Slowboat

Author: David Barber

“What you mean, we can’t land?” The Captain looked about, bewildered.

The flatscreens and yellowing presskeys of the Pilgrim’s bridge were from a bygone age. People stepped forward one at a time, shy, yet proud of their empty titles. Shaking hands seemed to be important. This one called herself Captain. The man with hair on his face was the Navigator.

Seven wouldn’t have trusted them to operate a toaster. No one apologised for the smell. As if the walls of the slowboat reeked of failure.

They stared open-mouthed at Nike.

The Chief Engineer took Nike’s polyalloy hand, supple and shiny as water. “It’s warm!” he exclaimed.

Introductions had caused confusion, because Nike and Seven had exchanged names, an affectation once, but increasingly common with mixed-sentience couples. Her mother had chosen the name Nike in a sponsorship deal. Seven’s serial number ended in that digit.

Nike had explained about the planet below, how its unique lifeforms were copyrighted by SolarPharm. There had been consternation when told they could not land.

“But what can we do?” pleaded the Captain.

Nike shrugged, a complex liquid ripple. It had been practicing its gestures to please Seven. “We’re here to decide that.” They had bought sole access rights to the Pilgrim, hoping for a quick profit.

Seven brushed at her nose. It was the recycling. At launch, no one could have known how Pilgrim would fare; it should have been called Long Shot. There must be organisations interested in this centuries-long experiment with closed-loop living and its effects on those trapped inside. She pinged off circulars.

“What about rituals?” Nike consulted a virtual checklist. “You still practice democracy.” There was no market for watching people queue up to vote. “Does it ever get violent?”

This was something the couple disagreed about. Seven didn’t think tourism was a solution. There was the smell, and frankly, they were unattractive yokels with depressing lives. This moment in the spotlight needed to be seized by the throat. Maybe a gritty virtuality about their voyage, each episode, a crisis they never had.

“Orbit’s free,” Nike was saying.

“Stay in here you mean?” The Captain was aghast. “There’d be riots! What about Earth?”

“Well, hardly.”

There had been issues with slowboats before, out-of-timers disturbing Earth’s compliant consumer ecology. Besides, who would pay for transport?

The Pilgrim people talked it over, occasionally glancing round at Nike and Seven.

Nike had recently bought a sensory upgrade. More sensitive vision and hearing, and of course, tactile.

“Did you see?” Nike had heard the Navigator whisper. “They was cuddling.”

Finally the Captain spoke up. “We’ll need a vote, but seems we got no choice but going on. If you can find us a world no person claimed yet.”

“A habitable world,” added the Navigator.

Even cutting corners, refuelling and restocking would cost. These slowboat deals were always a gamble.

“Gets them off our hands,” Nike murmured.

These people were outliers in terms of social structure and psychology. Market research companies might be interested. Offset the outlay by selling limited access. Buy now while stocks last. A time-honoured ploy.

Nike searched star catalogues for a moment. “Here’s one. About two hundred years away. You set foot on it you own it.”

As the couple were leaving, the Captain shook her head. “What kind of world is this?”

They supposed she meant the new destination.

“What if one of the new c-ships gets there first?” Seven said to Nike afterwards.

Pilgrim’s request was on record. The Captain should have taken legal advice.

Nike’s shrug needed work, Seven thought.

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