Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jerusalem 22 - Dirigibles


Chapter 21 hereChapter 23 here

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I

In the greasy, early morning suggestion of light, the dirigible with the Jensens set down in a valley not far from Sadevaag in the Faeroes, mainly on the strength of the co-pilot’s family being there, they being hardly likely to shop them to the authorities. 

The majority of the passengers got off here, they felt the ship lifting off again and there was just the diffused light from faraway towns.  The weather was kind at the moment and the buffeting minimal. At the window, they looked down below but could see nothing. To their surprise, not twenty minutes into the trip, they seemed to be descending again, it was clear they were going to land … and then they didn’t.  

They silently settled into what seemed suspended animation.

A polite knock at the door saw the woman from last night addressing them, using their alter-egos, entreating them to come up to the command centre.  Emma picked up Jean-Baptiste and they followed along to the front of the ship.  A knock on the door, they were summoned through and had to duck down to fit through the hatch.

They didn’t recognize either crew member but the introductions were made and then an extraordinary thing happened. The captain began to explain the controls, the mechanisms, how to do this and that, how to restore pressure, how to feed helium into the sac, it went on and on. 

The pilot said it was time for lunch, they all went down to the dining table on the second stage, the whole place looking remarkably empty and forlorn.

Over the lunch of fish and salad, he explained the situation.  Hugh and Emma were now the keepers, pilots and crew of the ship.  They’d be taught navigation and the handling of the ship over the next two days plus coordinates to emergency destinations.  The last thing they would be taught, on the last afternoon, the thing which would keep them alive, was how the cloaking worked and heaven help them if they ever let it slip.

‘Now, food supply,’ said Captain Rantall.  ‘It will come in from Faeroeans.  They themselves had a failure of the fishing fleet – sabotage most like – and they’ve only just started getting back on track.  The rations are going to be meagre but there’ll be enough for 12 initially.’

‘12?’ asked Hugh.

‘Ah, you haven’t been told yet.  You’re the northern redoubt for the most wanted, one of the key hubs giving refuge to those the enemy has been hot on the tails of.  Don’t worry, they only get here via a most convoluted, circuitous route.’  Actually, they hadn’t been thinking this at all.  ‘The weaponry is largely in place but the ship is not yet rearmed.  Two other chaps will come in on the last day –’

‘Last day?’

‘In two days – before we depart and leave you to it.’

‘Ah.’

‘You’ll be self-sufficient but in your hands will be the rations, the discipline and the safety of these people.  Any questions?’  Emma, smiling, shook her head and Hugh did too.  ‘Great.  Now,' he turned to Emma, who could feel she needed to attend to Jean-Baptiste, 'do you need time to deal with the baby or what?’

Emma returned to their room and took time ‘to deal with the baby’.  Hugh stayed up top and went through some more drills.  ‘I take it we’re hovering over the stream now?’

‘It's four metres below the basket - not for security because an enemy could easily burst the sac – it’s all to do with visibility, overall safety and ease of lift-off.’

They went over many details, Emma reappeared, bemused how far Hugh was into it all and eminently happier, she joined in through to supper time, with one break for refreshments.

II

By dawn, the dirigible with Sam and Sophie aboard descended to what was apparently called Ubekendt Ejland, an island with virtually no redeeming features, no sustainable food sources and no security.  It was argued that this was its main claim to acceptance for them all - it would be one of the last places that anyone would be likely to hide on.

What was not immediately apparent to the outside world was that there was a smallboat connection with the far side, where their dirigible had settled down between two cliff faces, a tenuous connection but one bringing rations to the eight people on board from the mainland and the handful of fishermen there.

The second stage of the dirigible had been given over to horticulture - grains and fruits and the intent was clear but in the meantime, it was necessary to rely on rations already stacked onboard.  The Captain, Jannick Boesen, a wanted man in his own right for smuggling, explained the rules and they were all straightforward.

So this was going to be their home for as long as possible.

Sam and Sophie looked at one another, did not like the arrangement but what could they do?  The other five on board were an altogether too young girlfriend/helper of the Captain, a very quiet couple of the name Entmussen and two seemingly separate people, a Jan Olifiers and a Margarita Canne.  While there'd be little drama onboard, there also looked to be no bonhomie, no possible connection between these people and what was worse was that the good Captain's eyes were already poring over Sophie.

Ever the bold spirit, she marched straight up to the cockpit after luncheon and confronted the man with her accusation and demand that he desist.  The girlfriend was bemused but the Captain was not, his protestations loud and long.  What immediately struck Sophie about this bunch was that they did not appear, any of them, to be saints, which one would have expected if Gabriella had had anything to do with it.

Mollifying her somewhat was the Captain's now more conciliatory attitude, they began to speak about this and that, about how they'd all got there and she now saw that he was a wanted man indeed - he'd been stealing state secrets and feeding them to resistance groups.  The girl had been a rescuee and when Sophie eventually went back to Sam and Little Emma, it was with the girl in tow.

