Three Arachnids in a Warship

A Science Fiction Comedy Book Excerpt

Three Arachnids in a Warship (to say nothing of the human)

By Michael Coolwood

When Jay, a giant spider, discovers she has a fatal disease, she turns to her friends to help decide just how to cope. Unfortunately, some friends are less trustworthy than others.

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I had expected that it would be my liver that got me. My liver… or possibly my heart.

I had been to see my local sawbones on several occasions to enquire as to whether it was my heart or my liver… or possibly my twilbo that was to be the death of me. I had no real reason to suspect any of these parts of me would fail, you understand. I do not suffer from any anxiety in that area, thankfully. I just really wanted to be sure about the manner of my death.

The medics I saw would always tell me that I was in perfect health, to my disappointment. As a result, that fateful morning in June came as quite a surprise. I was prodded and poked and scanned by every implement my doctor could get her claws on. Finally, she announced that it was my brain that was to be the facilitator of my end.

My brain?” I had asked. I expect a slight shudder ran its way through my voice.

I’m afraid so, my lady.”

Well what’s wrong with the blasted thing?” I enquired, poking a claw at my carapace to see if I could get at the organ in question. I couldn’t.

The answer the medic gave me was expansive and, if pressed, I would have to admit that I didn’t understand every single word of it. The word that stood out, though, was ‘mindvirus’. Apparently, there are these things that can sneak up on a lass when she’s shifting from one body to another. They’re very rare, although as you can imagine that was little comfort to me.

Still, I couldn’t be sure that the mindvirus would finish the job so I returned home and began to ponder in earnest as to what else might be wrong with me.

Oliver observed, after I related the news over dinner, that it was surprising that my brain would be the first thing to go. After all, I barely used the thing. Sarah told him to get knotted. Oliver told her she needed to stop using the table like our kind, she should be using the bowl he put in the corner for her. I told Oliver to lay off and Sarah thanked me.

One or two of Sarah’s bosom friends were on the doorstep when I sauntered out after sundown for my evening constitutional. I saw to them with my umbrella and they removed themselves to a safe distance. They complained a good deal as to my treatment of them but I pointed out that a lady has a right to an uncluttered doorstep. They didn’t seem to know what to make of this so I set my jaw at a noble angle and sauntered off towards the river.

I then remembered that the river had changed course last week so I had to saunter back past them.

I gave some thought to my condition as I walked. I had two years. Two years wasn’t so bad considered one day at a time, but what other condition could lie within me that might shorten this time still further? Perhaps this was the last time I would view the river that wound its way through this fair city of Tunsleworth.

Or perhaps I should say if I ever managed to find the river. Gracious! Maybe I’ve already seen the river for the last time…

I found the river on the stroke of the fourteenth hour, to my surprise, and I buzzed about looking for a bench that was near enough to see the sparkle of the moonlight on the waves but wasn’t actually underwater. I found one and convinced the urchins that were playing with small circles of cardboard on it to give up their seats with the promise of half a crown. I sat.

The river is particularly pretty after changing course. The houseboats that litter it have not had time to settle into the old hierarchies, so they jostle for position, forming lovely intricate patterns. Old alliances are called on and family units reform under the pressures of establishing new mooring spots. The silvery water is interrupted by the kaleidoscoping of the houseboats.

I have never lived on a houseboat, although my family own several. I believe two are on the old estate, being watched over by my sister. Three others act as permanent sanctuary for refugees from the war-torn planets in the next star system over. Another one was given to a young human family that requested my help after they fell afoul of a roving game of criminals last year.

Houseboats are lovely things. I have never seen two that look precisely alike. Many share the same hull but the markings, the positioning of the funnels, whether to propel the craft by paddle steamer or hyper-oars… the possibilities are endless.

I watched the river until the lamps were struck and the cut purses started to make meaningful coughing noises nearby, hoping I’d move on. I stood and tipped my hat to them. They muttered something along the lines of ‘much obliged ma’am’ and I left them to get on with their business.

