The airlock hissed closed behind him, sending a coiling wisp of white vapour edging from the vent, curling softly though the air as it slowly, faded out of existence.
Darren Whyte was a boring man and such details actually mattered to him. He whipped out his pad and made a note. He frowned, his ruddy red face taking on the expression of a man with nothing better to do. He took something from his pocket and held it up for the man before him to see quite plainly.
The young man before him seemed quite nervous about this and gulped nervously at the sight of the silver cylinder. Mr Wyte unscrewed it and took out a single green tablet, handing it over and fixing him with a disarming stare.
He took it gingerly and after pausing momentarily, he screwed up his eyes and swallowed it, making an expression of obvious disgust.
“Young man. Did you see that?” he glared up from under his brow at the junior civil officer. “The pill works rather quickly. You should, by now, be quite incapable of telling me a single lie.”
He hadn’t seen whatever it was and wondered what exactly it was that he was referring to. “Sir, my finger was nowhere near my nose.” The pill hadn’t quite taken effect just yet but it could only be seconds now.
The grumpy old man gave a grumpy little noise from somewhere around the back of his grumpy old throat. He frowned some more, since it appeared he was rather good at it. “I refer to the little cloud of smoke that came from the airlock. That can only mean that the airlock is slightly out of adjustment.”
The junior officer had been assigned to him, rather reluctantly. Still, the pill was making it rather difficult to do his job, as he’d been ordered to make things look good during this surprise audit. “It could also mean the airlock is on fire!” he ventured and regretted it immediately, not that there was anything he could do to stop himself.
There was considerable glaring, really quite considerable. “Is the airlock on fire?”
He didn’t want to absolutely promise it wasn’t, just in case. The Nebulous wasn’t run to the absolutely highest standard and it was quite possible that the airlock was malfunctioning horribly – again. The crew were trying to make a good impression so had chosen the one with the least amount of stored alcohol stacked up inside it. He stammered nervously, “I don’t think so, Sir.”
“There is a considerable amount of clutter inside the airlock,” he grumbled, tapping his pad with his finger.
The least amount was not absolutely none, which would have been ideal, and the legal requirement. He nodded weakly.
Mr Whyte continued, “You understand that the airlocks are an emergency exit? What would happen if I were an elephant and needed to escape to safety through such a thing due to a fire?”
He winced, knowing that the only things he could say where the wrong things. “We don’t have any elephants aboard, Sir. Also, the airlock only leads to the deadly vacuum of space and is the only thing that’s technically capable of catching fire on the whole ship, or has ever done so. That is except for the toilets on deck 17 on ‘curry-night.’ I believe that occurrence is still being investigated.”
He didn’t look too surprised. “Young man, I’m here to audit the entire ship. Could you show me to the primary reactor so I can begin my work. I’d like to see the radiation baffles first, to make sure they’re in good working order.”
The young man grimaced. He held up his hand gesturing back from where he’d come. He said, “Sir, they’re in the airlock behind you.”
He narrowed his eyes and made a note on his pad, giving him a caustic glare. “I’m surprised you could find room for them in there with all the alcohol you’ve got stored!” he added sarcastically.
He shrugged back, enjoying a warm sensation as the pill worked its magic on him, flooding his brain with a cocktail of chemicals that had no place inside a brain that envisaged a future for itself. “It’s actually not a lot of alcohol. We store most of it around the primary reactor. Without the baffles, the beer gets a nice fizz on it and makes your teeth tingle when you drink it. The only problem is we’ve had to double up the cat patrols since the rats are getting much larger up there. The cats ended up with glowing red eyes but the rat problem went away when the cats started exploding. That was around the time we started having ‘curry night.’”
He made a note of all this. “Perhaps we’ll skip a visit to the reactor,” he suggested. “Let’s begin with a the life-support control room, shall we? I want to see the air-cleaning system.”
He shook his head firmly, which made him a little giddy and he began to smile to himself and giggle just a little bit. “I was told not to take you there,” he admitted. “The air-cleaning system was moved to the waste recycling deck. It was considered an emergency measure after all the complaints we had after ‘curry night.’ The medical staff ran out of pills after people began stuffing them up their nose because of the smell. In the end the only permanent cure was to have your nostrils surgically removed. Several people chose that option but it just made it worse. They walked into the bathroom and nearly haemorrhaged to death through their eyeballs.
“Someone in the genetic engineering department came up with the idea of making seeing-eye-canaries. It seemed like a great idea… at first.”
That seemed to surprise him, the grumpy man just stood for a moment, staring at his pad. After a lengthy pause he finally said, “Well maybe we’ll begin at navigation control?”
The young man shrugged. “I don’t know where that is.”
