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Bardin woke up from his afternoon nap on the couch in his cabin, and was thoroughly disconcerted to hear no noise whatsoever. This was a state of affairs he had never known before. There was always noise on the galleon, even when they were at calm anchor. It was inevitable when you consider the amount of people and animals living in such a relatively confined space. He went out into the corridor and peered into the dining-room. The table was set up for the evening meal, but there was no one about. The headphones to the wireless set were lying on a chair, from where Brother Umbert had been fiddling with the machine earlier. In the galley a loaf of bread had been left to rise on a shelf, and there was a steaming kettle on the table. Again, there was no one about.
He went up the quarterdeck steps and onto the main deck. The same eerie isolation and quietness. The scene around them seemed to have changed too. They had been sitting at anchor in the large lake which sat sprawled before the entrance to the Fat Controller’s river. The lake and the surrounding rocky shore were still there, but the whole area was suffocating under a dismal grey/beige light, which seemed to blur the boundaries between sky, water and land, welding it into a colourless, featureless whole.
Bardin had known fear many times in his life, he had even known abject terror, but the feeling that gripped him now was something else entirely. It panicked his whole being. His worst nightmare had come true. He was completely alone. The others had all vanished. He sat down on the deck and put his head in his hands. Fear had gripped his heart, and it felt as though he would never be able to breathe again.
Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching across the deck.
“Captain?” said Toppy.
Bardin looked up, and Toppy was shocked by how white he looked.
“We were wondering where you were”, said Topy “Supper’s about to be served”.
Bardin tried to speak, but found he couldn’t. Toppy helped him gently to his feet. He assumed that Bardin had been taken ill, and would need helping below deck. Bardin accompanied him downstairs in a dream. The dining-room was now a riot of men’s voices and the clinking of cutlery against plates. It all seemed to be returning to Bardin as though from the other end of a tunnel, like waking up from a vivid and disturbing dream.
“There you are, old love”, said Adam “We were beginning to think you had fallen overboard!”
After dinner Bardin sat and talked with Bengo alone in their cabin.
“I know that if I tell the others they’ll say I was having a dream”, said Bardin “But it wasn’t a dream, it was too real for that”.
“And if you were dreaming why did you end up on deck?” said Bengo.
“Exactly!” said Bardin “You know me, I’ve never sleepwalked in my life!”
“I think we do have to tell the others though, Bardy”, said Bengo “In case it happens again”.
“They’ll all think I’m going mad”, said Bardin, miserably “What kind of a Captain am I …?”
Bengo sprang to his feet in exasperation and paced around the room.
“Oh Bardy”, he said “I do wish you’d stop getting so completely into your role as Captain. To us you’re Bardin”.
“Yeah, Bardin the weakliing!”
(Bengo had to resist saying that they all rather liked having Bardin The Weakling around occasionally, he made such a restful change from Bardin The Invincible).
“What kind of a Captain am I if you lot have to carry me?” Bardin exclaimed.
“But we all like carrying you!” said Bengo “We all know you’re Captain, Bardy, you don’t have to keep constantly reminding us. It’s just that you’re Bardin, you’re one of us, and we’ve never pretended to be like a normal ship anyway”.
“A normal ship?” Bardin laughed “Us?!”
“We are not a ship with Captain and crew”, said Bengo “We are a family, a gang. It’s just that you happen to be in charge that’s all … when Julian’s not stropping around as the eldest anyway”.
None of the others (not even Tamaz or Hoowie) accused Bardin of being mad or sleepwalking. They had all experienced far too many bizarre things during their life at sea to dismiss it out of hand. The only mildly unhelpful comment was Kieran’s remark that what Bardin had seen from up on deck reminded him of his own experiences in Hell. Unnervingly, a dense mist came down soon after this, which put the kibosh on travelling for a couple of days.
Unable to sleep, Bengo and Bardin talked deep into the night.
“I don’t think this mist is natural”, said Bardin “There’s something weird about it. If it hasn’t gone by the morning I’m going to put lamps all over the deck and we’ll travel at a slow crawl”.
“There’s no one else around anyway”, said Bengo, in a blasé fashion.
“Not as far as we can see”, said Bardin “But we still can’t take the risk that there might be”.
