The alarming events in the portside serviceway were continuing to reverberate through Kobaknov’s every waking thought. No sooner had he recovered from the effects of the light-speed jump had those sinister moments leapt back into his consciousness and plagued him impetuously ever since.
Two days had passed; at least Kobaknov thought it to be roughly two days based on the fact that he had twice slept erratically since gathering himself and running as hard as he could down the serviceway, round the zigzag of connecting tunnels before lunging into the mess where he remained for many hours.
The Captain had not ventured back in that direction since; neglecting his duties to monitoring the navigation systems as well as failing to complete his regular sojourn to the medical pod.
The latter of these two oversights plagued him the most; it tapped gently but unendingly against the inside of his skull, like the most intense and effective alarm clock ever devised. A constant, bating reminder of his responsibilities and his derelictions. Despite from within the medical bay had lurked the epicentre – the masterpiece – of that threatening and terrifying menace, he still felt compelled to return and pay vigil to the man that lay prostrate inside. He knew that he must, he must, return there and disregard his own trepidations.
This ghoulish and paradoxical conundrum continuously rattling inside his head (I fear to go but I cannot stay!) , the captain presently fidgeted and fussed uncomfortably, pacing the narrow width of the starboard serviceway, scuffing his toes bluntly against the black rubber skirting which ran along the join between floor and wall.
After much deliberation and several false-starts, he desisted in his monotonous, pedantic activities and paused, before cautiously peering around the right-angle corner of the connecting passageway. After meeting two further sharp turns, this tunnel network would deliver him right back to that very spot in the portside serviceway which haunted his dreams and chased him away.
Kobaknov hooked his head around the corner. Befitting his rational expectations yet also to his utter surprise, the small wedge-shaped segment of tube was empty. Satisfied – if still shaking with apprehension all-the-same – he crept cautiously around the next bend – avoiding a knot of black and red wires which hung untidily from an opened panel above and swung gently as he passed.
Rounding the next turn, Kobaknov was paralysed suddenly by familiar cold sweats and heart palpitations. For just for a moment – a mere fractional expanse of time which expired in a flutter of eyelids – he visualised a figure standing at the port window adjacent to where the corridor met the portside serviceway. At least, he thought that he had.
Gasping for air, he flung his body back around the corner from which he had come and stood with his back and head pressed against the wall. It had been the back of the person which he had glimpsed and he could not now recall or distinguish any details – whether it was man or woman, young or old. The residual image in his mind was nothing more than a scorched silhouette burned into the photographic film of his memory. Scrunching his eyes, he endeavoured to recall the image, despite it filling him with dread – his mind almost subconsciously desiring to solve the puzzles unfolding on the Sartorious against his better judgement.
An even greater dread presently grasped his body though as his irrationality and feral imagination took a firm hold of his fragile form like icy hands constricting his throat. He imagined the figure – now more visceral and menacing, enriched with lavish detail and personality – heading now in his direction – feet softly treading steadily and assuredly over the few short metres between them; about to turn the corner and confront him.
Slowly creeping closer and closer; about to peer around the curved steel barrier to meet Kobaknov – their face only inches from his. He could sense their presence; their shadow creeping alongside his like a faithful companion which he had never yet had the misfortune of encountering.
Adrenaline pumped through his veins, his muscles tensed and for the second time in as many days the captain found himself running frantically through the tubular tunnels of the ship – tumbling and skidding through the doors of the crew mess like a child who feels some great dark horror chasing them upstairs before bedtime.
Slamming the great bulky door and locking it by sliding bolt into catch with a noisy clank – Kobaknov lay in his hammock and recovered his dissipated breath. This latest attack of paranoia (or was it?) forced him to concede that he needed to rationalise these recent events and compose himself quickly; whatever had been occurring must be the result of some sleep deprivation, lack of exercise or some such, he thought: cabin fever. He lay a while longer, allowing his heart to settle to a more regular rhythm and considered carefully when he had begun to feel uneasy and perplexed aboard the ship and what he was going to do to reclaim his sanity.
The problem – he rapidly conceded – with any such calculations and evaluations of his duration aboard the Sartorious was that he could never really remember precisely when certain things had happened (or not). The absence of a strict day-to-night pattern – naturally dictated by sun and moon – had always made pinpointing specific days difficult and his recent troubles had exacerbated this issue as he had lost complete track of time at some indefinable impasse. Somewhere, sometime, he had managed to misalign his sense of time and he could not accurately work-out where this was. All he could realistically do was clumsily caste his mind back to some event or incident but this itself was not chronologically grounded by anything and so served little purpose.
The captain scratched his head. This act of attempted rationalisation and analysis made him feel good, despite the salient fact that it was currently a messy and confusing case. He considered that if he were sitting and making these judgements then he surely could not be totally disassociated from reality. Cogito ergo sum. Still, the inability to track exactly when he had started to experience these feelings and thoughts clawed at him a little more as he pondered them afresh. Even more concerning to Kobaknov was the acknowledgement that all of these questions – all these nicks and chips into the problem -seemed to return cyclically to one overriding question: Just how long had he been aboard the Sartorious now? This was a question which did have a finite answer (didn’t it?), but ascertaining a figure – a tangible number of some applicative value – was, in practice, a difficult procedure.
The ship featured no cumulative ‘mission time’ clock or chronometer. Since FTL travel fundamentally played with the concepts of time and its duration, the specialists who designed the systems had as yet (and as far as Kobaknov was aware) been unable to synchronise the ‘internal’ time of the ship (which the captain’s watch and other clocks kept abreast of) with any notion of ‘absolute’ time. ‘Absolute’ time could be co-ordinated with the continuous chronology of the Earth, but FTL flights sped up the Sartorious, thus misaligning it from any base or fixed measurement of time. Travelling for extended periods in a manner which radically disregarded any axiomatic notion of distance and duration entailed extreme complications for attempting any correlation of ‘time’ with anyone other than those on that same ship – that shared point of reference.
