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Getting on the presidential ship "Killarney", bound for Port West, was a lengthy and laborious affair. Kieran found that one of the perils of being President was that nothing could ever be done simply. He had to be greeted ceremoniously, shown the wheelhouse and introduced to all senior members of the crew. In the meantime everyone else, with the exception of Adam and Joby, had gone below to sort out cabin space and luggage.
"I don't know why it has to take this long just to say 'welcome aboard'", said Joby, who was feeling hot and uncomfortable in his best suit.
"It is our duty as consorts old love to stand at the rear of Patsy when he's performing", said Adam, a smile puckering about his lips.
"Can't you say anything without it being a double entendre?" Joby snapped "I'll be glad to get these clothes off".
"I'll be happy to help you take them off", said Adam.
"You're at it again!"
"Oh don't nag me Jobe, think how monotonous consort duties would be if you didn't have me here to liven them up for you".
"He gives me a hard time you know", said Joby "If we're laughing while he's working. He thinks we're laughing at him".
"Silly old Patsy", said Adam "I have a good feeling about this trip. Or perhaps I'm just relieved to be away from the Headquarters".
"No, it's just you letching at Julian in his leather yachting cap".
"Oh I know, isn't it ridiculous! I've told him it makes him look like a debauched old pansy, but he won't listen. Thinks all the firm-buttocked young stewards will go mad for him in it. If they've got any sense they'll make sure there's a strong lock on their doors".
"Do you love him?" said Joby, suddenly.
"What a strange question to ask in the cold light of day. Yes, but different to how I feel about you, or Patsy, or Lonts. I suppose I'm just comfortable with him, a bit like how Patsy is with you. I don't go 'yahooey!' when I see his body, but he's comfortable to be with".
"And that's how Kieran sees me is it?"
"There's a lot to be said for it Joby".
Joby wasn't convinced.
"Cheer up", said Adam, nudging him "I'll pop in later and restore your sexual self-esteem if you wish".
"Haven't you got enough on your plate in that department?"
"But I can always make room for you".
"So you're sleeping in here are you?" said Gimmit, standing in the red-carpeted corridor outside the cabins belonging to the President's party.
"I've got a room next to Adam's", said Lonts, tersely.
"I'm surprised you're not in his bed".
"That's none of your business Gimmit".
"No I suppose it's not", said Gimmit, who couldn't help looking taken aback by Lonts's mature hostility "I don't know where I'm sleeping. Julian won't let me share with Finia. Am I supposed to be in with you? Has Adam said anything?"
"He hasn't mentioned you".
"I-I don't know where I'm supposed to go".
"Sleep on the deck Gimmit", said Lonts "You like sleeping outside after all".
"But what if Caln's around?"
"That's your problem Gimmit".
"You're spiteful do you know that!" Gimmit exclaimed "You tell me I'm ugly and you don't want me, and then turn on me when I find someone else. You're a spoilt brat and I'm not surprised Adam beats you up! In fact I think he should do it everyday!"
Lonts burst into tears and bolted into the cabin, slamming the door behind him.
Between them Hillyard and Joby lugged the last trunk into the President's stateroom, and then sat on it, mopping themselves vigorously with handkerchiefs. Joby had taken off his jacket and loosened his tie, although his shirt was damp with sweat.
"I think we need a drink after all that", said Hillyard, picking up a decanter of whisky from the grog tray "I don't what he needs all these trunks for. He hasn't got that many clothes. Not really".
"State papers and documents mainly", said Joby, sinking to the floor and lolling against the trunk "Stuff that couldn't be left at the Headquarters".
"You don't look like somebody who's on the first day of his holidays", said Hillyard.
"A state progress isn't a holiday", said Joby, accepting a glass of whisky "Anyway I'm depressed. I'm being taken for granted".
"How do you mean?" Hillyard sat down on the floor next to him.
"Do you know the problem with being one of two consorts? One gets to be the exciting one, and the other is the boring one. Guess which I am".
"Kieran loves you to bits", said Hillyard "You and Adam are the limit, you beggar belief sometimes. You're jealous of him. And he gets jealous of you because you get to spend the most time with Kieran. You're the one who Kieran talks to in bed in the middle of the night, who he wakes up with. If you want to spice things up though perhaps you and Adam should swap over for a couple of days, let him sleep with Kieran, and have him on a day-to-day basis, then you'd be the exciting one".
"And then I'd be forgotten about you mean? No thanks".
"Seems to me you want it both ways".
"Nobody asked you".
