The amazing Science for Fiction is back for another year at Imperial College, London. Once again it is organised and curated by Dr. David Clements.
As usual the event will take place in the Physics Department of Imperial College, London. This year it on 3-4 July, starting on the afternoon of 3rd, then all day on the 4th.
As David says: “For those who don’t know, Science for Fiction is a chance for writers to meet, hear talks from and to discuss ideas with some of the UK’s leading scientists in all areas from maths and physics to biology and geology. Past talks have included quantum computing, epigenetics, cosmology and the Mars rovers
The cost will be £30, which also covers refreshments, and lunch on the 4th. As someone who has been before I can tell you this is an absolute bargain. It is also one of the highlights of my genre events year.
If you are interested, email Dr Clements at davecl (at) mac (dot) com.
All may not quite be revealed here but a significant amount is, including a good amount of skin. Goodness.
Chapter 69 – It’s Over
The explosion lifted Sea
Cucumber’s stern clear of the water. The ship smashed down, torrents of
shattered seawater flew high into the air, plunged down and gushed across the
deck. Up near the bows Foxy and Tim had just climbed from the hold. Knocked
from their feet, the water washed them across the deck and they fetched up bruisingly
hard against the base of the forward cargo crane.
High in the rear superstructure
Troy Jarglebaum and Markus Koponen raced down a companionway to the main deck.
Jarglebaum’s feet went out from under him, his elbow slammed against an edge
and he swore like the world was ending.
‘Sabotage,’ Koponen gasped. ‘Murder
What else could it be? Jarglebaum
hauled Koponen to his feet, wincing with the pain from his elbow. ‘Keep moving,
Koponen’s hat had gone, his
thinning blond hair smeared across his face by wind and sea. ‘Who did this?’ he
shouted and clutched the air. ‘Oil? Governments? Why? How? Nobody knew my
Sea Cucumber’s bows slowly came up, shedding tonnes of water. With
ponderous inevitability the stern sank back and she began to settle again. Clouds
covered the stars, the wind was rising, a heavy swell pounded the ship’s side
with steady, ominous booms. Behind them rolling waves broke across the aft
deck. Jarglebaum looked around with a hysterical calmness he knew was a prelude
‘The hell with this,’ Jarglebaum
bawled. ‘Where are the boats?’
Koponen clutched Jarglebaum’s
jacket. ‘We must save the ship. The seeds, my work–’
‘No way, José. You pay me to take
care of you, and that’s what I’m doing. We’re out of here.’
A huge burst of freezing spray
drenched them. Jarglebaum hauled Koponen round to face the stern. ‘Look at her.
She’s sinking, it’s too late.’
Koponen’s shoulders sagged. ‘Yes,
‘Where are the damned lifeboats?’
Koponen pointed up the canting
As they slipped and scrambled towards
the bow three figures emerged out of the dark.
‘Dolores!’ Koponen cried. ‘Thank
God, you’re all safe.’
‘Come with us. Now,’ Jarglebaum
Imelda blocked their way.
‘Get a move on!’ Head down
against the wind, Jarglebaum pushed forward.
Imelda stepped aside, grabbed his
arm and forced it behind his back.
‘Christ, what are you doing?’ Jarglebaum
was on tip toe, his slabby cheeks quivered with pain.
Wind driven spume burst across the deck. Electra’s platinum hair broke free of its bonds, lifted by the rising gale into a writhing, silver-white plume above her head. She pulled back her hand and gave Markus Koponen a stinging slap across his face.
Crouched behind the crane Foxy and Tim peered at the five
figures through the spray drenched night.
‘Can you see what they’re doing?’
‘They’re arguing, fighting.’
‘Hardly surprising, all things
Foxy pulled Tim down. ‘Keep out
‘We’ve got to get off the ship.’
‘Don’t worry, we will,’ Foxy said. She narrowed her eyes. Something about the fit of the women’s clothing bothered her badly.
Imelda pushed up under Jarglebaum’s elbow. ‘This is too
easy. I could lift your arm right out of its socket.’
‘Stop, I’m begging you,’
Jarglebaum gasped. ‘Have pity, I’m an old man.’
‘You’re pathetic.’ Imelda shoved
Jarglebaum back into Koponen and both men crashed down on the wet deck. Jarglebaum
cried out as he fell and clutched his elbow when he hit the deck but his eyes
were triumphant, sly.
Imelda hauled Koponen to his
feet. She too slapped him hard.
Koponen’s head rocked back. Blood
smeared his lower lip. He looked at Imelda with incomprehension, his voice a
broken whisper. ‘You did this. Why?’
Somewhere deep inside Dolores
felt unhappy. Koponen had been good to her; now he was going to die. She flung
her arms around him and kissed his cheek. ‘So long, baby. Nothing lasts
forever. We had some good times but now it’s over.’
‘Dolores.’ Koponen blinked in disbelief.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too, sweetie, but
there’s someone else.’
Koponen’s gesture took in the
sinking ship wallowing in the heaving sea. ‘That’s what this is all about? You
have a new boyfriend?’