As Kobaknov had been in communication ‘blackout’ for an extended duration (the reason for which he, naturally, was unsure) he could not receive any data which would allow him to attempt to re-align his perception of time to one which married with the rest of humanity.
It had been made clear in the training the captain had received that this loss of contact with the Earth would be an expected – if undesirable – consequence of repeated FTL jumps. The frequent stretching and warping of time and the resultant misalignments these caused between the Sartorious and Earth would render data transfer and communication intermittent then non-existent; a problem which technicians and scientists had yet to remedy in this new transportation mode.
With each light-speed jump, the ship’s systems had to compensate by creating a system restore point which allowed it to stay synchronised with its default time-frame – Earth time. The problem with multiple jumps was that the experimental software installed on the Sartorious could simply not handle the volume of information it was required to retain and process nor the ever-complicating calculations necessary to remain anchored to Earth’s signals. In order to self-correct and avoid a ‘catastrophic run-time failure’ (as the WSEA manual labelled it) – which would effect navigation – the computer would begin removing its older files. Unfortunately for the crew of the ship, these ‘older files’ were the previous restore points – huge files of data – which were all required to generate further ‘anchoring’ calculations. This compendium of restore-point files assembled like a jigsaw to form a roadmap leading back to Earth and without older editions this was incomplete and ultimately worthless.
Luckily for the crew of the ship, the navigation computer retained a separate chart of the ship’s course which – although unable to aid with re-establishing a data link to Earth due to the simplicity of its stored information – would save the Sartorious from being left hopelessly adrift in space. This navigation data merely recorded the points from which the ship had left ‘normal’ time and entered an FTL jump and created a crude wireframe model of the ship’s course – similar to a trail of breadcrumbs being strewn on a pathway. Without any account taken of the warping and fragmenting of time which the ship created in light-speed, this data was useless in an attempt to reconnect with communications steams back to Earth; too simplistic and too one-dimensional to keep track of the overwhelming and bewildering re-defining of time and space.
Such perplexing permutations caused Kobaknov to scratch his head again in bemusement and chuckle softly. He had never – like the vast majority of the human race – been comfortable with the strange abstracts of space flight and light-speed travel; the strange mathematical formulae, structures and algorithms – the disenfranchising faith one had to place in concepts that could never be explained with anecdote, example or simile. If ever asked about it by an inquisitive party, Kobaknov opined that some jestingly nonchalant reply such as: “All I know that it makes you travel extremely fast!” would almost be guaranteed to raise a slight giggle and a smile from his audience. A perfect coping mechanism – he had considered – to mask the outstanding factoid that he had only a rudimentary understanding of the mechanics and physics of the issue.
Hanging on this memory for a moment though, Kobaknov shuddered slightly. There was a certain brashness and arrogance about that remark which now filled him with a shame and embarrassment. There was certain negligence in that kind of comment – a flippancy which in his current state he disliked intensely. He could not quite capture why this was precisely, but there was something which he suddenly did not like about himself; another one of those biting moments which had ripped a chunk of his flesh lately and opened a sizeable wound. Remembering when he had caught sight of his face in the window a few days ago (or was it weeks? The issue of time was seemingly back on his agenda immediately), he identified again similar feelings of dislocation and rejection. It was a feeling that he somehow did not associate himself with the man who occupied the mirror – or indeed more worryingly – parts of his own mind either. Was it even possible for the mind to recognise deficiency and separation in its own self like that?
After lingering in silent mediation for a time, Kobaknov opined to himself that this issue – or any of these issues in fact – could not be resolved in any satisfactory way at this time and would have to be shoved aside and dealt with later. Deciding to defer the bewildering issue of ‘time’ for the present and concentrate on more graspable problems, Kobaknov rose up and jumped from the hammock where he lay and began paced around energetically, rotating his shoulders and intermittently performing small jumps – reminiscent of how a prize-fighter might posture as he enters the ring defiantly.
“Enough of this crap now Alex”, he repeated to himself aloud, suddenly renewed with fortitude – albeit a fragile confidence; one which he was trying mightily to win himself over with with this macho display. He decided afresh that he must commit himself to his tasks on the ship and desist in this irrational behaviour which had blighted him. “Exercise, sleep, focus” he affirmed didactically, sharply raising a finger on his left hand progressively to denote each element of his proposed new schedule – as if this action somehow contracted him officially and unbreakably. Suitably endowed with this embryonic new energy and impetus, he set about tidying the kitchen area for the first time in what seemed like an eternity; feeling this to be an adequate and manageable first step in his new regime. He did not want to strain himself excessively right away.
The following few days passed fairly well and without undue concern for the captain; his new modus operandi was seemingly proving successful in re-aligning his hazardous mind and settling his outlook. He worked diligently during the ‘day’ (he had returned to a standard twenty-four hour cycle), exercised in the hitherto rarely visited gymnasium and its stale-smelling mats and squeaky cycle, and slept well(ish). He had even gotten around to some of the more irritating and irksome tasks on the ship which he had been postponing indefinitely with a secret hope they would miraculously fix themselves.
Inside the doorway of the washroom – which was situated next door to the mess – a small pool of stagnant brown water had gradually been accumulating underneath a corroded pipe which connected the sink to a water tank located below decks in the storage hold. On each visit to the moist, white plastic walled compartment, Kobaknov habitually used his foot to direct a nearby towel toward the inevitably formed pool of water and partially mop up the spillage – a most temporary of solutions. He knew that the pipe would eventually need to be mended or worse – replaced completely. The latter of these scenarios would mean shutting the water system and H2O processing unit down as well as probably stripping the piping which ran below the deckplates – an arduous task which he had long-ago filed as a certified ‘non-priority’.