It took me only a short while to return to the old flat once I remembered roughly which direction I should be sauntering in. Sarah’s friends had returned to the doorstep but they scattered upon seeing me.

Oliver had long since retired to his bed but a light in the study indicated that Sarah had not yet followed suit. I stuck my head around the door and coughed. Sarah looked up from her work and blinked at me.

I do wish,” I said, “that you’d encourage your friends to not treat my doorstep as a second home. Friends are precious things, I know, but could you not invite them in? They make the place look untidy if they’re just lounging about the place.”

Sarah laid down her input stick and pushed away her data pad. “I wasn’t aware that I had friends on the doorstep.” she said. “What were their names?”

Well, of course, she more or less had me there. I may have made a blunder.

Sarah waited a few moments before picking up her input stick once more. “Not every human,” she said “is a friend of mine. I have explained this.”

She had explained this to me before, this was true. I remembered being a little confused by the concept. Sarah had explained that my assumption was a little like my thinking that because both Oliver and I were arachnid, every arachnid I came across must be a friend of Oliver’s. This led me to some unfortunate conclusions the day following this explanation, where I spent most of the day asking every fellow I came across how they knew Oliver, to a series of bemused stares, before Sarah had clarified her point that evening.

I apologised for my blunder and assured her that I would keep her words firmly in mind.

As I turned to go, she asked if I would like to discuss the verdict of my recent visit to the doctor. I said all was well, everything was as I had expected.

I slipped into my room and shed the rags of the day. I splashed water over my face and dried my fur, all whilst staring into the mirror. My eyes stared back at me. They seemed like they were whispering dark secrets but I couldn’t for the life of me tell what they were.

I slipped between the sheets and grabbed a data terminal from my bedside table. I loaded up the medical dictionary and started methodically working through what else might be slowly killing me, alongside the mind virus. There must be something else, I reasoned. There had to be.

Again, I did not do this with any real sense of fear in my hearts… I just needed to know. I needed to be certain.

I awoke when the first rays of light hit my pillow. You might think this would give me a fair approximation of what the time might be. You would be wrong.

The orbit of Selet, the planet I call home, has been somewhat erratic as of late. Some days it fairly wizzes around our star like an excitable puppy. Other days it dallies. It shuffles hither and thither saying ‘Here? No, I don’t think so. I do not like it here; the light is all wrong. Maybe over here…’

I felt about the place for my data panel and found it under my pillow. When I brought it to life, I found it was still displaying the particulars of a particularly horrifying ailment I had been examining last night. I had none of the symptoms for it, some of them twice over, but I didn’t let that deter me. On another page on my data table was a list of ailments I had jotted down to consult my medic about. With a list like that, it would be unusual to make it to the afternoon, let alone two years from now.

The information I actually required was found in the top right hand corner: The time.

The time from my data panel is standardised across the system so whatever my planet feels like doing from one day to the next, it will still display the correct time. Of course, this doesn’t help much when half of the planet is working to true system time and the other half are working to subjective planet time. In the old days, it wasn’t unheard for the true system followers to be just getting up, bathing and dressing before setting down to table for a spot of breakfast when their housekeeper announced it was time she picked her offspring up from the local education establishment because it was approaching two AM.

These days, on days like this when the true system time and the subjective planet time are so completely at odds with each other it’s impractical to run both systems simultaneously, both time systems engage in a gentlenid’s agreement and meet in the middle.

It took me only a short while to establish what the time might be according to this system. I found that it was a rather spritely eleven AM.

Usually, I might ring for the maid to have a frank discussion about what might be available for breakfast. Today, though, I lacked the time. It was imperative that I meet with the doctor at the earliest available opportunity to get a more precise figure on the amount of time I had left on this plane of existence.

With that in mind, I threw on whatever rags first presented themselves from my wardrobe, grabbed an umbrella from the rack and strode out to meet the day, having first navigated the five or six doorways that separated the day from my person.

My doctor lives on a remarkably pleasant street not far from my flat. I say she lives there. Now I think about it, she probably doesn’t live in her office. Although she has assured me that it sometimes feels like she does. I reached the doctor’s office in a few scant minutes and was ushered in to meet her without delay. She asked what the trouble was. I told her.

