The Unmitigated Destruction of Vance's Reader

I looked over at Vance in his bunk with his special noise-cancelling earphones on. He was tapping his foot in a ¾ rhythm. Must be listening to Faraquet again, I thought. I went over to him and poked his shoulder. He opened his eyes and then immediately narrowed them. After a few seconds, he paused the music and took his earphones off.

“What?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“Hey Vance,” I said, “lend me your reader.”

Somehow, he managed to narrow his eyes even more.

“Dutch,” he said carefully, “remind me why you don’t have your own reader.”

“It’s because I dropped it, Vance. I dropped it on the edge of the rec-room table, and the screen broke.”

“That’s right,” he said, and he put his earphones back on. I tapped him on the shoulder once more, and once more he removed his ‘phones.

“What?” he hissed.

“Lend me your reader, Vance.”

He knew I wasn’t going to leave him alone until he gave it to me. He pointed to the drawer set into his bunk. I smiled and thanked him, opened the drawer, and took out the reader. He grabbed the wrist of the hand that held it.

“You know what I’ll do to you if you break it, don’t you Dutch?” he asked. I nodded.

“Don’t worry Vance. I’ll be careful.”

I saw regret and worry in his eyes. My attempt at reassurance, if you could call it that, had made things worse.

I left him to his music and went into the rec-room, turning on the reader as I walked. Vance seems to like Jane Austen a lot, I thought as I scanned his books. Jane Austen was a woman. I hadn’t touched a woman in three years.

We were nearly at our destination. When we got there, I’d be able to go to the mining station. There were many kinds of women at the mining station. I craved them all. I had a plan in which I’d work my way through them one by one. It didn’t matter that it would have been really difficult. You need that kind of fantasy on a deep-space voyage. It doesn’t matter if you know it’s not true. In space, you can convince yourself of nearly anything.

There were three women on board. Three women and five men. The women had paired up early in the voyage, none with me. I suspected that Beverly and the Captain had already been in a relationship when they came onboard — strictly forbidden under company rules, for some reason. I don’t know why that was a rule, but it still annoyed me that they’d broken it.

I didn’t sit down. I like to read standing up. I found a book I liked the sound of — some kind of poetry, I think. I began to read. A sudden urge for coffee came over me, so I walked over to the dispenser, still reading, and made myself one. There was an espresso machine, once, but the coffee had run out over a year ago, and Captain Charlie had jettisoned the thing into space without asking or telling anybody. Captain Charlie loved espresso more than he loved his spaceship. His spaceship is called The Espresso. Well, that’s what he calls it. Officially, it’s called 0781-A5.

I sniffed the black oily liquid. The smell was almost bearable. I took a sip. The taste was hidden by the scalding heat. I began to walk back towards the table. That was when I dropped the reader.

It fell to the floor with a clatter that seemed to echo throughout the ship. I looked up at the entrance to the room where Vance lay in his bunk, expecting him to come running through, eyes full of murder. He didn’t come. Those earphones are pretty good at blocking out noise.

I picked up the reader and inspected it. There was no visible damage. I flipped a couple of pages, opened the menu and checked the functions. It was working perfectly. I resumed reading.

I went over and stood by the corner of the rec-room table. A few sips of coffee later, I dropped the reader again. The screen hit the corner and smashed. I could see little fragments of it on the floor. I looked up at the entrance again, but Vance was still deep in his music. I picked up the reader and took it into the other room.

His eyes were still closed. His foot was tapping a more complex rhythm now, something I couldn’t quite follow. Maybe a combination of 3⁄4 and 2/4, if such a thing even exists. I tapped him on the shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw the reader.

“Vance, I broke your reader,” I said. And then he went for me.

• • •

An hour later, we were all gathered in the kitchen, which is the nicest place on the ship. I love the kitchen. It’s the only place with anything wooden in it. A wooden chopping board on the side, with a wooden knife holder next to it. Of course, the knives are all long gone.

“I call this session to order,” said the Captain. No-one replied, but Anand stretched his feet out a bit. Captain Charlie didn’t seem to notice.

“This court is convened to consider the matter of Vance versus Dutch,” said the Captain.

I put my hand up.

“What is it, Dutch?” asked the Captain.

“What’s going on?” I asked, all innocence.

“You’re not trying to say you’ve forgotten?” asked Captain Charlie, clenching his right fist.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“We’re putting you on trial for breaking Vance’s reader,” he said.

“But it was an accident,” I objected mildly.

“That’s what we’re here to determine,” said the Captain, nodding at Vance. Vance didn’t look at him. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me the whole time. Suddenly he spoke, his voice a low, vicious whisper.