Sitting on the toilet a week after his minor epiphany – watching the water slowly but unendingly dripping into that same discoloured spot on the tiled floor until it would require mopping again and again – Kobaknov decided that today was the day to fix this niggling issue and reaffirm his commitment to his own goals; a matchbox revolution to be sure.
Subsequently, the morning of that day was spent fiddling with valves and levers to turn off the right section of the ship’s water supply to isolate the washroom. The afternoon saw the frustrated captain hunched, contorted and red-faced as he manfully battled to patch the rotten pipe. This work completed, he dusted himself off with due satisfaction and straightened his aching spine, it rattling like a hammer being ran down a marimba. One of the Sartorious’ more enduring problems had been certifiably remedied and he had avoided replacing the pipe and condemning himself to several days’ gruelling, laborious work. The captain stood proudly over his work like a great artist surveying their masterpiece.
Returning to the mess next-door for a well earned rest and some refreshment, Kobaknov discovered upon twisting the stiff tap of the sink that he had succeeded in turning off all of the water on the ship.
Thusly, the day ended with an enraged, parched captain yanking at valves and washers, hitting pipes with his clunky wrench in a vain effort to vanquish the tempestuous plumbing of the ship; cursing his newfound diligence for making him ever begin the pointless job at all.
Three days later, an invigorated Kobaknov – recovered from his plumbing exploits – finally regained the courage to make his way back over to the portside of the ship. The pressing need to attend to business in that part of the ship had again mounted and he could postpone no longer. With more than a twinge of anxiety still bubbling within him, he turned the final tubular corner again – only this time he was greeted by no-one; no sound, no visions and no phantoms – just the damned noisy air-conditioner and the blearing white spotlights blasting down on the bland walls and floor as there ever was.
A wave of embracing warmth engulfed the captain and closing his eyes he felt as if he were basking on a sunkissed beach or reclining contentedly on the comfy sofa in his home; as close to paradise as he could muster in that moment. The relief of the moment and the conquering of those indomitable fears made him smile and even briefly laugh aloud – his crackly voice echoing down the corridor, defying the domineering cacophony which pervaded overhead.
A vague, inane grin still plastered across his face, he now turned to concentrate on the more routine issues of the moment and his urgent need to return to the two destinations of importance which lay on this side of the ship.
Firstly, he opted to race towards the command bridge and check the status of the Sartorious – left to govern itself even-more autocratically during his absence than usual. Despite its unnerving ability to regulate and administer its own metal anatomy, Kobaknov was none-the-less concerned that a human perspective was required intermittently and long absences filled him with dread. Swiftly craning the door handle of the bridge downward, he sidestepped through the small opening which he created.
Suddenly, with no opportunity for acclimatisation, the troubles of his recent past snuck up silently behind Kobaknov as he felt a momentary chill ruminate through him as he stood inside the door, it propped open with his body acting as a wedge. He felt momentarily as though the corridor was encroaching upon him and imminently about to engulf him; a huge black cloak like the one he visualised outside the mess – lurching closer and about to take hold of him. He hastily entered the command room; slamming the door safely behind him.
The captain was instantly reminded of his most recent visit to the bridge through the pungent stench which was woven amongst the usual heavy, stale air which emerged each time a room was unused for even just a few days. Reluctantly casting his gaze to his right, he observed a yellowy brown stain which was dashed around the floor and plastered on part of the lower wall.
Retching slightly, Kobaknov flinched away in disgust and flung the huge steel door back open – despite his nagging suspicions about what lay outside – in hope of releasing some of the odour so that he might be able to get some work done. His foot propped, acting again as a doorstop, he flashed his eyes around the room looking for something which might allow him to clean the foul slew. This endeavour fruitless and ultimately pointless – “This is the bridge, not the maintenance cupboard you idiot!” – Kobaknov swung back around toward the opened door.
The portside serviceway stretched out in front of him; a long tube of dull grey with that steel door of the medical pod – only very small from his current perspective – staring at him unerringly from the far end; a Cyclops scrutinising him with harmful intentions in their single eye.
This observation circulating and mutating in his mind, Kobaknov concluded that he could – for the time being – cope with the unsavoury fragrance of the bridge and he rapidly pushed the door shut.
The captain was feeling sick but it had little to do with the malodorousness of his immediate environment. He had been on the bridge for twenty minutes now; reading various data readouts on colourful monitors and screens as well as dutifully typing into keypads and prodding various interfaces which cheerfully beeped and pinged in response.
Being back in this place reminded him all too vividly of the crippling disorientation and pain he had endured when he last sat in the chair which cradled him now. Slapping his lips together and almost tasting the sick in his mouth, his head rang with the discombobulating pain of the light-speed torture. The chair, the walls, the blackened window; he felt as though they had absorbed the ill feelings of that incident, locked them away and now had decide to launch them upon their visitor in foul retribution for his negligence toward this place. He could not endure those sensations again any time soon, he affirmed inwardly, disparagingly eying the sombre view stretching out in front him from the observation aperture. He could not face a bout of faster-than-light torture.
Flicking hesitantly through a series of screens which featured graphs, graphics and charts, he scoured for the future FTL schedule. Upon locating it, Kobaknov Winced and peered through narrowed eyes as he scanned the appropriate page; FTL scheduled for T-minus 1840 hours, it confirmed astutely.
Kobaknov pulled his hand through his ever-fraying thatch of hair in relief – a few fine hairs fluttering away to the floor as he did so. Without doing the calculations he was unsure as to exactly how far away this was but the four digit reading made it seem more than long enough at this precise moment. Dropping his arm back to his side, it became entangled with one of the heavy straps which were still hanging untidily across his chair from his desperate escape a week or so ago – another uncomfortable reminder which triggered more nausea and caused Kobaknov to shudder, slouch forward and close his eyes.