Strangely, Sam, not usually averse to a pretty face, did not immediately take to Letti and when she departed, he asked what had gone on up in the cockpit.  Sophie gave him chapter and verse and he mused on it, stroking his chin.

'That girl's not straight,' he concluded.  Sophie looked at him, rocking Little Emma to sleep and knew what he meant.  She was too careful, too smarmy even, too calculating and both were of the opinion that the girl ran the Captain, not the other way about. 

They'd keep an eye on her.

III

March, 2013

The last afternoon of the outgoing crew was upon them, Hugh and Emma both had a fair idea how to fly the craft, not that that was going to be needed, they understood the thermal and radar cloaking, they understood the black boxes, they had the supply lines sorted and knew the couriers well enough, they knew how to test the incoming food - in short, they were as ready as they were going to be.

The food supplies were mostly grain and dried meat plus the remains of the cans they’d brought and there were no more of the latter.  One wing of the second stage had been given over to horticulture and row upon row of seedlings had been planted.  If anyone knew how to grow such things, it was the Faeroeans and two girls had that task more or less permanently – others had been required to look after their own sustenance at ground level.

The ship had been armed with its own nasty little surprises, ablution was the last matter dealt with and they were virtually ready.  The crew of three came to them and saluted, command changed hands, the ladders went down from the landing floor of the basket and through the hatch, Hugh could see some boats in the stream, directly below them.

The people in the boats climbed up, one after another, until all 10 were assembled in the main room, sitting on chairs or standing to one side, all obviously waiting to be told what was next.  Hugh addressed them, running through their situation, getting them to adjust to the new realities and allaying their fears.

One lady standing to one side asked a bizarre question, ‘Will you sleep on the divan or will I?’

It was Sarah. 

Emma glanced at Hugh’s dropped jaw but he finished the welcome; now it was a case of allocating rooms, couples and families first – there was only one family grouping with a seven year old girl - and then the others.  They were one room short but the middle-aged pair who were left agreed to share the large bedroom, which meant that that woman went into the smaller and it all worked itself out.

They were given a time to reappear, then Emma went straight back to their own room because it was time for Jean-Baptiste to awake.  Hugh did some things and appeared ten minutes later.

‘Sarah Retton,’ was all Emma said, Jean-Baptiste at her breast.

‘Even when she was younger, she was never enough, Emma.  What did you think of her this time round?’

‘She looks awful.’

‘Why is she here?  Last we heard, she was one of them, as Marie did not seem to share everything with her.  My first thought now was that she was a plant, my second thought was how to keep her out of your bed.’

‘My bed?’

‘Yes, my love.  She’ll be aware that you’re not averse to closeness with other women you know.  She can’t risk coming through me because she knows you’ll be observing, so she’ll come through you.’

‘I’m not sure I like that.’

About twelve minutes later, there was a knock at the door and it was her.  Emma invited her through and she introduced Jean-Baptiste. 

‘May I hold him?’ Sarah asked and she gingerly took the baby in her arms.  Emma watched the conflicting emotions in the woman; she was clearly fighting herself and the feel of the baby was powerfully unbalancing whatever she was about.

For Jean-Baptiste’s part, he was wary and though he didn’t cry, he didn’t quite know what he had here.  Emma thought a buxom woman like Sarah might have been what Jean-Baptiste liked.  She took back the proferred baby and Hugh asked, ‘So tell us about Marie.’

Sarah sat in that manner of a woman with no responsibilities – the feet pushed out in front, hand clasped between the open knees.  ‘They took her, Hugh, Emma.  She was summoned for a planning session and didn’t come back.  I never saw her again.’

Hugh nodded.  ‘I hope it was quick but I suspect it wasn’t.’  He waited for tears from Sarah but they didn’t come.  To give her the benefit of the doubt, he put it down to her being drained of any further emotion.  ‘Tell me what happened to you subsequently.’

‘It – it’s hard to speak of that.’  They remained silent, forcing her to continue. ‘Why they let me go is beyond me but it didn’t help because I couldn’t get work.  Then I got a receptionist’s job but only stayed two months and left after I told the boss what I thought of him.’

‘Back to the outspoken Sarah.’

‘I drifted into dancing but wasn’t all that good.  Customers were willing to pay and I kept it with high class clientele, never on the street.’

‘No rooms rented by the hour.’

‘None of that … not for the first year.’

‘It’s been rough, hasn’t it?’

‘There’s no outlet, Hugh, no love.  There’s no place for me.’

He looked at her and decided to try it on spec.  ‘When did the drugs start?’  Emma looked across at him.

‘Not at first.  I never shot up because I hate needles.’

‘Poor Sarah.  But why did they collect you and send you here?’