He narrowed his eyes. The pills were foolproof, weren’t they?
He began, very sarcastically indeed, “What is working on this ship, perhaps you can suggest where we should start?”
He frowned for a moment, contemplating this carefully. “There is a microwave oven in the gift-shop on deck 12. I know that’s working because I heated up my breakfast there this morning with a man called ‘Dave.’ It tasted pretty good, it had a full, meaty flavour and a spicy zing. I will admit that I hadn’t expected that from a bowl of porridge.”
The auditor was astonished by all this. His mouth lolled open, scarcely able to believe what he was hearing. “So even the food recycling system is questionable?” he grunted.
He shrugged. “I guess it depends what the question is?”
“Does it work?” he clarified.
He began to chuckle to himself and then his knees went a little weak and he had to balance himself against a wall. He looked up with a really very serious expression. “Not really, no. It’s meant to recycle human waste into delicious and nutritiously balanced food supplements. For some reason, all it can make is little green plastic hats. We’ve started to sell them in the gift-shops but the only people buying them are the ones that had their nostrils surgically removed. Everyone else is getting by eating fried seeing-eye-canaries.”
“I don’t…” he stammered, struggling to regain a degree of composure. “It can’t be this bad! No ship can be run this badly. How do you not just drift around space crashing into things?”
He grinned, as if the feeling of having your brain fizzing away like flat beer next to an unshielded reactor was an entirely pleasant one, which perhaps it was. He slurred slightly as he said, “You want to see damage control? They’re usually quite busy down there but I’m sure they’ll be happy to make time for you. One of them is making a Christmas tree out of a manned navigational beacon. I hear it was really quite pretty once he hosed all the blood off of it.”
“I don’t…” he stammered, looking down at his pad and then back to the smiling young man as a drop of blood began to drip from his nose. “I think it might be best if I go now.” He turned to glance back at the airlock.
He nodded. “Yeah, that might be best. Last week one of the emergency escape modules accidentally launched on this deck. It was right above where the toilets caught fire, even so, it probably shouldn’t have fired inwards. Apparently we were lucky that nobody was in it, but less lucky someone was in the cabin it ended up in. I think he was an auditor too, by some weird coincidence.”
He made a frightened little squeaking noise and began edging back to the airlock, glancing around as if the floor might give way beneath him, which was totally unreasonable since the floor beneath him had recently been replaced with the highest quality Chinese bamboo.
“Is this a good audit?” the young man asked, his eyes glazed over as he looked around, enjoying whatever fascinating thing only existed in his own private little world. “I hope it’s not a bad audit, if it is, you have to stay here with us and check over everything, right? It could take months!”
The auditor gave another little squeak. “Umm…,” he began. “It’s not that bad…”
“You should stay!” he told him. “If you microwave the hats, they taste a bit like chicken. Apparently, so do the lightbulbs, but I’ve not tried that yet.”
He began shaking his head slowly. He stopped suddenly as he backed up to the wall, his eyes widening in horror, as if there was no escape. “It’s a good audit. It’s a good audit. I can leave. I’m allowed to leave if it’s a good audit. I’m giving you three out of five stars. Not bad, good enough. Actually better than some.”
“Dave told me it would be a good audit,” the young man said as a suspicious wet patch formed in the middle of his trousers. “He showed me around and told me all about what happens on the ship, he told me exactly what it’s really like, but not to tell anyone as it was our secret.”
“Dave?” The auditor began scratching around with his hand for the door release, back to the glorious sanctity of his personal shuttle.
“I don’t think Dave is very clever though,” he said thoughtfully. “He kept calling me ‘Collateral Damage’ even though my name is Bob. He said it was close enough.”
It was doubtful if he could see much of anything at all by this point and most of his attention was fixed on a blank grey wall panel that oddly reminded him of his Uncle Toby.
The airlock hissed open. “I’m leaving!” the auditor shouted, sighing a huge note of relief as he stepped away, back from the lingering threat of the ship. The door slid closed with a customary hiss.
Bob looked up to Dave, who was actually another blank grey wall panel. “Dave, I think my Uncle Toby left. Probably best, since he died three years ago and probably has better things to do.”
Dave, who was a wall panel with a slight mark on the bottom left corner just laughed.
“Dave, I think we had a good audit,” he slurred drunkenly. “I think we’re safe for another year, just like you said we would be. You’re not as dumb as people say.”
Dave laughed again, no small feat for a very slightly dirty grey panel.
“I love you, Dave!” he said as he sunk to his knees before being completely overwhelmed by a ferocious attack of what had been come to be known aboard the ship as ‘curry night.’
Plain grey all around panelling looked on in disgust, in the way only plain grey panelling could.