At the thirtieth minute, I paused for breath. The doctor chose that moment to interject.

You do not have any of these ailments.” she said.

But the mind virus-” I objected.

Yes, you have the mind virus.” she said, “but you do not have any of these other ailments.”

Blast. Are you sure?”

Yes.” she swiped the data from my panel into her own. “You do not have the right sort of claws to get Aard Sign Wrist, you do not have the right sort of blood to have Antediluvian Vitae Fever… you do not have any of these-” she scrolled through my list “except the mind virus.” she double checked her list. “And Housemaid’s Knee. You do actually have Housemaid’s Knee. I’ll get you some cream for that.”

She dispensed some cream from a hopper in a corner and handed it over. I slopped it into one of the useful pots I keep in my waistcoat pocket.

Usually at this point the doctor starts fussing with her data panel. I’m sure she would like me to think she is compiling notes of our meeting or something but I suspect it’s more of a subtle hint. She wishes to convey that she’s a very busy individual and can’t spend all day chatting to me. Not being heartless, I take that as a cue to vacate the premises.

On this occasion, however… the doctor just stared at me.

Is there something else?” I asked, vaguely aware that it should probably be the doctor asking this. Maybe there was something else, other than Housemaid’s Knee, on my list that I did have after all.

You haven’t quite digested the news about your condition yet, have you?” the doctor asked.

Which condition?” I asked, bringing out my list, “Because I have some thoughts about the Grey Death. Now, I know it was wiped out in 2052 but I think it might have come out of retirement-”

No. I mean the mind virus.”

Oh, that.” I said, disappointed.

You need to spend some time away from the data links.”

I clutched my data panel to my chest. “But how will I find out what’s killing me?”

She looked at me in a way I’m pretty sure doctors aren’t supposed to look at their patients.

I am instructing you” she said “to take a holiday. Spend two weeks in a cottage on the sea side. No metropolis, no data links. Take some time to adjust to your new living conditions with this mind virus. Rest and relaxation. That’s what you need. Delete that list of conditions you most certainly do not have.”

What? All of it?” I asked, aghast.

All of it.” she replied.

I only pretended to delete it at first, but she wasn’t fooled. Eventually, and very reluctantly, I really did delete it. She commended me and then told me to get out of her office.

I mulled over her instructions as I returned home. A couple of weeks by the sea might be a perfectly pleasant way to spend what little time I had left. Or, rather 2.8ish percent of the time I had left.

Sarah wasn’t at home when I returned. She works as some sort of… she tried to explain it to me once. It’s something to do with stopping humans from being persecuted. I didn’t even know you could stop that before she explained it but there you go. Anyway, she goes to do that during the day so her not being present didn’t surprise me.

Oliver was there, though. His presence is always something of a variable. Five years ago the poor chap was having some little trouble with his landlord. Apparently he objected to one or two of Oliver’ hobbies. Anyway, it sounded perfectly ghastly and as Oliver and I were at school together I offered to put him up for a few weeks.

Well after that, Oliver found a place… but he didn’t like it. So I said he should stay until he found somewhere he did like. Then the housing market shifted and one or two things happened with Oliver’ job and then he lost one of his shoes and then, long story short here we are today, still living together.

It can be frightfully jolly to have a friend stay with you. Sarah is a wonderful tenant. She only moved in fairly recently after her last landlord took a dislike to humans. She is wonderful company and is frightfully kind. She insists on paying rent.

Oliver does not pay rent. I did mention it once or twice but he says he doesn’t want to spoil our friendship by making everything about money.

I found Oliver in the dining room helping himself to a chop. I believe I had mentioned that this particular chop had been destined for my consumption but I must have been mistaken. I sat down opposite the chap and mentioned what had transpired at the doctor’s office.

Oh really?” he asked, his eyes lighting up. He thought for a few moments and then a thoughtful look crossed his face. “No no no. That’s no good at all.” he said.

What isn’t?”