‘Two of us heard that they were going to take us in and we went to ground. One evening, they took her but I got away and made contact with some old Sophie-Fleury contacts.  I was hidden until the ship came and here I am.

‘Sarah, let’s not talk about this anymore.  We have to take care of JB now.’

She took her leave, he waited until he could hear she’d gone and turned to Emma.  ‘You don’t buy it either, Fayette?’

‘No.’

‘I wonder if it could it be a triple ploy.  We’re expected to buy it.  We don’t, not because of anything in particular but they think we’ll just not buy it, as we have not.  They’ll expect us to think that maybe she’s OK after all and then her story will check out. We’ll close off our suspicion but in fact, she’s not OK at all.  There’ll be something implanted we never even saw.’

‘You have the mind tortueux, Bebe.’

IV

Sophie was at the door to their room, Little Emma in her arms and in the distance, back towards the gangway, sat Sam and this Letti. 

She'd given Sam virtual carte-blanche to find out about Letti and the best way to do that was through an attempted seduction.  She was well aware that Sam was not exactly reticent in this but it still seemed the best option.  Every so often, the girl would look over in the direction of their room and then she whispered something.

The Entmussens were occupying the low end of the table and Jan was reading over by the window.  Of Margarita, there was no sign, perhaps on her own bed, reading a book.

Letti got up and went to the gangway, down to the landing bay.  Sam went to the loo, which was up near where their room was but on the other side of the walkway, Sophie stepped back inside, as Sam went past. 

He didn't come back.

She waited a reasonable time and then did something quite daring.  With Little Emma now out like a light, she went straight to the male loo and entered.  She scoured it, pressed the mirror, tried to pull it back, examined the floor, examined the walls, sat on the bowl.

Nothing.

She opened the door, cautiously peeped out, then skipped across to their room, shocked to find Sam inside.  Sitting down on the bunk, she gave him that 'please explain' look and he obliged.

'You didn't go behind the loo," he answered her as yet unasked question.  'Next time, go down there but be very careful because it creaks a little near the left rung, the third one down.  If you count the floor as zero and the first rung down as one, then the third needs to be avoided.  The rest seem OK.'

Her silence was an invitation for him to explain the main part.  'Yes, I was groping her in the corner of the supplies room.  She's tattooed on her right hip with a pink rose, there seems to be one on her ankle, her left arm might be punctuated with marks, looks that way but I couldn't be sure.  If so, it was some time ago.  He might have rescued her and set her straight but he might also be playing the same game we are.’

'When do you see her again?'

'After supper.  I'll make an excuse to you and I think you'd better make it awkward for me - don't facilitate it too readily.  Maybe tell me it's my turn for Little Emma and I'll quietly dispute it, dropping my voice so she can't hear - but she will, of course.'

She nodded.  'Take condoms.  I don't want you inside me after her without them.'

He was stunned.  'I thought -'

'If you hold back, it will be entirely out of character.  Like Emma on the island, I need to know.'

'I'm not letting you have Jan.'

'Is that your concern?  Then you obviously don't know me all that well, Samuel.'

'I don't want her, Sophe.  She's not clean.'

'Was Miri?'  He didn't answer.  'I don't think it will come to it.  I think she'll find a way out, just before the end.  She'll establish that you would and then engineer something.  That's my reading of her.'

V

In the Faeroes it was the time to go through each passenger’s file and check and cross-check for anomalies or non-anomalies but first - the meeting.

At the table, Emma made it clear, with apologies, that the only food was either local and in season or whatever could be brought in, that there would be two meals a day, not three and that the second, around 16:00, would have to suffice.  There was work to be done and everybody would take turns, from the peeling of the potatoes to the preparation of the occasional vegetables.

Emma and Hilda would look over the incoming supplies and make a week’s menu which they’d present to the group, with a view to which foodstuffs would be eaten on which days and in which quantities.  She didn’t want anyone missing out or thinking that food was being hoarded when it wasn’t.  People nodded around the long table – all knew they were lucky to even be alive.

Hugh opened.

‘You don’t even need me to say this but perhaps it’s as well to anyway.  We all have to live together with as few rules as possible.  Some of you still have tasks to do, out there.  Some have already given great service to freedom and deserve a rest.  We’d like to hear each of your stories from your own lips and so we’d ask you to prepare a little speech of a minute or so to enlighten us all at dinner.

Who are we and why are we addressing you instead of you addressing us?  I wish I knew.  The crew who brought us here told us that we were to do this.’  He gave a brief rundown of Emma’s and his antecedents and she filled in some of the details.  Most were impressed.  ‘On the island,’ continued Hugh, ‘we ran a quite laissez-faire arrangement, largely along the lines of classic liberalism.  Do what you wish but have a mind for both our situation and for others.