‘It’s not what you think.’
‘Of course not. It never is.’
Jarglebaum lurched to his feet,
one arm hung by his side. ‘You’ve done what you came for. Let us get to the
Imelda smiled a wide, wide smile.
‘Sorry. This is where it ends.’
Jarglebaum hung his head,
exhausted, defeated. ‘I told you, Markus. I tried to warn you.’
Something had happened to
Dolores’ skin. Every time she moved she tore her costume. For some reason the
fit was all wrong. Now she had finally accepted she had finished with Koponen
she realised her relationship with her wardrobe would also have to change.
It hardly mattered. The heaving,
frigid water was enticing, almost sexual. What she was wore was now little more
than a collection of rags, an encumbrance. She shrugged free of her jacket, stepped
out of her skirt, and kicked off her shoes to stand proudly nude except for her
laddered stockings and suspender belt. Her spray-drenched skin glistened under
the faltering ship’s lights.
Red shoes, no knickers,
Jarglebaum thought wildly. It really is true.
‘My God,’ Koponen gasped. ‘What’s
happened to you?’
Dolores looked down. Although her stomach was a pleasingly flat slab of rippled muscle, the same was now also true of her chest. She considered her once magnificent bosom with a lack of concern that surprised even herself. The extra rows of teeth in her mouth and the wonderful sinuosity of her body more than compensated. The two men did look so very, very edible.
Foxy gripped Tim’s arm as Dolores stood revealed. ‘Shark-women!
Those men are in big trouble.’
Despite the dark and the breaking
waves Tim could tell there was something wrong with Dolores just from the strange
litheness in the way she moved. Her chest was deep, her flanks sleek with
unnaturally straight and waistless hips. She turned and under the faltering
neon of the ship’s lights Tim saw a saw-tooth row of triangular fins running
the length of her spine.
Foxy’s voice was hoarse with
shock. ‘Deep Magic, twisted and gone bad. Someone – something has done this to
them.’ She looked at Tim from eyes filled with anger and fear. ‘It can’t be… they
were supposed to have all died an age ago.’
‘Not human, not mer. Not people.’
‘Tuoni. That was the name Imelda
said down in the hold.’ Tim shuddered with the memory of her weird ecstatic
dance and words. ‘They want you to be his–’
She pressed her fingers against
his lips. ‘Don’t say it. Please. Right now we have to help those men.’
‘How? I can’t fight Imelda.’
‘If we don’t, they are going to
Tim thought fast, he needed
something unexpected, from the left-field. He’d met some strange and unusual
people in his time, Mrs Woosencraft, Asklepios. What would they do? It felt
like it came to him out of nowhere, a gift. Asklepios. He looked up at the crane
and the heavy cargo net hanging from the boom high overhead. ‘Do you know how
to work this thing?’
‘No. Do you?’
He clutched the diamond pendant
through his shirt. ‘Maybe.’
‘What does it take to sink this damned ship?’ Imelda scowled
as she retracted and extended the aerial of the remote detonator in her blood-soaked
Beneath her feet, the deck sloped
gently down towards the stern where a towering pillar of black smoke formed a
blot of solid darkness against the starry sky.
Electra leaned on the rail. ‘It
is sinking, you can feel it.’ Like Imelda, Electra appeared to be wearing elbow-length
blood-red gloves. Gloves that dripped onto the deck.
‘I thought it would be more
‘Never mind. The crew were fun.’
Dolores leaned on the rail and
looked out over the rolling grey-green Atlantic. ‘It’s those secondary pumps.’
‘Koponen’s so damned thorough, so
effective, so very clever with his fall-back positions and contingency plans. I
worry about what he might do next,’ Imelda grumbled.
‘Soon you won’t have to.’
‘What do you mean?’ Dolores came
off the rail. ‘We agreed we wouldn’t hurt him.’
‘And we won’t.’ Electra’s mouth
drew back in a cool feral smile. ‘He’s on board a ship sinking in the middle of
the Atlantic. He’ll have to take his chances like the rest of us.’
‘I want him punished,’ Imelda
said. ‘If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here.’
Electra stretched, a lithe,
liquid movement. ‘I like what happened. I want to be what we shall soon
‘I liked being the woman I once
Dolores studied her fingernails
and scratched experimentally at her arm. She brushed her leg with the back of
her hand and ripped her stocking open with her knuckles.
‘It’s happening,’ she said
breathlessly. ‘It’s already started. I laddered my own stocking. We’re over
water and it’s happening. I’m going first.’
Imelda looked at the dark,
heaving sea. ‘I’m not ready. I need more time…’
‘We changed once when we were
growing up, now we’re changing again.’ Dolores rolled her shoulders. ‘It
itches, all down my spine.’ She bent and flexed and her bolero jacket split
open down the back, cut by a row of bone-white triangular ridges running down
Nervous, Electra rubbed her own
arm. Moving her hand from wrist to elbow it felt as smooth as ever. In the
other direction it rasped like sandpaper.
