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Man the Pumps!

a fairytale

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

Once upon a time there was a whole colony of people trapped inside the hold of a huge ocean liner unable to see out except for the view of the sea that they could glimpse through a few very small portholes. They had been there for an extremely long time, nobody was sure how long, and generation upon generation had been born and had died in the vast space of time that had passed since they had set out on the voyage.

Beliefs and traditions had grown up about the purpose and destination of the voyage, and especially about the unseen Captain, and the things that were going on on the bridge. Since all the hatches were battened down, and were made of the thickest and hardest steel that the voyagers could imagine, there was no way to see anything or anybody above deck, if indeed there was an “above deck” at all. But most of them believed in the existence of the bridge and the Captain, even though they had never seen either and probably never would.

Although they couldn’t see the Captain or the bridge, they did have a speaking tube, which was widely believed to lead to the Captain’s chair behind the helm. Many people spoke to the Captain regularly, and a fair number of them claimed to have received answers back from Him as well. Of course there were cynics who said that not only was there no Captain listening at the other end of the speaking-tube, but the tube wasn’t a speaking-tube at all but just the remains of a disused plumbing system that used to take fresh water around the lower decks.

According to those who had heard the Captain’s voice, He was very much in charge of the ship, knew exactly where it was going, and had everybody’s interests sincerely at heart. He was a good and compassionate and all-knowing Captain and however it might seem He would never let the ship come to harm and would reward those on board who did good and punish those who did wrong (eventually) in accordance with the rules of maritime law. Essentially there was nothing to worry about. You might not understand what was going on, or (for example) why bad things happened to good people, but the Captain could see the whole scheme of things in its entirety and if you trusted in Him everything would be all right.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, the Captain would tell people do to very strange things, or so they claimed. He sometimes told people to tie bags of gunpowder around their waists and blow themselves up in crowded parts of the ship. “Are you sure?” they would ask, “Wouldn’t that be very unpleasant for all concerned, and in most ways counter-productive?”

“It is my direct command,” He would say, “and you should be flattered to be asked. Naturally, after the event, when nobody’s looking, I’ll come down and pick up all your pieces and put you together again and take you up to the Top Deck, where you can live for ever, doing no work but just making love to beautiful women. This is a test of your obedience. It’s all in the Maritime Law Handbook.”

“Oh. Thank goodness for that,” they would reply. “For a minute there you had us worried.” And off they would go to the powder store.

Quite often He would tell people that some other group was His enemy, and they had a duty to attack them and kill as many of them as they could in the most brutal way that they could come up with. People never argued about that instruction, they seemed to get stuck in to the task straight away with relish. The funny thing was, it often emerged that He had told the other group exactly the same thing.

As well as the people who claimed to communicate with the Captain (either directly or through intermediaries) there were two main groups who were sceptical about His very existence. The less arrogant of the two, the agcaptics, held that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to say whether there was a Captain on the bridge or not. More extreme in their views were the acaptics, who were convinced that the Captain did not exist, but had been invented by those who could not live with the obvious truth that the ship was drifting and there was nobody whatever at the helm. Mostly the agcaptics and acaptics just argued with one another on chat shows and didn’t really make any difference to anything. They NEVER blew themselves up in crowded places, however, and NEVER started any wars.

A more significant group were the scientists, who set themselves the task of looking for purpose and intelligence in the behaviour of the ship and its alleged Helmsman. They made observations of the sun and moon and stars through the portholes, and measured the height of the waves, and produced graphs and diagrams of the ship’s course. They could find nothing to suggest that it wasn’t simply drifting on the deep ocean currents. As they became more ambitious they initiated a series of experiments in High Energy Physics to try to make a hole through one of the hatches. Through this hole, they believed, it would be possible to observe the bridge, and the Captain (if any) by using a scientific instrument, such as a mirror on a stick. This was an immensely expensive scientific enterprise, involving years of continuous scraping on the same bit of the hatch with dinner-knives and screwdrivers, and there were many respectable theorists who suggested that it would never be possible to make a hole through a hatch in this way. Others suggested that as they didn’t actually know what lay beyond the hatch it was a very dangerous thing to do. It could be the thin end of a terrifying wedge. Once scientists discovered they could make a hole in a hatch maybe they would start making holes in other parts of the ship and let the water in. Besides, many of them argued, this whole approach was too literal and unspiritual. There was every possibility that the Captain was not an ordinary man of flesh and blood but some kind of ethereal spirit-Captain who wouldn’t show up in a mirror on a stick. Hence the scientists’ findings were discounted before the experiment was even conducted.

A very important contribution of the scientists was to draw the attention of everybody else to the rate at which the ship’s supplies were being used up, with no attempt being made to replenish them (for example, by fishing through the portholes, or distilling sea-water into fresh water). Not only were they wasting food and water and all the other things in the cargo hold at a prodigal rate, it was only about a tenth of the total passenger population who were doing it, with the other ninety per cent starving and living miserable and disease-ridden lives and dying very young. The Captain didn’t seem to have too much to say about this, or if He did it was not much listened to by his alleged followers.

Against all the odds, as many would hold, the ship is still afloat and all the same old arguments between the different sects of Captics, the agcaptics, the acaptics and of course the scientists continue to this day. Nobody is certain what the final fate of the ship and its passengers is going to be. Many of the voyagers believe that it will reach the Promised Land before very long, while others darkly predict that it’s only a matter of time before it runs on to the rocks or collides with an iceberg and sinks. Speaking for myself, I think the best hope is that the scientists break open that hatch completely and gain access to the bridge, so that the people themselves can take the helm and steer the ship to somewhere warm and pleasant that can offer a good life for everybody. And if those beautiful women happen to be there too, well, that’s a bonus.