There are two areas on which we cannot compromise.  One is food and sustenance.  The other is security.  To endanger either is a capital crime.  I don’t use the term lightly but with due care.  This is perhaps where we may seem pitiless but we’ve had experience in this area and there are some things which simply can’t be compromised on.  Emma will tell you about when we reached our island.'

She did and the dropped jaws, as this cheeky faced little woman detailed the slaughter of the natives, showed that the point had hit home.  Next Hugh detailed the Prime Minister’s shooting of the traitors.  ‘We must seem heartless monsters to you but we simply can’t afford certain things.  You see, we’ve been through all the humanitarian arguments and all the ‘let someone live at all costs’ and it suppresses the need to act immediately and summarily.  We are not playing G-d, we are ensuring the safety of the group, our prime directive.'

There were rumblings but there were also choruses of approval.  One voice called out, ‘Does that mean we can never leave this ship again?’

‘No, it doesn’t mean that at all.  All of us hope to leave this ship but we have to do it in an orderly fashion.  If someone wishes to leave, the pros and cons need to be talked out and voted on. It may be that we can’t take the risk.  People, we’re not playing games here – we’re speaking of life and death.  We might have a traitor on board even now as we speak.  We can’t take the risk.

I’d like now to discuss a question which throws all of this into sharp relief.  Let’s imagine an innocent stumbles upon us.  You all know what you went through to get to us so imagine that this independent person manages to stumble upon us one morning.  What do you think we should do?’

One hand shot up, a young chap with glasses.  ‘Bring him onboard and get a message to his people that he can’t go anywhere.’

‘And won’t they send out a search party?’ asked Emma.

‘Yes but they’ll send one anyway.’

‘They might and then we bring them onboard as well?’

‘So they send out a larger party in search of those ones.’

A mousy woman of about forty spoke.  ‘We create natural dangers about a kilometre from here on all access routes.  It might be quicksand or thorns or something which would injure but not kill.  They should desist from trying to go further.’  Emma heard Jean-Baptiste crying and had to go.  ‘Inside this, we have the real barrier, the lethal one.  It might be a gas or something else as humane as we can make it.’

‘But that’s murder!’ remonstrated a chap of about fifty at the far end.

‘It would certainly be murder if he saw us, got away and told it.’

‘But this is pre-emptive vengeance.  You’re killing him before he sees anything.’

‘What about this then?’ asked Hugh. ‘A series of barriers should prevent anyone getting in.  If he does make it in through his own ingenuity, he’s shot with a dart which knocks him out. We remove the dart, of course.  The toxin makes him very, very sick and should curb his desire to explore further.  If he is very, very persistent and he sees us, we shoot him.’

‘No, no,' said the fifty year old.  'That’s murder.’

‘We can’t let him tell what he’s seen because others will come and the enemy are in the main towns – they’ll hear of it for sure and we’re then either dead or captured and then slowly tortured to death.  We can’t let him remain with us because firstly, he will then become an enemy whom we can’t trust and secondly, we haven’t the food.  We’re struggling as it is.  What I’m trying to get across to the more sensitive dispositions is that what distinguishes us from the enemy is that we are not malicious beasts, nevertheless we simply can’t afford to allow certain things to happen.  This is a wartime situation we’re in.  I know that there are those among you who will vehemently disagree and I’d ask you what your solution would be.’

One young lady to the left asked, ‘What exactly is our current policy?’

‘The one I just outlined.  The one, I mean, about perimeter defences – the locals have arranged those, that’s why this place was chosen.  There’s no special gas though – we just have to shoot the persistent.’

‘Oh my goodness.  And we’ve all seen the ship.’

‘You’re on the manifest though and provided for.  Whether you’d talk is something the group would have to decide.  For you to have got this far anyway, something must have happened, someone must have come to you in the first place, to arrange for you to be picked up by this very special dirigible.  So you’re already one of us.’

No one liked it but equally, no one could see any other solution.

VI

'Well?' asked Sophie, as he came back and began playing with Little Emma on the bunk, poking her tummy and getting squeals of delight in return. 

'As you predicted.  She went all coy and said we should wait one more day, that she wasn't sure.'

'How far had it gone?'

'I was almost there.  Her name's Letti Mayer, she's from Schonebeck, near Magdeburg, 21 years old, left school at 15 and tramped around, she did do drugs, met the Captain a few years back in a bar, joined him in his work, liked the adventure of it but didn't understand what she was getting herself into.'

'How many years back?'

'Four.'

'Making him a paedophile.'

'Hardly -'

'Cradle snatcher.'

Sam sighed. 'Then what does that make me?'

'Also a paedo.'

'I don't understand you sometimes.  Do you want me doing this or not?'

'You have your own mind.  Why don't you decide?'  She relented.  'You didn't get much, not that I thought you would so early.  I have to ask myself whether you should or shouldn't continue.  Trouble is, if she really didn't want and it starts, it could backfire because you might fall for her.  It's been known to happen.'