Their attempts to move the boat through the mist the next day came to nothing though. The fog had got so bad that it was by now impossible to see anything at all. Lighting the lamps around the edge of the deck had proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. They only served to confuse things even further, causing reflections in the mist like phantom heads.
Bardin had no choice but to concede defeat and call a halt. In despair he went below deck to his cabin and chucked his cap across the room. Hillyard had followed him into the room.
“It’ll be alright, Bard”, he said, with his customary nonchalance “We’ll just sit it out until the fog clears”.
“And what if it doesn’t?” said Bardin “We all seem to be agreed that this fog is unnatural, so what if it doesn’t clear?”
“Give it a couple of days”, said Hillyard “And if it hasn’t let up at all, we’ll give it another go. Someone can always go in the skiff and try and guide the boat. We’ll find a way”.
“Have a look at this”, said Ransey, coming into the room with the Governor’s scrapbook under his arm.
He presented it o Bardin open at a page which showed a photograph of a monstrously ugly woman, wearing far too much make-up, who was standing in a shop. With her arm outstretched she appeared to be ordering shopping, whilst a security guard stood to one side. The picture gave every appearance of having been taken clandestinely.
“So?” Bardin shrugged, handing the scrapbook back to Ransey.
“Well it looks like one of the Lebiccan government crowd helping herself to what she wants”, said Ransey.
Bardin looked rather exasperated at this, but not in the way that Ransey had expected.
“Ransey”, said Bardin, looking as though he was trying to control himself “When we get to civilisation we’ll have the luxury of worrying about corrupt politicians, but at the moment I’ve got a bloody fog-bank to worry about!”
Hillyard tactfully escorted Ransey from the room.
“It must be time of the month”, he said, when they reached the corridor.
“Very likely!” Ransey rasped.
“I feel as though something’s changed, Bengo”, said Bardin, sitting later that day in their cabin “I can feel it in the air, it’s really weird”.
Bengo felt like saying that perhaps Bardin had been listening to Kieran too much, but felt that this would be disloyal to Kieran.
“Well if things have changed”, he said, instead “That could be a good thing. Change doesn’t have to be bad you know”.
“But the island …” Bardin protested.
“We haven’t got a clue what happened there”, said Bengo “In fact we don’t know anything about anything until we get back to where people are”.
“Hey!” Rumble flung the door open “Come and have a look, the fog’s lifting!”
Bardin shot out of his chair and across the room before Bengo could fully grasp what was going on. When he did he ran after him shouting “Bardy, wait for me!”
He scrambled up the steps after him. Up on the main deck there was an extraordinary sight. The fog seemed to be being sucked backwards, as though there was someone around with a giant vacuum hose sucking it away from them. Several of the Indigo-ites stood and watched it in mute amazement. When it had cleared completely they were left with the lake as they had known it when they had first travelled this way all that time ago. The sun was out in full force, but because it was now well into Autumn, it was slightly chillier than it had been the first time round.
The fog bank had done some good, in that now it was gone none of them really gave a damn about seeing the Fat Controller again. As far as they were concerned the river they would next have to travel down could be stuffed with fat controllers, and they wouldn’t care. The important thing was to move onwards.
“Full steam ahead!” Bardin yelled “Let’s get moving, MOVING!”
He turned and cannoned into Hillyard’s comfortable bulk.
“I said get moving”, said Bardin, waspishly “That means go down and switch the engines back on!”
“Alright!” Hillyard shouted back “You’re far too excitable at the moment you are!”
When they found the Fat Controller, he was lying completely unconscious with drink in his wooden waterside cubby-hole. From the array of empty bottles around him it would be apparent that this state of affairs had been going on for quite some time.
“Right, let’s get out of here before he wakes up”, said Joby.
A cupboard door was swinging slightly open. Ransey looked inside and found shelves completely congested with strong liquor.
“Here Hillyard”, he grabbed three whisky bottles and shoved them into Hillyard’s arms.
“A bit unethical aint it?” said Hillyard, teasingly.
“So is his habit of accepting bribes!” said Ransey.
“I think we should stay until he wakes”, said Bardin.
Joby, Ransey and Hillyard looked at each other in disbelief.
“I knew it!” said Ransey “I said you were turning into Kieran!”
“He might be able to give us information”, said Bardin.
“In his state I doubt he can give us anything!” said Joby.