She had known this was coming,
the first of Tuoni’s gifts, but now it actually was happening her heart was in
her throat and her mouth was too dry to swallow. People called her cold but she
knew how to feel, she had emotions. She just had something they didn’t,
Even before college the three of
them had sought adventure, looking for lost mysteries, new discoveries and
shared thrills in the wide, wild world. Now, right here, right now, was the
start of something far beyond their dreams. Beyond imagination. Beyond sanity.
The entity that believed itself
to be Tuoni had found them dying. In pillaging their memories it had found a
semblance of identity. In saving them it remade them to share that world. Lust
and terror bound them to him, a kind of madness that let them revel in what
they could do, and weep at what they would become.
Imelda and Dolores’ eyes were
bright as the conflicting thrills of anticipation and fear surged through them.
They held each other’s hands tight. To make this journey alone was too awful to
contemplate. Together they would survive.
Dolores laughed in alarm as her
elbow split her sleeve. Imelda ran her tongue over newly-aching gums and felt a
second row of teeth. She wanted to bite and chew and taste blood. She too
laughed wildly though her eyes sought Electra’s for comfort.
Can this really be happening,
Electra thought as she felt the changes in her own body, the new flexibility of
her spine, the three slits opening under each ear. Could this ever happen to a
human being? Would she still be–? She cried out at the loss of what she was
leaving behind. Then a colder, steadier state of mind rose up, and her fear
The deck canted under their feet
as Sea Cucumber sank lower in the
water. Tuoni rose up like a new tide within them.
‘Kipu-Tytto. She doesn’t know how
lucky she is,’ Electra said.
They all knew what she meant. Birthing
Tuoni’s spawn was a transcendent agony they all craved.
Dolores looked down at the sea
with longing. ‘She’s under the water already. I want to swim.’
Imelda keyed in a short sequence of numbers on the detonator and flipped open the guard on the large, red button. ‘Koponen said you should always have a contingency plan. Here’s mine’ She pressed the button.
We all have our ways of doing things. When I’m plotting out
a novel or a longer story I always start with pen and paper. I like to use my
favourite fountain pen, and quartered sheets of A4. I do something similar with a short story
too, though I’ll probably just write down a few key things that anchor it. I’ll
always use pen and paper.
There’s something about the process that works well for me,
though I don’t know why. All I can say is there’s a connection between mind and
eye and hand so they feel like three parts of one thing. Pen and paper stimulates
and focusses my imagination and lets the ideas flow – though not in any order.
I’ll brainstorm everything in a few sessions, one plot point, or scene, or
character, or piece of dialogue per piece of paper. I’ve found this much more useful than using a
notebook because later on I can arrange and re-arrange the bits of paper into
groups and piles – a structure starts to emerge.
At some point I’ll read through the stack of notes and off
I’ll go again with more ideas, more bits of paper, and at least one recharge of
the pen with fresh ink.
Last summer we were on what turned out to be a brilliant,
happy, productive and relaxing two weeks in Cornwall. We’d hired a 1-bed beach
cottage and our days became ones of early morning writing, beach walks and ice-cream,
writing, pasties for lunch or supper, sea-swims, and conversations in the
evening over a bottle of wine.
Someone had left a book in the cottage: Between
the Lines, Ba (Hons) Drawing, 2018, Falmouth University. It was fascinating
to see pictures of the students’ work and read the comments each of them had
written about their art and inspiration, and the connections some of them found
between the paper and the pencil or brush in their hand with the concepts in
There were some suggested exercises in the back of the book.
One of them was titled Automatic Writing
is Drawing Too. The instructions
were simple: ‘Start Writing. Don’t think about the words until you’ve filled every
bit of empty space.’
It was a good exercise but the concept startled me. Writing
is drawing? I pushed against the idea
then realised they were right. Drawing is a way to communicate and express
ideas on paper, and what is writing if not that? Writing with pen and paper
really is a kind of drawing. It was
obvious, I’d just never thought about it that way.
It made me wonder if that productive link between mind and
hand and pen is really because when I do it I’m not writing or drawing, I’m
Author’s Note: Sometimes you have an idea so wild and perfect it makes you laugh out loud. The one I had while writing The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms is in this week’s chapter. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe spot that idea that still makes me smile.
Chapter 67 – Breathe
Imelda knew her knots. She had tied Tim and Foxy securely
but not so tight blood could not circulate. She wanted their attention focused on
each other’s suffering, not their own.
Tim strained against Foxy. The ropes
dug into his wrists, burning his skin as he twisted his hands struggling to touch
her backside. His damaged shoulder burned with jagged inner fire.
‘Wait,’ Foxy gasped, ‘you’re not
getting down far enough. We need to loosen the ropes.’
Tim leaned his weight against the
rope running through the eyelets and held steady while Foxy twisted and writhed
behind him. Despite being ankle deep in freezing water in the hold of a sinking
ship Tim was amazed to find an erotic element to the situation.
My God, he thought. Is everything
women say is wrong about men actually true?