“You did it deliberately, you rotten bastard!” he said.

“Order!” shouted the Captain. “Now, let us proceed.” He paused and looked at Beverly.

“What comes next?” he asked.

“Ask Dutch what happened,” said Beverly.

“Dutch!” shouted Captain Charlie. “What happened with Vance’s reader?”

“Well,” I began, “I asked to borrow it, and Vance agreed but told me to be careful. I took it into the rec-room and poured myself some coffee — ”

“Halt! I mean, stop!” shouted the Captain, his eyes blazing. “What do you mean coffee? How did you get coffee? Where have you been hiding it?!”

“It was instant coffee,” I said. He thought I had a secret stash of coffee beans.

“Oh,” he said, calming down. “Very well — carry on.”

“Well, I was walking back towards the table, and the reader fell from my hand.”

“Liar!” shouted Vance, leaping from his seat.

“Order! Order! Silence in the court!” shouted Captain Charlie. Beverly giggled.

“And then I picked it up and it was fine,” I continued. Everyone looked at me as though I were mad. “I haven’t finished,” I said, and everyone relaxed.

“Continue,” ordered the Captain.

“Well, after I checked to make sure it was still working properly, I went over to the table and stood by the corner and carried on reading.”

“Then what happened?”

“Then I dropped it on the corner of the table, and it broke,” I said. Vance began to weep.

“I see,” said the Captain, stroking his chin as he engaged in deep thought. “And have you anything further to say in your defense?” he asked me earnestly.

“Well, I suppose I could say I didn’t do it,” I suggested.

“Did you though?”

“Possibly,” I replied. I was feeling cagey at that point, what with everyone staring at me.

“Very well, very good,” said the Captain. “Vance, have you anything to add?”

“Yes! I just want to say that I specifically told him to be careful, so even if it was an accident, which it wasn’t, but even if it was then … it wasn’t.”

“Hmm,” said the Captain. “I must consider all the evidence then use my brain to arrive at a fair verdict and sentence.”

We waited while he did this. It took about three or four minutes.

“Right!” he shouted suddenly. “The verdict has revealed itself to me. Dutch, you stand convicted of breaking Vance’s reader, either deliberately with malice aforethought, or accidentally with no malice aforethought at all. You are hereby sentenced to the dance of punishment.”

Blank faces greeted the Captain’s pronouncement. No-one had heard of that particular dance.

“Do you mean the foxtrot?” enquired Anand.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” shouted the Captain. “I mean the dance of punishment. It’s in the rule book, you know, the book we have to tell us what to do and things. It’s definitely in there. Subsection B, Paragraph 1.7.”

He could see that we didn’t believe him.

“Oh for Galactus’s sake! Beverly, go and fetch the rule book, would you?”

“I would not,” said Beverly.

“I’ll go,” I suggested. I was trying to be helpful.

“Not you! You have to stay here until the sentence is carried out! Anyone could see that!”

“I was only trying to be helpful,” I said. Anand started to laugh, but everyone ignored him.

“I’ll get it,” said Vance. That seemed fair, so off he went. After he was gone, Beverly said:

“It’s a physical book with proper pages, and I know where it is.”

We waited five minutes in silence before Vance returned with the rulebook.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” he said, “but I didn’t know where it was. Also, I can’t find the dance of punishment in here.”

“Give it to me,” said the Captain grumpily, snatching it from Vance’s hands. He leafed through it. As he was doing so, Vance said:

“I couldn’t find Subsection B, Paragraph 1.7. The book isn’t organized like that. It just has chapters with general guidelines.”

“I could have sworn…” said the Captain, still leafing furiously through the book.

“Maybe someone took it out,” suggested Anand. The Captain glared at him.

“Yes, Anand. Maybe someone did,” he said pointedly. Anand looked afraid then, but the Captain moved on swiftly.

“Well, whether it’s in here or not, I know it’s the right sentence, and I know it was in here a few months ago, because I underlined it in pencil.”

“What shall we do, then?” asked Vance.

“What shall we do? What shall we do?” parroted the Captain furiously.

“Yes, what shall we do?” asked Vance.

“We shall get Dutch to perform the dance of punishment like I said!” spluttered Captain Charlie in a paroxysm of rage. At that point, I was happy to do it just to calm him down.

“Okay,” I said. “What is it then?”

It turned out I had to go inside the airlock.

• • •

“How is this a dance?” I enquired over the radio. It’s not really a radio, but we call it that.

“You’ll see,” said Captain Charlie. “When I open the doors the air will rush out, and then you’ll dance. Just like the espresso machine.”