Ransey suddenly dragged the Fat Controller off the sofa by his heels, and the big man landed with a thump on the floor.
“What on earth are you doing?” said Adam, who had chosen this moment to walk in.
“Stay out of this Adam!” said Ransey, and he poured a nearby jug of cold water over the Fat Controller.
“Who … who are you?” the man blinked into consciousness.
“Your worst nightmare … returned”, said Ransey.
“Whatever you want, just take it”, said the man, clearly thinking they were robbers “I don’t care, I don’t want it, just take it”.
“We want information”, said Ransey “What has happened in Lebicca?”
“I remember you now”, said the Controller.
“That’s a bleedin’ miracle!” said Joby, looking at all the empty bottles arranged around the room.
“I dunno what you want to know about Lebicca for”, said the Controller “Go there if you want, and you’re welcome to it! It’s in total meltdown. Oh fuck, my head hurts!”
Adam decided that the Fat Controller would need to recover somewhat before they got any coherent information out of him, and he persuaded Ransey to return with him back to the galleon.
“Would you mind telling me what that little scene back there was all about”, said Adam, when they were alone in the galley “I expect the others to do rash, irresponsible things sometimes, but not you”.
“I hated him”, said Ransey “Right there and then, I hated him for everything that has happened lately”.
“Unfortunately we can’t blame him”, said Adam “He isn’t the Lebiccan government”.
“No but damnit he works for them!” said Ransey “It’s his sort that prop them up!”
“Ransey”, said Adam, calmly “In my experience, when looking for someone to blame, one should always go right to the top, to the source of the trouble. I don’t see the point in punishing the monkey because the organ-grinder is a bastard!”
“Hey Ranz”, Hoowie appeared in the doorway “Just heard what you did over there. That was fantastic. Why do I always miss the best of the entertainment?!”
Ransey got up, calmly moved Hoowie out of the way, and left the room.
“God I’ll never understand him”, said Hoowie “He should be really proud of himself, revel in it!”
“The sooner we’re away from here the better”, Adam sighed, getting the big teapot out.
That evening Kieran went over to see the Fat Controller, and spent a couple of hours sitting by his fire, listening to a long and (frankly, tedious) monologue about how he hadn’t been paid for several months, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he felt safer out here on the river than he would be in town, he would throw the whole thing up.
“I could stay here”, he said “I could manage by myself just fine. Just disconnect all the machines so that they could never get in touch with me again”.
“Why don’t you then?” said Kieran, who strongly suspected that there was nobody with the inclination left in Lebicca to go harassing him by wire anyway.
For the first time a look of hope crossed the Fat Controller’s rather grey face.
“Could I do that?” he said.
“I always think”, said Kieran “That when things go into total meltdown we must all try and get SOME pleasure out of it, and one thing is that the normal rules have all been thrown out of the window”.
“B-but what do I do if they do finally come out to see me?” said the Fat Controller.
“Do I have to think of everything?” Kieran exclaimed “Think for yourself for once, you never know you might find you actually enjoy it!”
He got up to leave.
“Where will you all be going next?” asked the Fat Controller.
“I think ultimately the Village of Stairs”, said Kieran.
“You might want to revise your plans”, said the Fat Controller “I’ve heard that some terrible disease has broken out there”.
“Not the Sweats?” said Kieran, thinking of the illness which had completely wiped out the entire population of The City on ‘The New Continent’. Had they unwittingly brought it back with them after all, in spite of their self-imposed quarantine precautions.
“I don’t know what it is”, said the Fat Controller “Just rumours of people getting severe headaches and being sick all the time. Sounds like the beginnings of the plague to me”.
“Oh fuck”, said Joby, when he heard about this conversation “That’ll give Kieran an excuse to go off on a mega guilt trip. I think I’ll blow my brains out!”
“Don’t do that, old love”, said Adam “We’d have to scoop them up again”.
“Not that it’ll take us long to find them”, Bengo giggled, who was making pastry nearby.
“Haven’t you finished doing that yet?” Joby barked.
“It’s extremely unlikely we carried any infection over with us from ’The New Continent’”, said Adam “Not after all that time. And anyway, we’ve been gone from ‘The Village Of Stairs’ for nearly 2 years. If we had been responsible I would have expected it to have taken hold long before now”.