Then Foxy slipped, her full
weight went against him and the pain in his shoulder became his universe.
Foxy’s voice came from a long way
away. ‘Tim? Tim?’
Someone was making wounded animal
noises through clenched teeth. Tim realised it was him and stopped. The pain
receded by moments. ‘Oh Gods, that hurt.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Foxy gasped,
Somehow she had been holding him
up. The water was up to their knees.
‘Forget it. Let’s try again.’ He
reached down, yelped and immediately stopped. There was no point trying if he
was going to pass out. He twisted round to use his left arm. Foxy pushed up. They
stretched, they arched their backs. Tim’s fingertip slid past her waistband.
‘There, can you feel it. My
Tim touched the pocket’s top seam.
‘Try and get my comb.’
‘Good idea. Saw through the
Freezing sea water surged around
their thighs. Deep in the ship the pumps kept up their steady beat. Tim slid
two fingers into Foxy’s pocket. The seam was tight, he couldn’t push down any
further. He moved his fingers from side to side, his fingertips touched the
comb and it slipped away from him.
Foxy strained upwards. ‘This
could almost be fun. In different circumstances.’
‘Don’t make me laugh.’
They tried again as chill salt
water surged around their waists. Tim hands were submerged, getting cold,
growing stiff. He growled through gritted teeth. ‘Come on you bastard fat
He touched the top of the comb again.
His attention narrowed to his fingertips, the texture of the sodden fabric of
Foxy’s skirt, the spot on his finger where the seam rubbed his skin raw. The
water softened the fabric, loosening the weave a fraction. Water that was now chest
‘Push up now. Hard as you can.’
When Foxy moved he let his knees
His fingers slipped into the
pocket. First and second fingers brushed the comb.
‘Got it,’ Tim said, then lost it
again. He shifted his shoulders, fought the surging fire-burn agony there, and
actually had the comb pinched between his fingertips. Then he blacked out.
It was only for a fraction of a
second but it was enough. The water was over his chest now, almost at is
shoulders. Not long now. He knew had perhaps one more effort in him.
‘Again, Tim,’ Foxy said calmly.
‘In a bit.’
‘I can’t do it, Foxy. I need to
let the water numb my shoulder.’ He doubted it would be enough. He could barely
feel his fingers as it was.
The water touched his chin. He
tipped his head back and it went into his ears, the corners of his eyes. His
shoulder was a cold dead lump. He blinked and gasped, sucking in lungs-full of
air, hyperventilating for that long last breath.
Water brimmed around his mouth.
‘Now,’ Tim spluttered.
There was desperate urgency in
her voice. ‘Tim, I never said–’
He sank underwater and reached
down as hard and as far as he could. All the sweet hells how much it hurt.
Black grinding iron agony, pain that had a shape and form, a thing that had an
existence of itself. He let it have the part of his body it wanted. Tendrils of
pain spread out and he pushed back, pushed himself right out of his own body.
For a moment he hung in the dark water and watched himself drown.
His fingers slid into Foxy’s
pocket. He pinched the comb between his fingers and lifted it free.
Everything was black. He tried to
surface but the surface was far over his head. Dark and cold. An irresistible
urge grew in his chest, soon he would have to breathe. There was not enough
time to cut the ropes.
He felt Foxy’s fingers against
his. She tugged gently on the comb and he let go. Too late. They had tried,
together. At least they had tried. Perhaps she…
Everything was black.
Behind him Foxy stroked the comb
across the knots binding their wrists. At its touch they unravelled.
She ducked down and freed their
feet. She pulled away the rope around their waists. She put her arm around Tim
and lifted him to the surface.
He choked and coughed, then took
one solid glorious breath after the other.
Foxy held her comb triumphantly aloft.
‘My comb, my mermaid’s comb. It untangles my hair when the salt and surf have
been at it. These ropes were no contest.’
Rope that were now nothing but
loosely spreading fibres.
All Tim could do was nod and
breathe and tread water. Around them the stacks of seed drums ponderously
toppled into the rising water.
Foxy took his hand. ‘Come on, Ace. Let’s get the hell out of here.’
Koponen was being violently sick, the acid stench of his vomit nauseating over the bitter reek of blood in the radio room. Jarglebaum had been a cop all his life. He’d seen things, bad things. He didn’t like what he was seeing now but he could cope. Nevertheless, there was a claw of fear in his gut, gripping, twisting.
The radio was wrecked. It didn’t
take a detective to work out it had been wrecked by the radio operator or that
he’d had an accomplice. That was because the radio had been destroyed by systematically
pounding the operator’s face against it.
When he was young Jarglebaum had
taken firearms training with the Sussex Constabulary. For three years he’d been
on call, attended armed robberies, sieges, and gang fights all without firing a
single shot. Then he’d got the promotion he’d been angling for all along and
never touched a gun again. There was no glamour, no cachet attached to weapons
in Jarglebaum’s mind. They were tools. The furthest he’d go was to admit there
was a kind of beauty to their uncompromising design. Like anybody who knew guns
he had an intense respect for them. Guns were good for one thing and one thing
How he wished he had one now.