“Wait!” shouted Vance.

“What?” replied the Captain, his finger on the button.

“I, I think I remember something. Something about … weren’t we all supposed to be taking some kind of pills?”

“What on Earth are you talking about?” shouted the Captain. Everyone burst out laughing at that, me included, because we weren’t even on Earth. I saw Beverly wiping a tear from her eye, it was that funny. Vance didn’t laugh though. He’d got some kind of idea in his head, I could see. Maybe it was guilt that triggered it.

“Some kind of pills. Because we’re in space and we’re all cooped up, and there’s that thing they do to the air, and… don’t you know what I’m talking about?”

“No, I can’t say I do,” said the Captain.

“Captain!” I shouted in a sudden panic.

“What?! What is it now?”

“I’ve just realized — if I go out the airlock there’ll be no air and I’ll die!”

“Yes, yes! And?”

“Well it’s just, I haven’t touched a woman in three years, and I had this plan where I was gonna try and sleep with all the women on the mining station!”

The Captain had a good laugh at that. Anand asked him why he was laughing. It took him a while to explain because it was so funny he kept bursting into laughter again every time he said it, so we almost never got to hear the end.

“It’s because — it’s because — he’s got a beard! He’s got a beard! And he wants to sleep with all the women!”

We all got it then and had a good laugh. All except Vance.

“I really think I’m onto something!” he shouted. “There were these pills. Captain, where’s the rest of the crew?”

“What do you mean?” roared the Captain.

“The other three! Where are they? There were two other women and one other man, don’t you remember?”

The Captain frowned.

“Of course I remember,” he said. “Their names are Geoffrey, Ulrike and Misato.”

“Then where are they?” asked Vance, and I could see that he had a point. I didn’t know where they were, but they couldn’t have been on board or we’d have seen them.

“Can’t we sort this out after Dutch does the dance of punishment?” asked the Captain.

“I think it’s important that we sort it out beforehand,” said Vance, “but I don’t know why exactly.”

“Oh well,” said the Captain, “if you think it’s important.”

So they stood and talked for a while, but I couldn’t hear them because they turned the radio off. Eventually they seemed to reach an agreement, and the Captain turned the radio back on.

“We’ve decided there’s definitely something in what Vance is saying,” explained the Captain, “but it’s very distracting to have to discuss it here because we can’t even sit down, so we’re going to go into the kitchen to talk about it.”

“The kitchen is the nicest room on the ship,” I said.

“That’s true,” said the Captain.

“And you think you’ll be able to sort it out?” I asked.

“We’re certain of it,” said the Captain. “I’m going to get the log out, and we’re going to look back and find out whatever it is about pills and where the other crew members are.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I said.

“But first, I have to open the airlock,” said the Captain.

“But I don’t want you to,” I said.

“I know,” said the Captain, “but the thing is, if I don’t open it, it’ll be playing on my mind the whole time, and I won’t be able to concentrate.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Bye, Dutch!” shouted Beverly, waving at me.

“Bye,” I said. I didn’t say it very loud.

Captain Charlie pressed the button. I heard a beeping sound behind me, but the doors didn’t open.

“Warning!” said the computer, “Unsuited crew-member in the airlock.”

I agreed with her. I was very unsuited to being in the airlock at that time, especially since there wasn’t going to be any air, and I didn’t have a spacesuit on.

“Oh for Galactus’s sake!” shouted Captain Charlie. “Fine, we’ll do this later. Dutch, you stay here while we go to the kitchen.”

“Maybe I could help,” I suggested.

“No no, it takes too long to open the airlock door,” said the Captain.

“Bye, Dutch,” said Beverly, waving at me. Then they all left.

“Warning, unsuited crew-member in the airlock,” said the computer.

“You already said that,” I replied.

“Warning, airlock doors will open in thirty seconds unless override command is input,” said the computer.

I really wish I hadn’t borrowed Vance’s reader.


Shamus Maxwell is a writer, film-maker and photographer. His feature film ‘The Oracle’, about a woman who can answer any question put to her with the absolute truth, but only at the point of orgasm, was shown at the SFF-rated Athens Int’l Sci-Fi & Fantasy Film Festival, where it came second or third in all three audience awards (and he’s still a bit annoyed about not winning). He lives in South London and does pretty much whatever he wants until his money runs out and he has to go out and work. You can check out some of his photographic and video work at www.cruellestmonth.com. He has stories coming out at Dailysciencefiction.com and everydayfiction.com, but Bourbon Penn was the first magazine to accept one of his tales, for which he will love and honour it until death.