'And what would you do?  Take Emma and go and find Hugh?'

'As you said, Sam,' she ignored that one, 'She's not straight.  It might be that she's just young, it might be something more.  If we're going to have any peace of mind on this ship, we need to sort her out.  I also have my eye on one other but I'd like to see if you pick it up too, so I won't comment at this moment.  OK, Sam, yes, you'll have to try but look at this first.'  She held out her hand.

'Bug?'

'I know the type.  There doesn't seem any organization down there now who'd want to bug the cabins -'

'Er ... how long ago -'

'Within thirty minutes of us first coming into this room.  While you went off to wash.'

'Therefore, assuming they're live and you've removed all of them, they're not getting the broadcast from us and they must also assume we've found them.  What does that mean?'

'A ship with devices in it is not straight, all right?  A smuggling vessel, it's true, could use them because you have to be sure that people you're smuggling out aren't going to turn you over.'

'He was an information stealer, not a smuggler.'

'I’d agree he wasn’t a smuggler.  Plus this is a very big ship.'

Sam cogitated and came up with, 'Then he was not a smuggler.  It was rendition.'

'Seems that way to me.  He may well be what he says he is and he stole this ship from them in the past day or two but you'd agree it's suspicious.'

'Saul converted to Paul on the road to Damascus?'

'Perhaps.  How does Gabriella come into it?  That suggests to me that he’s straight, if a bit rough but the girl is not straight, which is what we originally thought and it might be a test for us - why, I don't know.'

Sam had left off with Little Emma and had been edging towards the door whilst Sophie was talking, which now made her reach inside her pack and keep her hand there.  Suddenly, he flung open the door and dragged a figure into the room, a female, flinging her to the floor and pouncing on her - Margarita - but she fought tooth and nail, Sophie took the three paces up to her to help Sam and now she said a word he didn't pick up on but it had the effect of turning the woman rigid.

She ceased to struggle but looked hard at Sophie, then at the baby, Sophie dropped to her knees and plunged her knife through the woman's heart. Blood shot out of the body, she convulsed and then lay inert, Sam on his back against the other bunk, staring hard at Sophie.

For her part, she was calm and simply said, 'Go for the Captain, Sam.'

There was no need because they were all clamouring at the door, Letti being the first inside.  She turned, went out again and threw up.

VII

When Hugh got back, she drew him to the bed and sat him on it. With a voice just above a whisper, she said, ‘When I got here, Sarah was leaning over Jean-Baptiste and he was following her with his eyes.  She apologized for coming in and then she left.’

‘I saw her going that way.  If she was going to the toilet, then she’d have gone straight. Perhaps she really was taken by our baby.’

‘That’s not good.’

‘My reading is that she’s not right at all, not kosher, do you know what I mean?’

‘Same in French.’

‘You agree?’

‘Yes.’

‘She also seems deeply troubled by what she has to do and she’s genuinely fallen for the baby, maybe not our baby but the concept of babies and what she’s missed.’

‘That won’t go on forever.’

‘No.  We have to engage her in conversation but not until tomorrow.’ 

VIII

The body had been wrapped up, removed and placed in a storage cupboard on the lower landing deck, the mat had been put in there too and the floor had been scrubbed.

The Captain had wanted to incarcerate Sophie but she'd said that any who tried that would die.  Sam backed her up although he hardly understood what had just happened.  Mrs. Entmussen was a mess and Mr. Entmussen, shaking with rage, now demanded of Sophie, 'Are you going to murder all of us in our beds?'

'Of course not.  This woman was about to kill my child.  I killed her first.'

Sam was not going to publicly ask the obvious question but Letti did, 'How do you know that?  What right did you have to take Margarita's life?'

'Because she was one of us.  I recognized her.  She responded to my signal to her.'  They clearly wanted more, Sophie sighed and told them of her past, of the perpetual abuse, of the personalities, of how she recognized signs in the woman and then, when Sophie had challenged her with a key word from her training, which had stopped her in her tracks, then she knew what she had to do.

Letti refused to accept it.  'You have no way of knowing she would kill your child.  You're ... mad.'  She burst into tears.

Sophie was unmoved.  'I knew this one was not a rescuee, she was not a person abused long ago, she was live, she was the one on board to murder us and she would have put the blame onto someone else. I bet she came on board with Jan but Jan doesn't even know who she is ... do you, Captain?'

'I ... um ... was told there'd be two, there were two, she seemed fine, she was quiet and friendly.'

'Oh, she would be.  I've seen the like many times before.  In fact, I've saved the crew and passengers on this ship.  Even while the Captain's girl was making love to my husband.'

Sam's jaw dropped open, the Captain shot a look at him and then turned savagely on Letti.  She was bewildered and now burst into tears again. 