Flashes pulsed through his mind; blasts of vivid colour and sharp, irregular shapes appeared fleetingly. They were like the ones which he had witnessed forming in the frontal window during the last FTL drive but now they were warped and unsettling – there was none of the hallucinogenic, sublime quality to them – they just felt like the beginnings of a torturous headache or seizure. Kobaknov opened his eyes and glared at the window which – still – projected a lifeless blackness into his vicinity.
The captain tried to remember; had he seen those shapes and colours in previous light-speed jumps? His memory deserted him though; he could not think back that far. Had he endured FTL jumps before? Of course he had. He must have. There was a seemingly finite limit to his memories recently; as if he were able to recall certain events up to a preset limit before a locked door or barricade denied entry and further investigation. Pondering this further, Kobaknov realised that he could not remember anything about his previous FTL experiences – other than the fact that they were extremely uncomfortable experiences which he detested and – increasingly – feared. Still, he wondered why he could recall this information but nothing else which pertained to the process. Why was his mind withholding – or potentially more seriously – eliminating certain memories? The landscape of his memories was becoming a poorly realised impressionist painting; colourful, striking – but lacking any genuine sense of order or structure – or, for that matter, a semblance of rationality.
His memory was – for as yet unknown reasons – deserting him, and Kobaknov concluded that this conundrum would have to be added to his growing list of puzzlers to be solved post-haste; quite exactly how one attempted to reconstruct such cognitive process was to be a hefty, lumbering beast to slay. Making a mental note to head back later with a mop and bucket as he squirmed past the mess by the door, he lurched out into the serviceway. The door swung shut behind him, causing a metallic banging which echoed down the passageway.
Kobaknov was now confronted with his next pressing task of the day; paying a visit to the medical pod which beckoned him silently in the distance; foe turned temptress.
Standing inside the sobering room – the life monitor forever bleating above his head – the captain looked over at the perspex window adjacent to him. As always, the well-lit, clinical surroundings triggered myriad emotions in him; a place of healing would, as ever, seem to be the epicentre of his psychological deterioration and damage.
His heart beat more rapidly in his chest as he started to edge through the untidy clutter of the medical pod (detritus still lingering from his hasty visit after the plasma accident) towards his almost pre-determined destination – his body felt as if it were on rails which would guide him unfailingly to that one focal point regardless of his motives or last-second reviews.
The strong smell of disinfectant and antiseptic burned his nostrils and triggered more fragmented memories – his mind recalling yet more data without sequence or logic. Familiar scents, unhooked from a specific place of rest or point of reference. Apprehensive sensations and grating thoughts of penitence darted in and out of his mind – and these were not unfamiliar to those he regularly felt when making this wayfaring – but today there was even more anxiety in him. Perhaps, he conjectured, his recent complications had intensified such emotions; nothing more turbulent or sinister than that.
Squeezing past the usual clattering tables and trolleys, Kobaknov paused to pick up a fallen box of disposable gloves – a matter which, given the chaotic state of the room was laughably inconsequential but provided crucial moments for him to deter from his unavoidable track and think a little longer.
He tried desperately to grapple with his apparently enfeebled mind and consolidate these pieces of potent memories which washed over him. He felt a great weight upon him – sadness and pity – but was it for Mathers behind that window or himself? What was at the heart of his quandary? He just could not be sure; he did not have the perspicacity at this time to rationalise with the necessary ruthlessness.
Rising from his hunched position, Kobaknov jettisoned the small brown cardboard box of gloves – red stencilled letters etched on one side reading ‘STERILE’ – across a vacant space on a smudged metal tabletop. He quickly reconciled himself to the inevitable conclusion and destination of these moments and barged his way past the final trolley of surgical apparatus which tingled delicately as it was disturbed.
A familiar but unwelcoming face greeted him from behind the thick transparent shield. Mathers; frozen in time, preserved before Kobaknov like a relic of a long-extinct race of beings; immobile and indifferent. As ever, there would be no smile or greeting for the captain of the Sartorious in this room; not even scant recognition or the flick of eyebrows from his friend. The only sound was the omniscient beeping which reminded him of Mathers’ existence; the only motion was the contracting and expanding of the black corrugated tower-like artificial lung which stood next to the stricken man’s bed.
Kobaknov regarded Mathers closely; pressing his nose against the window, squashing it gently as cartilage met plastic. This was the first time he had looked with any genuine scrutiny at him for some time; really stood and examined the man with his entire attention. He wondered exactly why this was for a moment, he was here often enough after all (or at least he had been before recent events) but he had, for some reason, failed to spend any time actually being present in this room. Instead, he had glided through, performing his duty but failing his crewmate at a more basic level; that most primitive level: Be Subject to one another, as someone once said.
This realisation triggered a flush of sorrow within the captain as he looked downward at Mathers’ face; dishevelled red hair and beard, rounded face divorced and bisected by the facemask which enclosed his nose and mouth, and the nutrient tube inside this which protruded from his bulbous lips – racing away like a retreating serpent.
With this observation logged in his brain and now permeating into his feelings as water enters sponge, he felt a sudden shrill and profound sadness at this negligence. The man before him looked small, inconsequential and isolated – a frightened and pleading being. Mathers, he reluctantly conceded, had become lifeless and somehow inhuman to him now; a desolate realisation which sickened and moved Kobaknov in turns. Amidst the collection of sophisticated machines, devices and circuits, the man behind the screen had been reduced to a constituent part of this technological ensemble – a morose and organic exhibit in this macabre tableau.
Kobaknov examined this scene so often, so dutifully – Mathers meant little more to him now than some system or component of the Sartorious which required regular observation and maintenance. Another conduit, another terminal, another limb.