"Nobody ever does, but I still give me opinion", said Hillyard.
"That's marvellous isn't it?" said Kieran, entering his cabin to find half-opened trunks strewn around the room like hefty children's toys "Have I got to do everything me focking self around here, whilst you two get pissed at my expense?"
"Joby was feeling sorry for himself, so I thought a drink might cheer him up", said Hillyard.
"Joby feeling sorry for himself isn't anything new", said Kieran, and went through into the bathroom.
"I'll sort him out", said Joby, getting awkwardly to his feet "You go and find your own cabin".
"Before you go saying anything rash, remember what a terrific consort I'd make!"
"Bog off Hillyard".
In the bathroom Kieran was touching the gold taps on the wash-basin, as though he couldn't believe they were real.
"Funny to think we've known all this", he said, when Joby entered the room "Do you remember when we lived hand-to-mouth? Remember that awful time on the marshes, just after we left the Loud House, when we thought we were going to starve to death? And the time we travelled in Caln's litter? It all seems like a hundred years ago. We've come a bloody long way, and all to no avail".
"If you say that again I won't be responsible for my actions", said Joby "We have given this world, of which we don't belong and owe nothing to, seven years of peace and comfort. It may not sound much, but it's more than they would've had if we hadn't come here".
"Perhaps", said Kieran "I've been thinking of the Loud House a lot lately. The time I was there with you, not the second time with Angel. That must have been our lowest ebb. Hard to believe now isn't it?"
"Angel was still alive", Joby recalled "We hadn't met Hillyard or Lonts. And I was threatening to abandon Adam because he'd beaten you up. I was the boring one then too!"
"I need you Joby, so don't say such things about yourself. I'm going to need you even more in the future. Because I have a feeling we're going to have to go back there. The Loud House I mean".
"There won't be any need for that will there?" said Joby, faintly.
"We'll see. Perhaps the Devil won't come to me direct. Perhaps I'll have to go to him".
"You won't be alone, not this time. I was with you when Gabriel went, and I'll be with you this time".
"I'm glad you said that Joby", said Kieran "Because I'm afraid".
"Hey, come here", Joby wrapped him in his arms and held him close.
"This is the end Joby, I can feel it", Kieran sobbed "The demons are rising out of the woodwork, and they won't be defeated this time. The world is done for. There's nothing more we can do. And do you know something? I'm so scared of dying, of everyone dying. Of you, and me, and Adam, Hillyard, Lonts, Ransey and the rest, all of us ceasing to exist".
"It's got to happen one day Kiel", said Joby "Adam once said to me, when we were on the Bunnamor Plain and we thought it was the end of all of us, he said we had no right to ask for more, as we'd already had enough for eight lifetimes. That helped me a lot at the time, and it'll help me now. You can't live your life worrying about when the end's going to come. We already know it's going to come, so there's no point speculating. No one gets out alive".
"But if this is it", said Kieran "If Caln has his way and we're all destroyed, I'm going to miss you so much".
"I thought you Catholics were pretty hot on the after-life?" said Joby "I like to think we'll always be together".
"You're the strong one Joby", said Kieran "Much stronger than me. You always were. You've dragged me through so many times. At the Loud House, at Mundaba Heights, and I expect you'll drag me into the after-life too".
"I'll drag you wherever we need to go", said Joby "Because I'll never leave you behind".
When Adam reached his cabin he was annoyed to find that Lonts had dumped all their luggage in the middle of the floor, and then retreated to his own much smaller room next door to indulge in a very loud sobbing spree.
"What have you been doing to him this time?" said Julian, who had followed him into the room.
"Nothing", Adam snapped "Although I might just change that situation if he doesn't pull his finger out. Lonts! Give it a rest!"
"You look exhausted", said Julian "The pace is obviously too much for you".
"Haven't you got any unpacking to do Julian?"
"Finia's seeing to all that".
"Ooh get you", Adam jeered, sarcastically "Well I don't feel in the mood for being sociable, so I'll see you at dinner tonight. Can't disappoint the birthday boy now can I?"
"I do not need reminding that it is my birthday", said Julian "As the great Greta Garbo once said, why should one celebrate getting a year older?"
"Because it's better than the alternative", said Adam "Now clear off Julian. I've got a mountain of things to sort out, and a nutcase who's having his trillionth nervous breakdown. I need some space".
"No sooner said than done", said Julian, leaving the room as suddenly as he had arrived.