Jarglebaum put his hand on
Koponen’s heaving shoulder. ‘Come away, Markus. There’s nothing we can do
He helped Koponen down a sloping
corridor. The dip to stern had increased even in the few minutes it had taken
them to reach the radio room.
Sea Cucumber began to roll in the swell as she lost way. As they
passed the crew’s mess the door swung open. It was dark inside, the open door
felt like a gaping maw.
Just through the door Jarglebaum
saw a single overturned chair. He knew what he should do: he should step inside
that dark and ominously silent room and take a look. He didn’t want to. He
could smell that sickly metallic blood-reek again. He knew what he would see.
Jarglebaum’s knees were shaking, he could taste bile in his mouth. He told himself he had seen enough, that there was nothing he could do. It was more important to get Koponen safely away.
I’m very pleased to be taking part in one of the Virtual Futures events again this year. This time it’s about life in a future where autonomous agents are here, there, and everywhere. I’ll be joining eight other writers reading our new stories speculating about what future might be like.
The evening will be great, please join us if you can. I am sure you will be entertained, stimulated, possibly even provoked. You will also be in friendly and relaxed company.
As for a future populated by autonomous software and hardware, who can say if it will be better, worse, or just different? Of course one excellent way to be prepared is to listen to some excellent stories.
A happy new year to you all! Readers and writers, whoever we are we all need to look after ourselves, and each other too. Right now I’m looking forwards to cracking on with the preparation for the print version of ‘Girl’, and also looking forwards to several short stories appearing in F&SF, Stupefying Stories, and Eibonvale Press later in the year. What is equally exciting is that my SF novel, ‘Shopocalypse’, is being re-issued in a new edition at the Eastercon convention in April at London Heathrow. If you like talking cars, shopping, mad presidents, and/or nuclear war, this book is for you. Plenty for me to look forwards to, and I hope the same is true for you. Meanwhile…
Chapter 65 – Bottom
Slowly and by inches Sea Cucumber’s bows rose from the water. Down in the hold, tied back to back, Foxy and Tim felt the deck jump beneath their feet. Their ears ached at the sudden change of pressure. Somehow they managed to stay standing.
‘They’re using explosives,’ Tim said.
‘Look at the cargo,’ Foxy said.
Along with the list to stern the detonations had shifted the seed drums. One stack tipped against another, in turn pressing against a third.
Tim considered the weight of the drums and the prospect of trying to avoid them once they started rolling. ‘This doesn’t look good.’
‘We’ll be all right if the ship settles as she is.’
‘I wish I could see you, Foxy.’
Their fingers pressed together again.
Tim shook his head again, his ears still didn’t feel right and there was something wrong with his eyes too. Down towards the stern a slow wave of blackness crept towards them across the floor. The explosion hadn’t been that close, the shock wave must have affected him. He’d heard of people killed like that, with not a mark on them. He must have concussion. Inside his skull his brain was bleeding, slowly deafening him, blinding him.
The blackness moved steadily towards their feet. It carried a briny smell and Tim realised there was nothing wrong with his head. One form of fear replaced the other.
The lights went out and they both gave a wordless cry. The lights flared briefly then died. The darkness was total, the air damp cold and salty.
Tim’s feet were wet.
Deep in the ship a new vibration began, a near sub-sonic rumble that steadily rose in pitch and volume to a strong, steady throb.
‘Standby generators,’ Foxy said. ‘Emergency pumps. Someone’s turned them on or they’ve tripped in automatically.’
Dim red lights began to glow along the sides of the hold. Five inches of icy water sloshed round their ankles.
‘Koponen knew what he was doing when he refitted this old girl.’ Foxy’s voice filled with respect. ‘You can feel her fighting back.’
‘Do you think the pumps will be enough?’
‘Honestly? I don’t know.’
Tim thought about that for a bit. To his own surprise he felt very calm. ‘If I knew was going to die on a sinking ship I’d have liked to be a bit better prepared. I’d wear a tuxedo and have a glass of brandy, maybe have a last dance while the band played on– OK, that sounds a bit unfair to the band so it had better be a jukebox. Either way I’d want to look good when the end came. Have a shave and comb my hair–’
Foxy gasped. ‘Yes! Oh, Tim Wassiter, you clever, clever man.’
‘I know how we can get out of here.’
‘Yes. We’ll only have one chance, so listen very carefully and do exactly what I say.’
How busy have I been today? Well, two cups of tea have gone cold. Two, I tell you! Putting everything I’ve learned about typesetting has been fascinating — and very absorbing. Here is this weeks chapter of ‘the Girl from a Thousand Fathoms’. It’s time for everyone to wake up and smell the… Just what is that burning smell?
I hope you enjoy this chapter, and my best wishes to you all for a peaceful and happy Christmas holiday.
Chapter 64 – Sober Up
Koponen burst back into the mess. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘Here we go again,’ Jarglebaum muttered under his breath.