The seaside.” he said “There are fish. And you know what come with fish? The gulls, my dear lass, the gulls. This time of year they can take your eye out.”

I’d always found gulls to be rather jolly things and I said so. They flap about the place and steal potato snacks from people in a most amusing manner.

Ah, but there is also the swell. The swell of the sea. It’s devilish! It will make you sick just at the sound of it. You’d feel pretty silly if you were sick at the seaside, wouldn’t you, Jay? It’d be just like a silly ass such as yourself to wind up sick on a holiday to the seaside.”

He was right, that would make me feel silly. I hadn’t considered how frightfully unpleasant the seaside was until Oliver brought my attention to it. I’m not sure I had the courage to go with all that in mind. I began to mull over suitable alternatives, trying to keep the spirit of my doctor’s orders alive. Quiet, and far from the datanet.

What you want to do,” said Oliver “is take a trip in a b-”

I know! I’ll go on a tour of war museums!” I exclaimed. “I’ll learn, I’ll laugh, it will be wonderful!”

No.” said Oliver “Do you really want to learn how much better at armed conflict everyone else is than you, Jay? It would be humiliating for you. You wouldn’t like to be humiliated on holiday, would you?”

He was right. The medals I’d received as a result of my last service had been issued sarcastically. Oliver had said he could tell.

No, my dear lass. What you want to do is take a trip on a b-”

I have it!” I cried “I shall visit the planet’s core. It must be fascinating down there.”

No.” said Oliver.

Well why not, dash it?” I asked. The ninny was really beginning to set my teeth on edge with his objections to every little thing.

Well, because it’s impossible.” he said, looking at me like the fool I am, “There aren’t any craft that could stand the pressure and even if there were, you’d cook. Even if you didn’t cook and if you could stand the pressure, there’d be nothing to see except molten rock. Honestly, Jay, you really can be the most exhaustive chump. I mean-”

Oliver was winding up to one of his long speeches. I prepared to grin and bear it but, to my surprise, he checked himself. “No.” he said, breathing heavily, “What you want to do is take a trip on a boat.”

Now that was an idea. I said so. He said he was glad I thought so.

Well that’s settled. I’m taking one next week anyway. You can come too.”

Well this was wonderful. “What sort of boat is it?”

It’s an old decommissioned frigate, last of the 66th grand battlefleet.” he said. “I picked it up for a song last month and I’ve been outfitting it. It will be frightfully jolly, Jay, you’ll love it. We can ride the shipping lane spanwise and then take a merry jaunt through the asteroid field that separates the fields of Zuk and that cathedral the Reapers built to that shepherdess they won’t stop banging on about. There are all sorts of monuments and things to look at. We can stay at inns or slum it on the ship if you like. It’ll be a lovely trip, just the two of us.”

Well this was the best news I’d heard since I found out I was going to die in two years and I said so. Oliver said he was glad I thought so.

We spent the next few hours chatting about the sorts of things we might do on this trip. Sarah came back as the sky was turning citrus and I told her about our plan.

How wonderful.” she said, “That sounds absolutely perfect for you, Jay. In fact, I have some leave I haven’t used up. Would you mind if I tagged along? I haven’t taken a trip on the river for some years. Oh! We could drop in on my cousin Gertrude and Uncle Angus at Newbury Towers! It’s not at all far from the fields of Zuk! We could drop in once we’re done there! Does that sound enjoyable?”

Oliver said something short and snappy in response to Sarah’s suggestion but I couldn’t hear what it was because I was busy saying “Of course!”

Oliver rounded on me, a sort of snarl or something on his fangs. “What is it, dear boy?” I asked.

He was silent for a few moments. A slight hiss escaped his mouth. “There is room for Sarah isn’t there?” I asked.

“…Yes.” he said eventually. He didn’t seem happy but I couldn’t think for a moment why not. I gave him a moment or two to get his thoughts in order but this didn’t seem to help. Wishing to not make things awkward for poor Sarah, I turned back to her. “We shall be delighted to have you along, dear one.”

And like that, it was settled. Two arachnids were to go messing about in a boat, to say nothing of the human.

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