Adam picked up a pile of Lonts's things and took them into the next room, where he dumped them on top of the boy, who was sprawled face-down across his bed.
"I take it there is some point to this manic spell?" said Adam "Or is it just to while away the time?"
"I hate Gimmit", Lonts wailed "I hope Caln gets him. He's become a bigheaded bastard since he took up with Finia. He thinks he's something special".
"Poor misguided twerp", said Adam.
"I don't want him sleeping with us".
"Neither do I particularly".
"Then you're not going to make him come in here?" Lonts looked up blearily.
"I don't see the point", said Adam "I'll always leave the door ajar so I can hear you if something's wrong, and sometimes, if you promise to stop this self-indulgent weeping fit, you can come in with me".
"He said I was spiteful", Lonts sniffed "Am I?"
"Only to Gimmit", said Adam "And he should be used to spiteful behaviour if he's taken up with Finia. Now help me unpack, and then we can have a little lie-down before Julian's birthday bash this evening".
"How old is Julian?"
"Fifty", said Adam "Ancient. What a dreadful age. Fifty. It can't be made to sound nice at all. It's what I'll be in the autumn. I can't believe it. I don't feel it at all".
"Nobody would think it to look at you", said Lonts "I hope I look as good as you when I'm fifty. Do you think I will?"
"Oh Lonts", Adam wept and pulled the boy close to him.
"Don't cry Adam", said Lonts "When I'm fifty you'll be a very old man, and I can look after you".
"Stop it Lonts", Adam cried "Please don't say anymore".
"Alright Adam", said Lonts, casually.
Julian's birthday dinner passed off remarkably sedately, in spite of Adam giving a speech which referred sarcastically to Julian's "fifty well-used years", and an episode when Lonts decided he wanted to gouge the eye out of the huge salmon on the silver salvor. Adam had hoped to avoid trouble by putting Lonts and Gimmit at opposite ends of the table, although he couldn't help feeling nervous about Gimmit's lapse into observant silence. He gave the impression that he was waiting for something which wasn't likely to be beneficial to anyone but himself.
The Captain was an entertaining host, and kept them amused with what Adam rather bitchily thought of as "testosterone-powered sea-faring tales". Nonetheless he also gave the impression of being preoccupied about something, and actually looked quite disconcerted for a moment when one of his crew came up to him and whispered something about "white spots". He assured everyone that all was fine, and then disappeared into the chart-room for the rest of the evening.
Kieran and his party retired to the ship's library after dinner for more drinking and the ubiquitous cards. Kieran was in a flighty mood, the likes of which the others hadn't seen in him for some time. Truth to tell, he was feeling rebellious. Adam had given him yet another lecture on leaving the dining-room about how thin he was and how he never ate anything.
"I never get the bloody chance", Kieran retorted "Everytime I go to take a morsel some awkward bugger starts talking to me about something".
"It's not good enough Patsy", said Adam "I bet you can't look at yourself in the mirror with no clothes on without flinching. If you carry on like this you'll look old before your time. You'll look like Braw!"
"That's bloody charming that is", said Kieran.
Stung by the Braw reference Kieran decided to forget his strong sense of duty and be as frivolous as he could. So for the rest of the evening he turned on his Irish charm, and flirted with anyone who came near him. Trixie found it frightening and retreated behind a rather forbidding-looking tome about celestial navigation.
"Something weird here", said Ransey, tapping his pocket compass which he had placed on the green baize-covered card-table "This is stuck due north".
"Well we're going north", said Joby.
"No we're not. Port West is in a sort of north-easterly direction from here. The point's not wavering at all".
"Your compass is knackered then".
"There is nothing wrong with my compass".
"Have a word with the Captain when he resurfaces then", said Hillyard "Perhaps we've had to slightly change course for some reason".
"Could be it I suppose", said Ransey, not convinced though.
"It's your deal anyway".
"Do we have to go through this performance every night we're on progress?" said Joby, standing in the middle of the President's stateroom as Ransey walked around it with a long sharply-pointed stick, shoving it under the bed and thrusting it into cupboards and between curtains "I can't believe Caln's going to be hiding under the bed!"
"I'm checking for more earthly unwanted visitors", said Ransey "It's a wise precaution to take. I wish Kieran would let me do it every night back at the Ministry too".
"I'm glad he doesn't", said Joby "I don't think me nerves could stand it for one thing. You make me more nervous doing this than if we took no precautions at all".
"Better to be safe than sorry that's what I say", said Ransey "With plague, vampires and goodness knows what else breaking out all over the place I wish Kieran would take more responsibility for his own safety".