How – the captain asked himself desperately – did a human being – his friend and crewmate – become reduced to this? How could he allow himself to neglect this man in such a way? He clenched his fist, his knuckles whitening and the bones protruding beneath the taut skin. Tears rolling from his eyes, he ground his teeth together in frustration and punched the perspex window with an aggressive jab. The window trembled slightly and then – nothing.
Mathers did not stir, the life-support system bleeped on disinterestedly. As if hoping that this petulant display might awaken and rejuvenate his crewmate, Kobaknov looked on at the prostrate figure, glaring in a desperate mixture of shame, exasperation and anger. “Wake up! Wake up you son of a bitch!” he screamed at the window – spittle and moisture splattering against it. Banging the palms of his hands against the wall either side of the screen, Kobaknov then turned and slid down the wall, tears still swelling in his raw eyes. Sitting upon a tangle of wires and cables which ran in a multitude of directions like a nest of yet more snakes escaping from entrapment, he wiped his eyes with the back of his aching hand – its knuckles skinned and scraped.
“What’s happening to you?” he pondered in a hushed voice before sitting silently for a beat. Was he referring to himself or the man behind the wall? Raising his eyes up towards the window above, Kobaknov turned his voice back with firmness to the solitary man:
“Why won’t you just wake up?” he whispered, voice wavering, eyes looking around for answers. “This place, this ship…I don’t know if I like it anymore. Strange things Kris, I see and hear strange things! This room…it…it…I don’t know, I don’t know. What’s the point to it all? I sometimes feel as though we’ve…Oh I…Forget it. You get better buddy. Just keep goin’…All this…this shit…it’s just…I get…I mean…
I’m just…so lonely.”
‘I’m not who I used to be?’
Kobaknov glared into a circular mirror which was screwed to one of the washroom’s bland walls; the rusting screws were prominent as a series of orange dots dispersed at regular intervals around the perimeter of the dribbling glass. He wiped away the condensation which clouded the image of himself reflecting back and stared bluntly at the face which emerged from beneath the mist.
He had not slept well again the previous night after he had moped back to the mess; this after he had collected his lethargic body from the floor of the medical bay like a mislaid, unwanted suitcase. His faithful hammock had again failed him and provided scant shelter from another in a now seemingly eternal deluge of testing events aboard the Sartorious which lashed him as mercilessly as a violent storm. The truths of those final moments sitting below the window of the observation room – such crystallised admissions and acknowledgements – had startled and shaken him. Unlike before, there were no hidden horrors or ghostly apparitions which chased his dreams away, only his own involuntary feelings bursting into the open – uncovered and unflinching in their honesty. Even if there was no other person there to hear them, saying those words, admitting those weaknesses aloud had made them real to Kobaknov; they were on public record now, carved into stone and in-erasable.
Lonely. Lonely and afraid. He had finally identified what it was that he felt these past weeks; what he had been concealing, locking away from his own admission. He certainly had been lonely too and he felt slightly more comfortable retracing these footsteps; like an alcoholic re-affirming that they have a problem. He was tired of only having his own voice ringing around inside his brain and sick of only his footsteps rattling around inside the metal shell which preserved him. Conversing with ones-self was becoming a laborious and repetitive activity, each question already answered, no surprises for himself, no intrigue. Just the same old marbles rattling inside the same tin-can of his skull.
Then there was his latter admission: Afraid? He had become afraid also and confirming this again made him somehow more…human? He was afraid of himself and afraid of the goings on aboard the ship. He was not assured by his own reflection – that companion since birth – and now there were those quiet corners of the ship, those dark recesses; the long tubular passages which only offered the threat of some unknown creak or thud which would cause his blood to run cold and his muscles to recoil.
Yet still there was more, he was sure; this loneliness and fear could not adequately account for all the crushing terror and disorientation he had suffered. What was he hiding from himself? What was he tucking out of view like magicians cards? Those feelings towards Mathers, each time he entered the medical pod or – at times – went near it; they were more than a feelings of reclusion and he knew it. There was a deep and penetrating anxiety which plagued him there. Those sensations also that he had suffered in the serviceway; the visions, the noises, those voices and the trembling roar which engulfed him that day – They, surely, were more powerful – more visceral and imposing than just a growing distaste and uncertainty of the hollow ship and its always vacant rooms and corridors.
No, he thought with some sparse resolution pooling within him, something unseen and unquantifiable had paralysed him for some time now; his lonesomeness and solitude were evident (and how admitting this had lightened him a fraction) but he was not satisfied that these alone were to blame for all he had experienced. He had disclosed his secrets – as if that visit the night before to Mathers had served as confession by an errant member of the congregation – but there was more than that at work, either on the ship or more dreadfully – in his own mind. For the second time now in fast succession, the captain was embarking on a cumbersome voyage through the dense and humid jungle of his thoughts; tangling himself in the myriad vines and creepers.
Kobaknov was then instantly reminded of his crewmate in the medical pod again as his thoughts came around in a predictable and repetitive cycle. His mood turned from its now default confusion and trepidation to the grinding sadness of his realisation at the perspex window the night before. Like a stampede, the racking image of that man charged into him and he knew, would linger awhile like an unwelcome guest.
He disliked himself profoundly for way that he had ignored and ostracised his crewmate. He had devalued a human being to apparently nothing, but searching deeper into this thought he realised that it found its denouement in himself. Had he become barely human himself aboard the Sartorious? What did it mean to be human anyway and how many of the criteria would he fulfil these days if thrown a questionnaire? Had being alone changed him irreversibly and influenced him in his actions towards the other man? He may not be lying motionless like Mathers but he felt that in many ways he was just as inactive and reticent. He moved physically but was not – it pained him to confess – operating cognitively any longer in the truest sense. When did he stimulate his mind or expand is perceptual horizons? How could he achieve such ends?! ‘Life’ and ‘existence’ were words which were suddenly juxtaposed in sharp contrast in his mind, hovering alongside one-another uncomfortably. Staring with lifeless eyes into the smeared glass of the mirror he looked at his own image as if it were a stranger. Or an enemy.