‘Didn’t you feel it?’
‘I’m calling the bridge.’
‘You know best.’
Koponen pressed button after button. ‘It’s not working. I can’t get through.’
‘Let me try.’ Mellow from three large scotches Jarglebaum swayed over and studied the control panel. It looked simple enough, a series of domed white buttons set under a grill, each one labelled ‘Bridge’, ‘Galley’, and so on. Below the buttons was a dial labelled ‘Volume’, beside the dial a small electric bulb and a toggle switch labelled ‘On’ and ‘Off’. Managing to turn his laugh into a grunting cough, Troy flicked the switch up and the bulb glowed green.
‘Now try,’ Jarglebaum said.
Koponen pressed the button marked ‘Bridge’. ‘This is Markus Koponen. Is everything all right? Over.’ Koponen waited a moment. ‘Come in, bridge. Respond, please. This is Koponen.’ Turning to Jarglebaum he gestured helplessly. ‘Nothing.’
Jarglebaum reached over and pressed the Bridge button again. He cranked the volume over to Max. ‘Hello? Anyone at home? Pirates on the starboard bow. Wake up, guys.’
The speaker wasn’t silent. Not quite. Over the faint electric hiss was a sound like a flag snapping in a strong breeze. Below that, faintly, a distressing low sound like wind moaning, or –
Jarglebaum’s whisky-driven ebullience died in his chest. All at once he felt very, very sober. ‘We need to get up there. Now.’
Then they both felt it. The ship had slowed. She was still under way but speed was falling off.
‘Come on.’ Jarglebaum opened the door then lurched back. ‘Jesus Christ.’
The ship trailed a vast plume of roiling black smoke. Above them the bridge was furiously ablaze.
Koponen pushed past and stared up at the flames. He sagged against the bulkhead. ‘Jumalauta! This can’t be happening. Not to me, not now.’
The ship staggered like something had struck it and slowed even more.
Koponen rallied himself. ‘Come on. We have to help.’
‘It’s an inferno, we can’t do anything. Where’s the radio room?’
Overhead a window shattered. Jarglebaum pushed Koponen against a bulkhead and shielded their faces with his jacket.
‘My girls.’ Koponen stared, wild-eyed. ‘Where are my girls?’
Jarglebaum shook Koponen by his collar. ‘Where’s the God-damned radio?’
Koponen’s eyes came back into focus. ‘Up a level, beyond the canteen.’ He started away. ‘We must save the seeds.’
Jarglebaum hauled on his arm. ‘We’re sticking together. That means you’re coming with me.’
I’ve been working hard this week, learning about book design: margins, fonts, layout, gutters, and more.
Meanwhile on-board the Sea Cucumber…
Chapter 63 – Sanity
Foxy clutched Tim’s hand as Electra led them along the open-sided companionway away from the ship’s mess.
Below them a rolling night-dark sea ran to the horizon, above them a cloud-strewn starry sky. The ship drove steadily across the ocean through salt-tanged air.
Foxy slid her fingers along the rail. ‘I like this ship, this Sea Cucumber. She’s sailed the oceans for many years, through storms and high seas, across glassy calms, over shallows and reefs. She’s seen such sights.’ She squeezed Tim’s hand. ‘And she’s always brought her crew home.’
Tim simply did not know what to make of her.
Electra descended a steep companionway to the main deck. Tim stood uneasily at the top. ‘Our cabins are up here.’
‘We thought you two young lovers would like to spend the night together, so we changed your room,’ Electra said.
Dolores hugged herself. ‘That’s so sweet.’
‘Does Koponen know about this?’ Tim said.
‘He’s going to have a few surprises tonight,’ Imelda hissed in his ear. Tim recoiled from the fishy reek of her breath.
‘Get them down here,’ Electra ordered. ‘Push them or throw them, but get them down.’
‘What’s it going to be, guys? It’s much easier to walk without broken legs.’ Imelda turned to Dolores. ‘Are you going to help this time, or do you just want to watch?’
‘Please go down the stairs,’ Dolores said to Foxy.
Foxy started down.
Tim clenched his fist impotently. Electra was below, Imelda behind, both nightmarishly strong and violent. To get away he would have to hurt one of them more than he’d ever hurt anyone before.
And then what? A mad flight around the ship in the desperate hope he’d reach Koponen before the others caught him. And how would that look? He’d be better off with Jarglebaum, at least he had some inkling of the trouble they were in.
Electra hauled open a heavy metal hatch set in the deck. ‘Welcome to the bridal suite.’ Metal steps led down into a dark and cavernous space.
She led them through the gloomy hold towards the bows. A single row of bare, low-wattage bulbs cast pools of dim light. One each side stacks of enormous blue plastic drums ran the length of the hold. The group stopped beside a container set on its own. A coil of marine rope lay neatly on the lid.
Electra studied the label on the drum and smiled at Dolores. ‘Koponen really likes you. The old fool.’
‘A fool and a loser,’ Imelda agreed.
‘He’s been kind to me,’ Dolores said.
