-five perceived years on-board the good ship chastity we’ll feel like getting it on. It’s hard to even imagine right now but just suppose. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
Babies. Parenthood. Diapers and sleep deprivation. While we’re trying to build a new world with those yawning gaps in our collective skill-set? Come on, let’s get real. They never intended for the trip to take so long, did they? And why would they care? Relativity. They’ll be dead long before we get anywhere.
Unless we’re already there. Unless we’ve already been there a long time.
Every Calypso day is like a wet day at Wimbledon. It’s anticlimactic. It’s predictable. It’s dull. We all have our darker moments. We keep them. It’s all we have.
Today, though, I’m jolly. Today I have a lead – a breakthrough. I was thinking about Wimbledon, and wet days in June. I thought about ruined harvests and freak weather and seasons that never behaved.
And I had an epiphany.
It is the air.
Luis saw patterns. Every day the air got hotter then colder. Twenty-four hour cycles. And we all said he was stupid - we create twenty-four cycles.
But Luis wasn’t stupid, he just lacked vision. He was blind to the big picture.
I took his graphs, each separate week, and I joined them, one after the other. And there it was. Bloody obvious. Luis was right all along. So was Taj.
There are seasons.
Three-hundred-and-fifty-odd-day seasons, similar to Earth’s. There are fluctuations when it all goes to cock, of course there are. Just like home. Just like Wimbledon was whenever I bought a bloody ticket. But Luis had twelve years of data. You can smooth it. You can average it.
I know seasons. I was a farmer. I lived by seasons.
I told Angie. She said I was getting obsessive. Like Luis and Tasha.
“Calypso has an even temperature, day and night, week after week,” she said.
I agreed. “Of course it does,” I said. “But it has to be maintained, and in the summer the air coming in needs to be cooler to maintain it.”
“So, don’t you see? We’ve arrived! New World! We’ve been here for twelve fricking years!” I was shouting again. I dialed it back. “We’re far from home, Angie. If we had windows, and some shit-hot, Hubble-sized telescope, then we’d still be hard pressed to find even the Sun. So how come our life support is compensating for seasons?”
Fifteen years! Not twelve, fifteen! Fifteen wasted years! Shit!
I’d had another epiphany; bigger, more devastating. I went a bit, you know, random. I stormed around the ship. I shouted at everyone. I burst in on Tobias and kicked his easel out from under his paint brush. I slapped him and made him look at me.
“You loved her, didn’t you?” I said. “You both stopped drinking the tea or the soup or whatever. You loved her!”
He just stared at me.
I yelled. “You want to see her?”
I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him down the corridor. I started to see things. To see them. I called in at the galley for the meat skewer and tenderiser and I saw the pans hanging from the racks. The clues have always been there. Now they were obvious: The toilets; the bookshelves; and, most important, the pins in the door hinges. I knew. I said so: ‘I know how to get out’. But even then I didn’t see the truth. I didn’t connect.
Calypso is a Star-Trek class, way-ahead-of-its-fricking-time, inter-stellar ship.
And they used hinges from Homemaker Depot.
Cheap bloody hinges with pins that work fine in gravity. Like the toilets do. Like the pans hanging from hooks in the galley on the day we woke up.
I took the meat skewer and the tenderiser mallet and I started tapping out the hinge pins on the airlock door.
The crew went ape-shit. Pandemonium.
Angie started screaming. Everyone screaming. They tried to grab me, but Tobias, comatose and lucid all at the same time, fought them. He was scary. Ninja-scary. With teeth and fists and nails.
And the airlock door came off.
And everyone stopped.
Because it just... clattered. Like a big old tea-tray.
They braced, ready for explosive decompression, ready to get dragged out into hard, cold vacuum; ready to have their lungs sucked out through their ears.
But there was no vacuum. Just a guy in a white lab coat sitting at a desk eating a pie.
He looked up at us.
We looked out at him.
“Oh shit,” he said.
And we all knew him. We knew his voice. Even distorted by pie. It was Dad. Digital Artificial Dickhead.
There never was any hibernation. Or time dilation. We slept for five or six hours, max. The good ship Calypso never left the shed behind Aldi in Milton Keynes.
Tobias was reunited with Tasha. It was a shock for him, meeting his ten-year-old daughter for the first time. Yeah, that’s why they took Tasha off. She was pregnant. It was the hormones made her think the air smelled funny. They bribed her with a house and an income, and slapped a gag order on her for good measure. Didn’t stop her breaking in one night, though, and screaming bloody murder through the spaceship walls. That was the night Tobias heard her ghost. The night he flipped over the edge.
And Luis? Well, it was the air. He caught bird flu. It came in through the ducts while he was up behind the filters with his thermometer. He wrote endless letters to The Times after he got out, but they had him pegged as a nut.
What about Dad and his colleagues from the CCPE, the Close Confinement Psychology Experiment? Well, they’re doing a little confinement experiment of their own right now. Time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Time without dilation.
Then there’s Angie and me. We’re doing okay. It seems that little moment of passion back there was no fluke. So we’re thinking Milton Keynes is as good a place as any to build a brave new world.
Did you enjoy this story? If so, please consider helping me publish more like it by donating a dollar.