“That won’t stop Kieran getting his knickers in a twist about it”, said Joby “Oh you’re gonna have to go and speak to him, Ad. I don’t think I’ve got the strength!”
“Very well”, Adam sighed.
He located Kieran on the main deck. The galleon had left the Fat Controller’s abode and was continuing slowly on its way back down the river. Kieran had (worryingly) been pacing about a bit, but he had been distracted by the sight of what appeared to be vultures in the far distance circling round and round in their own grimly purposeful way.
“I expect it’s the carcass of an animal somewhere”, said Adam “I hope you haven’t been thinking too much, Patsy”.
Kieran gave a bark of laughter.
“Only an Englishman would come out with a remark like that!” he said.
“Don’t be cheeky”, said Adam “We’re in a bit of a pickle downstairs. Joby’s threatening to blow his brains out if you go all guilty on him”.
“Well Joby’s not really going to shoot himself is he!” Kieran exclaimed.
“No”, said Adam “But you could end up making him very unhappy, and we have got more than enough to think about at the moment without you making the situation worse”.
“Why does everybody think I’m only going to make things worse all the time?!” said Kieran.
“I know you wouldn’t do it intentionally”, said Adam “But people with such fine, sensitive feelings as yours often make things difficult for us lesser mortals”.
Kieran opened his blue eyes wide in good-humoured astonishment.
“You’re pretty damn fine and sensitive yourself most of the time!” he said.
“And dear Joby has to put up with me all day as well”, said Adam “So let’s not make things extra hard for him shall we?”
Joby had had very little confidence that any kind of pep talk would shake Kieran out of a orgasm-inducing guilt-trip, but he was warily surprised. By the time they anchored that night close to the mouth of the river, Kieran had gone out of his way to impress Joby with his calmness and reasonable behaviour. Kieran nearly blew all his good work though by getting concerned about some distant animal noises after dark. The noises high-pitched shrieks.
“That could be just about anything”, said Joby, who was drowsily trying to read a battered paperback in bed. From the big cabin next door came the soft sounds of a melody being played on the gramophone. “Animals can often sound human. The cat can sound like a baby when he’s mewing sometimes”.
Kieran continued to be sceptical.
“Look just go to sleep!” said Joby.
Suddenly Ransey breezed into the room.
“All port-holes are to be shut tonight”, he announced.
“What for?” said Joby.
“Don’t argue”, said Ransey “Just do it”.
“Who’s rattled his cage?” said Joby, when Ransey had breezed out again.
Kieran sat up and pulled the port-hole shut.
Meanwhile, Ransey was continuing on his patrols. He dreaded going into Julian and Hoowie’s cabin, as you could expect to see just about anything in there. Ransey wasn’t really a prude (he wouldn’t be emotionally involved with Hillyard if he was), but he liked balance in all things. And Julian and Hoowie didn’t know the meaning of the word balance. They would be quite happy living slovenly in a tin-shed, Ransey often thought, as long as they still had each other’s bodies to play with.
Bracing himself he knocked smartly on the door and then strode into their cabin. He pulled the port-hole shut and then prepared to stride out again.
“Was there some point to that?” Julian shouted from the bunk.
“Just keep it shut tonight that’s all I ask”, said Ransey.
He left the room fully expecting a barrage of snorting to break out, and he had no intention of hanging around to listen to it. The next stop on his agenda was Bengo and Bardin’s cabin. Of course absolutely anything could be going on in here as well. Rampant sex, custard pie fights, all-in wrestling … but he still thought any of that would be easier to cope with than Julian and Hoowie.
In fact he found them genteely brewing up tea on their samovar.
“Hello Ransey”, said Bengo, standing there in his dressing-gown.
“Your port-hole’s already shut I see”, said Ransey.
“Yes, that animal noise was getting on our nerves”, said Bardin.
“Well keep it that way”, said Ransey “I can’t explain it, but there’s something about this area which is unsettling”.
“I know”, said Bardin “Don’t worry, come daybreak we’ll get on moving again”.
Although there were occasions when Ransey got exasperated with Bardin, he never regretted him being Captain, and at times like this he knew why. There was no sneering. Unlike Julian, who at times could be about as approachable as a tarantula, Bardin - in spite of his bursts of theatricality - was always approachable. The other clowns might not agree with that conclusion, but it worked for Ransey.
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