Tim studied the label:
Brassica napus (Canola) var. doloresvogler
Recyclable container (100% Cellulose)
Imelda’s hand lightly circled Dolores’ throat. ‘You are still with us on this, aren’t you, darling?’
Dolores’ eyes glittered. ‘We’re sisters, brides, daughters, wives. I know sacrifices must be made.’
Imelda began to squeeze. ‘You are completely sure?’
‘Yes,’ Dolores gasped.
‘Prove it. Make a sacrifice.’
Dismay consumed Tim. He’d had a chance on the stairs and hesitated. Always he’d hesitated, concerned for Foxy or for some other reason. The time for killing was here. These women would not hesitate. It was always later than you think.
He took a small step back into the gloom.
Foxy shook her head a fraction and mouthed, ‘No.’
Tendons stood out on Imelda’s arm as she throttled Dolores.
Dolores lifted her arms above her head.
Her little finger jutted back at an unpleasantly high angle.
Imelda released her grip on Dolores. She licked her lips. ‘Do it again.’
Pale and wide-eyed, Dolores took hold of her next finger.
This was actually insane. Tim slid another step deeper into the shadows.
Imelda studied Dolores’ hand. ‘Nice one. I never thought you had it in you.’
‘My pleasure,’ Dolores gasped. ‘It really was.’
‘Isn’t that nice, we’re all friends again,’ Electra said. ‘Let’s move on. We have a schedule.’
Tim took a long sideways step behind a stack of drums. Out of sight of the women, he cast around for some sort of weapon, a piece of wood, a crowbar, anything to fight with.
Dolores breathed against his ear. ‘I do necks too.’
He turned as fast as he could. Dolores swayed back out of reach. This would have to be fast, brutal. Tim rushed her in the narrow space. Not one punch, a dozen, a hundred. Feet stamping, kicking.
He caught her one solid blow on her cheek. She rocked back and there was just enough time for him to feel the satisfaction of the contact, register the surprise in her eyes, and feel a moment of hope. Then Dolores flowed, moving impossibly fast. Before he could react she took hold of his arm. In one motion she lifted, twisted, and dislocated his shoulder.
The pain was astonishing, a blinding white flare. For a moment he could neither see nor think. Then – a world of agony and worse, the feel of his own shoulder bent into an unnatural shape.
‘Quite a rush, isn’t it?’ Dolores pushed him lurching back into the light. ‘Got him.’
‘Little Timmy got lost in the dark.’ Electra pouted. ‘Did you bump into something nasty?’
Tim forced himself to stand straight, his arm frozen and useless at his side. His voice slurred with pain and shock. ‘Yes, Dolores.’
‘Great repartee, but don’t give up the day job.’ Electra gasped in mock surprise, ‘No, wait, this is your day job. How’s that going for you?’
Imelda held a coil of rope in her hand. ‘Stand by the drum. Put your hands behind your back.’
He couldn’t do it. His arm would barely move, when he tried the pain was atrocious.
Imelda hissed with irritation, grabbed his wrist, jammed her other hand under his armpit and pulled. His arm slid back into its socket with an unpleasant wet snap and more pain. Lots of pain.
Tim zoned out again, dimly aware of someone holding him upright. When he came to, he and Foxy were tied back to back at waist and ankle with their wrists behind them.
Imelda ran a second rope behind the knots at their waists, threaded it through one of the eyes on the drum and tied it off on the far side and well beyond their reach.
Hands on hips, she considered her work.
Dolores sighed as she ran a nail along Tim’s jaw. ‘You really are quite cute. Never mind, there are plenty more like you.’
‘Goodbye forever, little Timmy. It really has been quite ordinary,’ Electra said.
Tim’s blood ran cold. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Sink the ship, stupid.’
His head was muzzy from pain, he did his best to think. ‘You work for Koponen.’
Electra’s face became a blank mask of hostility. ‘Not for some time. Not since that voyage he made us take down into the depths. Not since his obsessions almost got us killed. We would have died, our lovely lives smashed and ripped.’ Her eyes grew wild, spittle flecked her mouth. ‘Down there we met someone much stronger than Markus Koponen. Older too, wiser and stronger. He showed us things. Tuoni showed us how to remake ourselves. Tuoni told us our true names–’
‘You’re dry-shod yet you spoke his name,’ Dolores cried.
‘We’re over water.’ Electra flung her arms high, her body strained against the crimson silk of her dress, the tendons in her neck rigid. ‘We are the sisters and she is the wife-sacrifice. Tuoni will accept our ship-gift and he will take his bride. We are his handmaidens and shall sit beside him in glory!’
Wide-eyed, Tim and Foxy shifted uncomfortably in their bonds. If there was anything worse than being tied up in the gloomy hold of a soon to be sinking ship with little hope of escape, it was being tied up in the gloomy hold of a soon to be sinking ship while listening to the ravings of a violent lunatic.
There had been times when Tim had doubted his own sanity. Confronted by Electra, all he could think of was to try and keep her talking. ‘For God’s sake, why are you doing this? Why does the ship have to sink?’