It was a bad scene but Sophie seemed unfazed.  'Look, all of you.  My husband was never going to make love to that girl - he was finding out about her, this Margarita was the killer with a split personality and unless you yourselves are split personalities too, unless they've done the same to you, then you'll just have to take my word for that. I understand the horror for you but it's no more horrible than what is going on in that world out there.  Think why each of us is here.'

'And what did you find out about her?' asked the Captain, quietly.

'We know this ship was a rendition craft, which is why these bugs,' she held hers up for all to see, 'were in each room and we were being spied on.  By whom?'

All eyes turned to the Captain, even Letti's and in hers was a curious expression.

IX

‘Hello, Sarah.’

She spun round on the landing deck and looked all of her thirty plus years.  Some women are eternal but sadly, not Sarah.  And sadly too, she knew that he knew that.

‘Things have changed, Hugh,’ she offered by way of explanation.

‘I think you’re in a mess, Sarah,’ he cut straight to the chase.  ‘I think you have some sort of purpose here and you can’t do it.  I think someone has a hold over you and you’ve been mistreated.  You haven’t a friend in the world just now.  There are some single men and women on this ship and you’re not even trying to mingle.  If you like, why don’t we just sit here on the floor and you tell me about it.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Direct threat or voices in the head?’  She knew she couldn’t say a word, that it was more than her life was worth.  At least she thought it was.  He went on.  ‘We had trouble working it out.  ‘If you had a straight task, you’ve been hopeless – we picked up on that quickly.  If you’re a decoy, then we need to find out for whom.  If you’re genuine, then you need help right now and you need to open up to me.  I’m here to help.’

She maintained her silence but didn’t storm off.  He tried a different tack.  ‘Was our baby part of your task?’   She knew she couldn’t answer that one either.  He continued.  ‘Sit, sit, Sarah.  Please?  For me?’  He sat down but kept an eye on her.  She clearly did not want to sit because that put her into a conversation it would be hard to extract herself from.  She also knew she couldn’t change the subject because that was an admission in itself but now he was seated, that was a further pressure from the point of view of etiquette.

Gradually, she sat down, looking away.  ‘I escaped them, I told you.’  She was really on edge, he didn’t watch directly but he was certainly aware.  The thing which puzzled him was how much Gabriella knew – was Sarah one of the rescuees, as all 12 were meant to be, was he plain wrong about her, was she a broken woman and was he being unnecessarily heartless to her? 

Or was she, as they surmised, part of the enemy?

‘Did you see Marie near the end?’  Silence.  That was quite worrying because if she was innocent and she had seen Marie, he’d have expected her to be traumatized.  If she hadn’t, she’d be choked up but she wasn’t choked up – she was calculating.  This looked very bad. 

‘Did you kill Marie?’  That one didn’t register. 

‘Did you give Marie to them?’  Ah, there it was.  She was right on the precipice, her whole body language was so tight that she could snap.  He decided to try it.

‘Why?’

There was an almighty struggle going on inside her and yet his ‘why’ had not been interrogative but out of interest.  She made as if to talk and then didn’t.  He gave her the way out by getting up and offering her a hand.  She just stood up. 

‘We’ll see you upstairs,’ he said.  ‘I have some checking to do down here.’

She looked hard at him, turned and made her way up the gangway but went no further.  As a spy, she was hopeless – at least she could have gone away then snuck back.  Unless she was meeting someone, of course and he hoped Emma was in place to see it.  He bumbled about to make it seem he did have something to check, then he noticed the lock on the door but moved on to something else because he was sure that someone had come down the walkway behind him.  The thing was to go round in a slow circle, checking the landing floor in a cursory way and eventually make his way back to the gangway.  He could hear whoever it was going back up.

So, it had been the door at issue.  He made his way back upstairs now, expecting to be ambushed but no.  Moving smartly past the others, acknowledging a few of them with a smile, he called Emma but there was no reply nor a sound from Jean-Baptiste.

He went back and asked no one in particular, ‘Have you see my wife?’  Now he caught one particular girl’s eye, went up and indicated for her to come to the side of the room.  He spoke in a low voice, asked if she’d ever fired a weapon, she nodded and he explained what he had in mind, he unbuckled his weapon and gave it to her.

X

'We felt you were the enemy,' began the Captain.  You, Mrs. Hoddle,' Sophie was amused by that, 'were just too self-assured, just too able to take care of yourself.  I didn't know about Letti,' he murmured and there was hurt in the voice.  'She probably did it to protect us, to protect me.'

‘It was shadow boxing, finding out what people knew.'

'Well yes, perhaps.  This ship was a government project, exploring dirigible power in a new age but of course, it doubled for prisoners and contraband.  I knew of it, yes but the contraband was my job.  The bugs - I really didn't know about them.  I stole this ship when a lady appeared and made me an offer.  I don't mind saying that it was blackmail.'