His hair had grown since the last time he had properly eyed his appearance; it now hung down towards his thin eyebrows and encroached on to the tops of his ears. It was a dishevelled shock which – as he raked his fingernails through it – was noticeably thinner and more distressed than before, a few silvery strands even invading around the sides.
Drawing his attention away briefly, he regarded his fingernails of his left hand. They had still, despite the thunderous shower he had just finished, a thick line of black filth buried underneath them. He grumbled at this and began – with the absence of a suitable grooming tool – to pick at this dirt with his nails of his right hand which were in only slightly better condition. “Fucking Engine lubricant!” he whined as he quickly gave up this endeavour and turned his eyes back towards the mirror.
Straining closer to the inadequately sized focal point, the captain fixed his eyes on their reproduction in the glass. Surrounded by scratchy dark lines, they looked sullen and vacant; that great piercing blueness had faded – or was it just the light in the room? he thought. His mind stuttered backward in time and he recalled how he had felt when he had caught his reflection by accident in the corridor. Then he had sensed something strange about those eyes – a disconnection – but now it was something even more. He did not, he opined with great surprise, like what he saw staring back.
The question of identity nagged away at Kobaknov upon this. He wondered how he could possibly feel so dislocated from his own reflection, and by extension himself. A fresh process of rationalisation sprang forth in his head in hope of settling these matters: Firstly, he had to ascertain with certainty that he was still himself – the same man that had left Earth (a stupid question, he knew, but one which all-the-same would reassure him as it was beginning to be less stupid with the passing of each uncomfortable day). He knew, knew, that he was the same person that had alighted aboard the Sartorious. Of course he was. That much, he confirmed, was an undeniable fact. He could, after all, think, taste, touch – all undisputable evidence of his presence. He stood proudly at this, straightening his hunched stance and nodding affirmatively. “Stupid”, he uttered aloud.
But then, the hooks of uncertainty latched on to him again piercingly; there were riddles which he still had to solve and many circles which needed squaring. He did not remember very much of what had happened recently after all, and then there were the disconcerting feelings and irrationality which had been so unlike him (hadn’t they?). He just could not fight his way through his own confusion and seize the answers to these questions!
How could anyone be sure of what ensued around them when they are asleep anyway? He considered this carefully, swishing his finger around in the murky water of the wash basin, the jetsam of his removed facial hair floating happily on the surface. He was all alone (save the static Mathers, naturally) and there was no surveillance operating aboard the ship. Something could have taken possession of him whilst he was sleeping; some malevolent being as yet unknown to mankind! What would stand in the way of such a force, he considered with a pensive gulp? Perhaps he had been invaded and altered during his periods of unconsciousness, cruelly warped and mangled; his body overrun and his original mind eradicated. Maybe that was why he felt uneasiness within himself – he was fighting a raging war inside his mind with a powerful force!
“No”, Kobaknov thought, trying to dismiss this histrionic and speculative notion with the haste it had driven bullet-like into his thoughts. “I still have my memories. I am still me.” His memories, he believed, were the thread by which he could hang on to his sense of self – his iron anchor to the person before the Sartorious. Memories though had – by his own admission – been eluding him as deftly as a matador evades bull and this caused a sharp pang of concern to vibrate through his forearms and hands. Events of the past had become unclear and hazy, as if he were perpetually walking through the foggy streets of a Conan-Doyle novel, unable to peer into the side streets and alleys which might provide vital clues to solve his mysteries. His memories were there though, he was sure, in the back of his consciousness, not gone, just confined and out-of-reach. He knew that he had to begin to re-establish a link to his past so that he might regain a hold on his own mind in the present.
Pondering this, he splashed a fragrant shaving lotion around his gristly cheeks and chin. Picking up a worn razor, he began to scrape away at the remaining overgrown bristles which protruded through the foamy layer which he had created. Making a few laboured strokes and grimacing as the dulled blade hacked away – revealing raw skin – Kobaknov suddenly had an undesirable but potentially crucial insight.
He knew a way that he could trigger his memories. He hated the idea but it was, he resigned, the only way he might begin to piece his shattered cognitive jigsaw back together. He energetically swilled the small blue razor in the cloudy water in the metal sink and continued his arduous attempt to refresh himself.
Squatting down, Kobaknov – clad only in his favoured jogging trousers and a black vest – levered the hefty wooden chest from beneath the shelving in the mess. Clasping his hands tightly around its considerable girth he strained to drag it into the middle of the room – the carpeted floor corrugating like a wave lapping ahead of it, a waft of dust rising from its arched lid as it was abruptly disturbed from its long slumber.
Blinking profusely and spitting the intrusive dusk from his nose and mouth, Kobaknov carefully unlatched the silver lock of the battered, dark oak trove and lifted the heavy lid; its aged hinges squealing in agony as it rose stiffly.
Inside the protective sarcophagus of the chest gathered a curious collection of artefacts and relics, maladroitly leaning and labouring, squeezed and forced alongside one-another. Resting atop the assortment – visible instantly to Kobaknov – was an old, weathered book with a crinkled copper-coloured leather cover. Crammed beside it – and amongst various pens, papers, decorative boxes and an unread, unthumbed copy of Brave New World – was a small stuffed bear with a red bow around its neck.