‘You really are a little fool. Koponen wants to cool the world. We want the opposite. Tuoni was bathed by cold currents for ten thousand years. Now the water is warming and he awakes. This ship will never reach harbour. These seeds will never put down roots, their horrid white flowers will never bloom.’
‘Let Foxy go. Give her a chance, give her baby a chance.’
The hold fell silent. Behind him, Tim felt Foxy stiffen.
‘What baby?’ Foxy said coolly.
The three women began to laugh.
Dolores held out her hand and studied her distorted fingers as if she were inspecting her nails. ‘She doesn’t have anything to worry about. How long do you think you can hold your breath?’
Despite having their ankles tied together, Foxy managed to kick Tim.
‘I’m not pregnant.’
‘Foxy, I saw–’
‘I’m not. Just leave it, OK?’
Thrusting her hips, wrists twisting, Imelda danced in front of Foxy, her voice a nasty sing-song. ‘When Tuoni wakes he will reach for his consort. A bride to stay by his side in his drowned kingdom. You will become Kipu-Tytto birth mother of Tuonetar, destined to be Tuoni’s daughter-wife.’
‘You’re all mad,’ Tim croaked.
‘What if we are?’ Electra said. ‘Soon you’ll be dead.’
Imelda stopped her weird dance. ‘We’ll come back for you, darling. We’ll find you down in the deep and the dark when the silt has settled and Wassiter’s lungs are full of salt water.’
She leaned in to kiss Foxy, who twisted her face away. Imelda gripped Foxy’s jaw and pressed her lips against Foxy’s. She jerked back with a cry half way between laughter and pain. Foxy spat onto the deck and glared, triumphant. Imelda wiped her mouth, looked at the blood on the back of her hand, then back at Foxy. ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘You’ll drown too,’ Tim said.’
Electra shook her head. ‘Only if we stop moving.’ She turned to Dolores. ‘Sort your fingers out. It’s time to say hello to the crew.’
The three women moved back the way they had come, appeared briefly under one of the overhead lights then vanished into the dark.
‘They’re heading for the engine room,’ Tim said dully.
Foxy gave no reply.
Away towards the stern came a short, sharp crack, and a gasp, followed by a louder crack and a shrill cry.
Electra’s voice echoed through the hold. ‘Did that hurt? Tell me, Dolores. Tell me.’
Silence fell. Tim shifted uncomfortably, his shoulder ached abominably. ‘Are you OK?’
He tried again. ‘We could try and sit down.’
‘It might be more comfortable.’
‘I said I am fine.’
Tim gave a despondent sigh. His shoulder really hurt. ‘I’d like to sit down.’
That close to the waterline there was less roll and pitch than on deck. The steady, rumbling throb of the marine diesels overlain by occasional creaks, distant metallic bangs and vague thuds formed a strange rhythm. Slowly the gloomy hold seemed to expand in size, reaching out in all directions to become an infinite place. Somewhere in the middle two people had been tied together, roped to a huge blue drum of seeds under a shallow pool of light.
Tim chewed on his lip. ‘I thought you were.’
‘Well, I’m not.’
‘I saw your tummy and thought–’
‘You thought. Well, I thought it wasn’t polite to mention a lady’s waistline. And while we’re on the subject, where did you think I had the opportunity to get… you know. Thing.’
Tim felt pretty stupid. ‘I thought you had a boyfriend.’
‘What? One of those fat creeps with their short little arms? I came to Brighton to get away from them.’
‘It’s just that you were getting bigger and–’
Foxy jerked at their bonds. ‘Stop it. I’m not, all right? I’m not pregnant. It’s just that time of year.’
Even though they were tied back to back, Tim could still feel her angry eyes and Foxy hear his unspoken question.
‘Look, I’m gravid,’ Foxy said.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘What do you mean “What’s that supposed to mean?”’
‘What I mean by “What’s that supposed to mean” is I know what gravid means, I just wondered what you meant when you said that’s what you were.’
‘It means I’m, you know.’ Foxy’s voice dropped to a self-conscious whisper. ‘Heavy with egg.’
‘But I’m not pregnant.’
‘I just could be if I wanted.’
Tim took a breath. ‘Foxy?’
She went still again. Tim felt her fingertips find his and press against them. ‘How’s your arm?’
‘I’m sorry too.’
‘Foxy. All that stuff about Tuoni, they’re mad aren’t they?’
‘I hope so.’
When it came they nearly missed it. A dull thud, a faltering in the ship’s motion, a hesitation in the sound of the diesels. Then the big engines continued, their vibration a little more insistent, a little more urgent.
Slowly Sea Cucumber lost way. They felt it in the way the ship began to wallow. No long after they also felt a tilt in the deck, slight but growing. Sea Cucumber began to settle towards the stern.
‘They’ve killed the ship,’ Tim said.
‘She’s tough. I know her, she’ll make a fight of it,’ Foxy said.
Tim felt for her fingers and squeezed them. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be all right.’