'Did she have a name?' asked Sam?

'No, she was fair-haired and well-spoken.  I had no real choice and besides, it was helping out people in trouble.  Why not?  I hadn't been paid for three months and there was no market any more for the perfumes or even the guns.  I'd also stopped shipping the drugs and I think I was about to be stopped myself.  It seemed the right time to change sides.'

'And Letti?' asked Sophie.

'She can tell you herself.'

The girl dried her eyes, snorted into her handkerchief, which she then crammed up her sleeve and she spoke.  'I was spying on Jan.'  At their puzzlement, she added, 'Not Jan the passenger - Jan the Captain.  I decided I liked him.'

'You're no multiple,' said Sophie.

'You mean like Marie - no.  I was employed in the EU Department of Correction.  They suspected he was syphoning off profits, which he was but he showed me where they were going and the people they were helping.'

'Enough, Letti.  People don't want to hear about that.'

'Yes we do,' said Mrs. Entmussen.

'Well, next time.'  And that was that.  No one seemed to know where to go from here.  There was a body and a rug in a cupboard downstairs, there were bugs which the Captain didn't seem to know about and they were all at a loss.

Jannick Boesen took charge again.  'I'd like the three of you, Mr Hoddle, Mr and Mrs Entmussen, to remain here, at this table and we three will go to each room and see if we can find the other bugs.  We'll go to the cockpit and Mrs. Hoddle can satisfy herself about bugs there.  All right?'

XI

Hugh made his way to one side of his door and called Emma's name. 

The thing was that there was someone inside all right but not answering.  One eye took it all in before he showed his full body and there was Emma standing stock still, a knife to her throat and the one holding it was the hard woman who’d suggested the extermination yesterday.  Of Sarah there was still no sign but now the woman spoke.

‘You’re to release the door.’

‘It has to be done manually – there’s no override.  There’s a locking override but not a release.  You know that.’

It was clear the woman didn’t, even in her nod, for the simple reason that it wasn’t so and now she was in a quandary. ‘You’d also know it takes two people, one on each side for the levers.  I can’t do them simultaneously.’  She bought this and said she was going to put the knife in her pocket and would walk with Emma.  The least attempt at anything and the knife would go direct into his wife.  He was to chat and laugh as he usually did, until they reached the gangway.

His shoulders didn’t slump but they lost their firmness, he nodded his understanding, he nodded to Emma to acquiesce and not try anything.  Now he made an admission.  ‘There’s a girl hiding behind the crew cloakroom curtain and she’s training my gun on your head when we emerge.  You’re going to need me between you and her so she can’t get a clear shot.’

‘Rubbish.’  Hugh indicated his empty holster.  ‘Then you’ll go and call her off now.  No,’ she changed her mind, ‘we’ll have you both either side of me, just in case she happens to be somewhere else, Mr. Jensen.  Let’s be going.’

Hugh was first out, relaxed in his movements, which worried her and Emma now picked up on that and put two and two together, which was a pity because he had no real plan.  He reasoned that the door was only a blind and that the main purpose was for them to be hit.  Where?  From the floor?  From among the guests?  He scrutinized from a distance and saw Sarah.  It might be her task.

The woman now hugged Emma close and told Hugh to come up beside her.  He didn’t and suddenly he called, ‘Vanessa.’  Emma dropped to the floor with Jean-Baptiste and lashed out with her feet, the woman stumbled, Hugh’s girl appeared from the right but she didn’t shoot, there was a shot from the floor and a commotion, Hugh brought his sole down hard on the woman’s neck which sent her limp.  All this was seen from the floor.

Three of the guests were holding Sarah in a lock, having disarmed her, there was a dead woman on the floor by the main table and now their own girl walked down after them, gave Hugh back his weapon, as did the man holding Sarah’s gun and Hugh now spoke.

‘We’d very much appreciate if you would retire to your rooms for now and we’ll sort this out.  You can let the girl here go [meaning Sarah].’  They melted away and Sarah propped her bottom on the table.  Hugh asked her, ‘She was one of them?’ indicating the dead woman.

‘Actually, I don’t really know.  I knew Lyn,’ indicating the woman who’d taken Emma hostage.  ‘I was to open the downstairs door but I couldn’t, so Lyn went to your room.’

‘Let’s have that again, Sarah.  You brought a gun on board?  How?  You were checked by the crew.’

‘No, no one checked me at all.’

‘But how did you think you could get away with coming on board with a gun?’

‘No, Hugh.  I had no gun. I saw Pamela make the move to shoot Emma and you, I took her gun and shot her but it – it didn’t work.  The mechanism didn’t work.  So I hit her in the temple with the butt.’

‘The gun jammed?’

‘It just didn’t respond.’