The captain plucked it gently from its position – causing several other items to slide and fall into the newly-created chasm in that heirloom landfill. He held it close to his face between thumb and forefinger, regarding it so closely that he might be mistaken for a quality-control inspector checking for defects in its construction. His mouth hanging slightly ajar, he continued to gaze in a trance-like state as he caressed the head of the toy delicately with the tip of his left hand index finger. The aged felt was in degrees harsh and soft against his callused skin owing to its shabby condition and its fragile head wobbled as he stroked it again and again. This act of physical connection momentarily transfixed Kobaknov; his thoughts drifted elsewhere in a sea of tranquil contemplation; pieces, feelings, tumbling from a great height without rhythm or order.
But this was not the item he was pensively seeking – close – with encased feelings clamouring to find the daylight of his consciousness – but not quite enough to spark his mind into some kind of reflective action and ignite his flagging memory. Placing the stuffed bear softly in the floor beside him – its body drooping and collapsing into a heap – he began digging deeper into the vast chest, clawing and shoving the throng of nondescript items aside.
Wedged underneath a red and white striped cardboard box – an old giftbox whose once vibrant colours had faded and its corners had dented from years of bangs and knocks – he finally found what he was searching for. Dragging a fine slice of wood from below the mass of objects which covered it and causing an avalanche to erupt inside the chest, Kobaknov turned from the chest and sank onto his knees with his dubious prize in his clammy hands.
It was a picture frame; no bigger than the size of his hand – a simple beech wood frame with a black backing plate which the captain now stared at. He hesitated to turn it over, knowing all too well what would greet him on the opposite side, sketching the shapes that lay concealed with his eyes.
He had long-ago hidden this item from his consciousness; long even before any of his episodes of recent times. He knew so long ago that this was a troupe of memories – a gang of threatening feelings – which he must suppress and extinguish or they would inevitably overcome him. How ironic, he now thought it, that he was returning to actively seek out these memories in the hope that they might remind him of who he was and who he had been and lead him back toward the fragrant fields of sanity!
Kobaknov did not need to even flip the frame around for he already had the picture on the opposite side unalterably burned into his mind by white-hot branding iron. This flash of imagery in his mind triggered a painful and lamentably anticipated sadness which was rising slowly but steadily from the pit of his stomach with each passing second and each firing of his synaptic pathways.
There was relief though that his memory appeared intact – his long-term memory at least – and that he was still a certifiable human-being (“Stupid idea”, he winced again). There could be no way that he was possessed by some extraterrestrial force he concluded; not with the emotions that were pulsing inside him. These were unique to him alone; nagging and betraying thoughts which he had fought hard to deny for the sake of his sanity and his dedication to his mission. At least now he could dismiss that particular capricious notion at any rate. He was aware though, now so desperately aware, that he had opened his own Pandora’s box of repressed emotion and guilt – and all of it was about to submerge him like an ocean bursting through a dam. He thought that maybe he should quickly stuff the article back in its cluttered domain and forget that he had ever uncovered it. He tapped impatiently with his fingers on that back of the frame, rattling the glass slightly.
Unable to fight his urges – dismissing his better judgement again – and not wishing to prolong the moment and suffer the pinpricks of anticipation any further, he carefully turned the frame in his slightly shaking hands and was greeted by…nothing. The frame lay empty and only a rectangular window of blackness flashed back with a faint reflection of his own gaping mouth.
An astonished Kobaknov flicked his eyes around the immediate vicinity to see if the picture had escaped during its removal from the chest whose giant jaws were themselves gaping wide-open menacingly next to him. A flash of panic engulfed him as he leaned towards the chest in search of this now prized and priceless asset. For so long he had actively sought to be rid of it and now he desperately craved it back in his weathered palms.
Frantically slinging bric-a-brac and miscellaneous shards of his life’s memories across the floor of the mess – a sky-blue coloured golf ball bounced ferociously along the carpet before crashing into the kitchen units and coming to rest in the centre of the room – he ploughed through the box hungrily.
For several minutes he flicked through the pages of books and journals; cracking their spines irritably and fanning the pages in the hope that the small piece of photographic paper had become lost amongst their leaves. He lifted lids, shook items of clothing and even levered the great chest itself from the floor to quickly inspect beneath before allowing it to crash to the ground once more.
Becoming increasingly upset and frustrated – feeling suddenly dislocated from all that was embodied in the elusive picture and his isolation compressing him like a vice – he stood and lashed out at the chest and a pile of the excavated goods which were slumped beside. His foot swung wildly, a smattering of papers blew from the ground and swirled around briefly before coming to rest again in another ungainly mound.
“Where could it be?!” Kobaknov queried aloud with a growing and gnawing suspicion that he may too have imagined this entire memory and that he was slipping deeper into some catastrophic psychological state. Raising his eyes upward in frustration though and puffing out his cheeks, he caught sight of the picture of his Mother, Father and sister which sat – as ever – on the shelf by his hammock.
Edging towards it and lifting it up he regarded a large gorge in the dark wooden frame which had been caused when it had fallen recently during the broken air-pipe incident (Kobaknov bemoaned the fact that he could now successfully condense his life down into a series of trifling episodes). Tracing his finger down this scratch, Kobaknov looked at the faces in the photograph. He had always kept this one on show and not hidden away; he liked it there to greet him in the morning and wish him well before bed. The three happy faces of his family; reassuring and comforting – a reminder that he were, somewhere in the distance, a significant part of others’ lives.
Centre of the picture was his mother; in a floral summer dress and with her short dark hair neatly groomed as ever it was. His arm around her, his father stood on the right; a tall, lean man in his sixties (some fifteen years senior to his mother), thinning fair hair and a maniacal smile – just like his mother’s – plastered on his face. Standing on the left was his sister; crossed armed, sporting shorts and a vest; sulky half-smile of younger sibling predictably imprinted across her face.