"And I wish you'd stop spooking".
"There's a great deal to spook at", said Ransey "The Captain was behaving strangely earlier, and I wish I knew why".
It was all very peculiar to say the least. The first S.O.S message had come in whilst the Captain was entertaining Kieran over dinner. On reaching the wireless office the operator told him it seemed pretty genuine, and gave him the co-ordinates. It was coming from a location twenty-four miles to the north, and so it was estimated that they could be with it within eight hours.
"I hope they can hang on that long", said the Captain "The 'Coronola'. Something familiar about the name of that ship, only I can't think where I've heard it. Whoever it is though they're not supposed to be out this way. It's restricted traffic whilst the plague's still raging".
"Shall we tell the President sir?" asked the First Officer.
"I'll inform him when we get nearer the location", said the Captain "Not that I anticipate any trouble. Probably some jackass doing some illegal trawling who has run into a spot of bother. He'll get quite a shock when he finds we've got the President himself on-board".
"What if he's carrying the plague?"
"I have thought of that possibility", the Captain snapped "Nobody from the 'Coronola' will be allowed on-board until they have been completely vetted by the M.O. Keep me informed of any further developments boy", he said to the wireless operator "I'll be in the chart-room".
He couldn't get the name of the "Coronola" out of his mind. He had heard it before. There was some mystery attached to it, of that he was certain. One of the Captain's passions was naval history, and in spite of his hard-headed philosophy towards life he had a sneaking fondness for the legendary mysteries of the sea. It all added to the unpredictability of the element he loved. You had to respect the sea, because it was certainly no respecter of you.
The Captain dug out his old reference books and scanned the indices. He finally located the "Coronola" in a book on famous disappearances at sea. What he read gave him a shock, and he summoned the First Officer immediately.
"The 'Coronola' is - was - a cargo-ship", he said, tapping his reference book excitedly "She did regular forays, carrying supplies such as furs, wool and frozen meat from the City up to Port West, but via the long east-side route. She also carried several civilian passengers at a time".
"She knows the waters then", said the First Officer, unable to understand what the Captain was getting quite so excited about "Which makes me more inclined than ever to think they've got plague on-board".
"You don't understand", said the Captain, who was coming close to gibbering "The 'Coronola' last set out from the City in February ... February 3994! Sixteen years ago! It set off on its regular course, and twenty-three days into the trip it disappeared from sight. It was never seen again. No wreckage was ever found, and no bodies were washed up. An inquiry at the time speculated that it may have got trapped in an ice-ocean".
"Perfectly logical", said the First Officer, dourly "And perhaps the ice has cracked and released her again. It's somehow drifted back out this way".
"I accept that", said the Captain "But then who's sending the messages? And another fact worth remembering, she disappeared just beyond the Skirra Fludd rock, very close to the Loud House".
Lonts was having a nightmare, only this one was even more disturbing than any of the ones that had gone before. He was being suffocated by darkness. It was all around him, pressing down on him, wrapping him in its heavy embrace. He was trying desperately to scream, and he was in fact screaming very loudly, but he couldn't make anyone hear him. Not for what seemed like a very very long time.
"Lonts", said Adam, firmly "Wake up! Wake up!"
Adam was pulling him out of the darkness, even though it was sucking at him, trying to drag him back down again. Adam slapped him twice around the face, and Lonts came to sharply.
"I'm sorry baby, but you were screaming loud enough to wake the whole ship", said Adam, holding him close "I didn't think I was ever going to get through to you".
"He's got his hand on my shoulder Adam", Lonts cried, feeling the imprint of the fingers on his flesh "Can't you see him?"
"There is no-one here but me, baby. No one but me".
"Caln's here, Adam".
"If he is I don't understand why I can't see him".
"Because he's playing tricks. He wants only me at the moment".
"Well he can't have you", Adam picked him up in his arms, which was no mean feat as Lonts was the same size as himself "You'll be alright in my bed. I promise you".
At two-twenty a.m a horrifying message came through from the 'Coronola', which only seemed to deepen the mystery even more.
"EVERYONE NOW DEAD", the sender had tapped through the airwaves "INCLUDING CAPTAIN AND ALL SENIOR OFFICERS. ONLY MYSELF LEFT. CARNAGE IN WHEELHOUSE AND CHART-ROOM. WE ARE DRIFTING AGAIN. I HOPE FOR YOUR SAKES YOU NEVER FIND US".
The message was unsigned.
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