Emma was listening to this. ‘It seems to me that this Pamela knew the gun wouldn’t work.  No, no, I’m wrong.  She thought it would work but knew she’d get on board with it all the same.  Our scanners didn’t work.’

The implications were clear.  ‘OK, we’ll deal with that in a second.  Sarah, for crying out loud, are you friend or foe?’

‘Lyn came while they were ‘training’ me and offered me a way out of the pain.  My task was to come on board and open that door.’

‘We can assume, can’t we, that this Pamela thought the gun would work but Lyn knew it wouldn’t.  Therefore, not only was Pamela’s gun not going to shoot the girl Chloe, the one who had my gun but Chloe’s was not going to work either.  Therefore the knife was the only operative weapon.’

‘Meaning,’ said Emma, ‘that Pamela was going to die for nothing, Sarah was to be arrested and judging by what Hugh said to the group, she’d be executed.  Which left this Lyn to knife Hugh once they’d opened the door.’

‘What then was the purpose of the whole charade?  I can see why Lyn would do it – to eliminate Sarah and Pamela.  Why should she want to do that?  Tell us, Sarah.’

‘We went to the cockpit.  I was to switch off the cloaking –’

‘Which you didn’t do,’ said Hugh.  ‘I know it’s still on.’

‘The cloaking itself is on, yes.  That was the point where I decided not to go through with it.  You asked about friend or foe, didn’t you?’

‘What do you mean,’ he asked. ‘The cloaking itself is on, yes?’

‘Lyn switched something else on in the ship which was already there.  Eventually you’d wake up to the fact that things weren’t working, you’d look for a cause and see that this device was on.  You wouldn’t know what the device was but you’d know it was the one.’ 

‘No I wouldn’t because neither Emma nor I were going to be there.  We’d be off the ship, being captured, the original game plan all along.’

‘No,’ said Sarah, firmly.  ‘You weren’t to be off the ship at all - she was.  She was to throw a vial of diluted acid at your neck the moment the door was open – you can check her pockets.  It was to give her time to get off.  You’d be busy getting that washed off, also suspect something didn’t add up and you’d think of the cockpit.   I’d already worked out the guns wouldn’t work and when the one I took off her didn’t, that confirmed it.  Something in the cockpit has been switched on, as you saw.  You’d go to the cockpit and reverse the device but in doing that, you wouldn’t be reversing it - you’d be setting it to a new phase.’

Hugh stroked his chin.  ‘It might be right.  Look, let’s go to our quarters; Jean-Baptiste, as you can hear, needs attention, we’ll get back to you later.’  Emma went to Jean-Baptiste. ‘I’ll tell everyone they can come out, M. Lefebvre and Mr. Collins can help get the bodies downstairs.  Sarah, you’d best stay in your room for now.  Are you OK?’

She nodded and went to her room, Hugh did the rounds and told the others, then rejoined Emma who was bottle feeding  Jean-Baptiste.  ‘So, Bebe,’ she asked, ‘is it over?’

‘Obviously not, the cockpit for a start.’

‘Let us talk it through.  You start and let me think.’

‘OK, Pamela came aboard with a gun which she thought would work.  She would not have gone through with the charade if she’d thought it would not work.  All right so far?’

‘Go on.’

‘Lyn’s plan was to get the door open and get off the ship, using the acid for the other part. But perhaps there was a third purpose.’

‘Yes.  I think it was a test run, to see how we operated.  There is a controller in all this, that person is on the ship and he or she was watching the whole show.’

‘Yes.  We weren’t vigilant but that person must have been the one who went to the cockpit and switched on the disabling device, while I was welcoming people aboard and you were directing them on this floor.  So there was no need for this Lyn to do so. Pamela was last aboard.  Therefore I put the girl Chloe in danger –’

‘No, you didn’t.’

‘Correction – no I didn’t.  Actually, no one was in danger but me.’

‘I was.  And yet I wasn’t.  She had every chance to kill Jean-Baptiste and me.’

‘Yes but it wasn't her brief; she had to get off the ship and report to her superiors.’

‘The gas nozzles wouldn’t work, nothing would work.  You’d lift the ship off, we might have rigged a way for the ship to work but by then we would be floating, uncloaked and a missile from miles away could finally lock onto us, once she had reported by device.  She might even have left a homing signal, we don't know.’

‘OK,’ breathed Hugh.  ‘As Sarah said, I’d go there myself to reverse the locking but inadvertently switch it to phase three.  I don’t think we were meant to die in the air.’

‘Nor do I.  I think the three of us were meant to be captured.  I think Lyn was to signal for them to come.’

‘What’s Phase 3?’

‘Maybe to keep systems locked while airborne, except for partial rudder control, to keep the cloaking locked off and to emit a targetting signal.’

‘One flaw.  The one running this would still be on board.’


‘So therefore, we were never to lift off.’


Chapter 21 hereChapter 23 here

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