Kobaknov remembered the day this had been taken. He knew these people and loved them; they seemed so real to him even in this image. He could recall the blisteringly hot day at his parents house when this had been taken by himself; he could smell the poorly executed barbecue charring their dinner (his father’s speciality no-less). These memories were real he affirmed happily to himself. Smiling thinly at the people in the picture with a melancholy in his chest, he carefully placed the picture back and wiped a fine film of dust from it with his finger.
Turning back to the detritus lingering around the room, he thought for a second that he caught a glimpse of the other picture that he desired to gaze upon. Walking around the chest into the middle of the room, he inquisitively lifted a black jumper with his naked toe and craned his neck to examine more closely.
Poking from inside this dark cave was the frayed piece of photographic paper. Falling to his knees, he scrambled the jumper out of the way – flinging it behind him so that it hung lamely on a chair.
Anxiety peaking within his stomach and with blood pumping in his ears as his heart battered inside his chest, he pulled the picture close to his face. Two faces smiled back from this picture; a woman and a small girl. Kobaknov now realised how long it had been since he had inspected this picture, comparing it to the stored image in his head which now seemed all too sparse and vague. These faces were so vibrant and alive; so energised and happy. He was sure that their hearts were almost beating, their eyes blinking. They were almost calling out to him.
His wife and daughter. The two reminders of his past-life that he could not – unlike the comforting faces of his family – bear to eye. The captain stroked the outlines of their tiny faces and followed the curve of their bodies with meticulous accuracy; remembering them, hoarding them in his mind. Fair haired, petite, with dark brown eyes and precise, neatly arranged features; his wife regarded him with a warmth and love that he missed all too much now to countenance.
His daughter – only six years old in this picture – was likewise gazing at her father with doting adoration. She had darker hair – like his own – but had the same big brown eyes like her mother, which, even in this small picture, seemed colossal and overpowering.
His lower lip began to wilt and in an attempt to retain control he pressed his thumb firmly into the picture which bent under the pressure and contorted the two figures slightly. He had always been defeated by the two women in his life in this way when he was in their presence. This was why he had hidden their photographic facsimiles away from himself when he arrived on the ship; he could not tolerate these twin reminders of all he had left behind.
There was so much potential locked in this photograph; the freedom and ability to do anything or become anything. They represented something so brilliant and pure and he was reflected in it also – part of himself was seemingly trapped in this image with them. Here he was part of something beautiful, something special, unique. All that remained to Kobaknov now was the admission that their influence had once engulfed him and now he was detached and alone. The beauty and elegance of them rocked him and shook him so hard that he felt he might combust. He could smell his wife’s hair; feel his daughters tiny fingers interlocked with his.
Fragments of sensations and recollections darted through his mind. A warm August afternoon in the park, his daughter giggling on a swing which gently pendulated – her feet kicking up occasional loose sprigs of grass and dry earth; He and his wife strolling along a promenade – joking, smiling – the warm water of the sea lapping steadily near them.
He remembered how he had left them; his assignment handed to him by his superiors, the immense sense of challenge he remembered but how he knew that he would crave them miserably. More corrosive memories assumed control of him. They had kissed, cried and said goodbye and then he was gone from their side. Now they were imprisoned in this still frame as he was imprisoned in his steel shell. They were locked in time. Unmoving and wanting. He desperately wanted to touch them; to be near them again.
They could not answer his pleas though. They were held apart from him in this paper tomb; confined and trapped without substance or palpability. Dragged away from his despairing grasp like the wind scoops up and whisks away a balloon from the arms of a wailing child on a blustery day; just out of his reach but a million miles removed.
He could not breathe; the Sartorious felt so small and distant. Kobaknov was the last man in existence the only man there had ever been – condemned to never again feel the gentle embrace of another. Destined to linger in this encampment of despair and fallacy. He desperately needed to escape through the airlock and float home or to swing the ship around and abandon his mission even though he knew this was an impossibility due to the computer navigation system. Impossible, Alex. He needed to communicate; to see his loved ones or simply hear the voices of those two preserved ghosts, those immaculate porcelain dolls. Perhaps if he screamed loud enough they would hear him, maybe he could beat the walls like a drum. He imagined how they would have changed in his absence – how the World had changed without him. It had not noticed he was gone, it did not need him any longer and perhaps they did neither. The world turns without consideration; existence cares not for one missing soul.
His eyes already streaming with tears which intermittently pooled on his nose and upper-lip and splashed on the floor, Kobaknov took the picture with him to his hammock. Lying hunched and contacted – knees tucked into his chest – he clutched the picture to him with the tight fists of a child and sobbed uncontrollably.
His original purpose for this venture – his attempt to retrace his memories and re-affix himself psychologically – had long been supplanted. He was no more certain as to why he felt so strange and why his reflection was perturbing to him and at this moment he did not care. He hated himself for existing at all; for being aboard the Sartorious and infinitely distant from anyone he ever cared about. To hell with his mission, to hell with WSEA, to hell even with Mathers; damn them all, he sniped. And damn me.
His ensuing solipsistic disintegration continued as he wailed and screamed at intervals; angrily deriding himself and the ship which he governed. He begged to the almighty, to nobody, and to every mortal who had ever laid foot in existence that he might awaken from this stupor and materialise in his home; far from the rough steel and the eternal wailing which went on and on.
He wished he had never left Earth, never taken the photograph, never packed it with him, never found it today, never been born, the World never evolved.
Regrets and heartache; the weight of his decisions, the inadequacies of the human-being and the consequences of sentience battered him mercilessly like a rainstorm of stones falling upon his sodden figure.
Two undeniable conclusions had been reached the captain in the most painful way he could have ever imagined:
Number one: His memory was still functioning efficiently enough;
Number two: He wished so vehemently at this moment that it was broken irreparably.