Back in the eighties Peter Lukas owned a cat. In so far as one can, of course. It had been a revolting thing to realize, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as, one after another, his crew came to… SEE… him. None of them made eye contact, of course, but the interaction was still nauseating. Bags of sweat and water and sadness crammed into his suddenly-too-small cabin, all of them mumbling their way to the same destination via an endless, banal labyrinth of different roads.
They were lonely.
Peter scoffed. They didn’t know loneliness. The velvet embrace of a night alone. The sodium yellow kiss of streetlights on empty, rain-slicked asphalt. The ocean and the sky and nothing in between.
Besides, of course they felt lonely. That was the plan.
# # #
Their work suffered first. Decks unscrubbed, cargo unsecured, doors opened. All of them minor issues, all of them easy fixes. All of them leading to the same idea, the same realization. Unscrubbed because the crew were talking, unsecured because the crew were distracted not by presence but by absence. Open because that way they could hear others, talking, laughing, breathing. Peter posted extra watches, docked pay. Held… one on ones. None of it worked for long.
It all came to a head in the Irish Sea. A delivery that should have been simplicity itself almost got them killed. They’d picked up a passenger in Douglas, a haunted, intense young man who, to Peter, smelt of cordite and communion wafer. He was going where they all went in the end, and Peter took joy in that familiarity and distance.
That night, he awoke to the sound of gunfire.
The woman who’d snuck aboard, they found out later, was their charge’s sister. She had more blood on her hands than anyone else aboard. A life scrawled in young handwriting across local history, all broken fingernails and blood clots, burning cars on waste ground and the sound of kneecaps shattering. She had been sent to ensure that her brother didn’t reach the destination on everyone’s minds. A new identity. A decade of looking over his shoulder. Clandestine testimony at Thames House and sleepless nights wondering which close friends had been killed based on his word that day.
Peter had no sympathy. For anyone, really. But this young man was a special case. So when he snapped awake at the sound of the gunshot, his first thought was that their passenger was more lost than even he had thought. Then the second shot rang out, and Peter knew they were in trouble.
The crew, to their credit, had followed his orders: unless the alarm rings, lock your cabin door and wait for the all clear. But his fourth watch lead hadn't been so lucky. A diligent woman in her early fifties, she had been on the bridge and seen their stowaway creep across the deck. She’d followed protocol, grabbing a flare pistol and crowbar and had been on her way to wake Peter.
She’d been seen, caught. He found her, clutching her wet red stomach, slumped against the port stairs. She looked at him and, for reasons Peter would wonder at in days to come, he showed her what he really was. She died smiling. A question long suspected, answered at the last.
He stepped past her, up onto the deck. Something about the bow of a ship always attracted people. It was like drawing a line in reality, a definitive point beyond which your life would change. Stand here and watch the future arrive. Stand here and watch the past catch up with you.
Their charge was on his knees, sobbing, his back to the prow. Peter watched as his sister got the confession she wanted. Watched as the gun in her hand wavered, whispered to the back of her mind about what he’d done and how much he deserved it. Watched as she emptied the clip into the younger man’s chest.
Then stepped forward, into her peripheral vision.
She turned and fired again, the click of the hammer against the empty chamber audible over the waves, the engine, her sobbing...
‘My name is Peter. You’re on my boat. You killed one of my people.’ He smiled and there was an echo behind it.
‘I’m not happy, but… I’m not angry. These things happen.’ He impersonated a smile. ‘We were all young once. Now, you’re going to need to disappear. You could do that on the mainland. Or…’ He gestured to the deck. ‘I do have an opening, thanks to you.'
Her first act was to heave her brother’s corpse overboard. None of the others helped.
Peter’s first act of the day was to unlock the doors and introduce the crew to their new colleague. He let them deal with the cleanup.
The incident helped Peter understand the problem he faced. His crew needed something social, some glue to keep them together. For a while it was grief. Then anger, although his new arrival acquitted herself admirably. There was a week of broken fingers and noses, the crew drinking coffee through swollen jaws. She eventually settled. As far as anyone really did.
No, there needed to be something that could fill the space he could not.
Something for the crew to care about. Something to close the circle of the perfect environment Peter had built for them all to be alone inside. Persistent distance. Anonymized and nameless loss. The sense of an ending but never its arrival. Peter loved that sensation. He remembered watching the moon landings, a rarity for him given his hatred for television. The sense of community, the nauseating combined focus of billions had made him gag. But not before he’d heard Buzz Aldrin refer to the moon’s sweeping void as ‘magnificent desolation.’
Peter had contemplated the idea of incompleteness as destination for a long time. He’d resisted the crew’s previous requests for more active socialization, even punished the few who had dependents, driving them from the ship. If the crew were incomplete then the crew were lonely, it was that simple. When the crew were lonely, they were exactly what he needed them to be. He dreamt of sodium street lights and distant windows. He dreamt of magnificent desolation.
The crew dreamed of other things. And one day, the cat arrived.
Peter didn’t choose it, and none in the crew would admit to bringing it aboard. It was just suddenly there. A sleek, languid puddle of tabby fur that slept on the mess table in a manner so natural everyone assumed it had always been a part of the ship and crew. Peter even caught himself moving his coffee mug one day to make sure it’s placement didn’t inconvenience the creature.
That had brought him up short. He’d glowered at the cat and watched as it tucked its head further under its front paws, curled into a tighter ball and fell further asleep.
Peter took every meal in his cabin from that day. The crew became happier, more efficient. They still knew the work they did, still had the inkling of what moved above and around them, like a mammal beneath a dinosaur’s feet. But the burden rested lighter on their shoulders. The Tundra made more progress, took more clients. On occasion, people were even heard singing. The cat was everywhere. The engine room, the mess, the hold. There had been no rats since it had come aboard.
And no easy sleep for Peter, either. Introspection comes naturally to The Lonely. Yet, it took Peter far longer than he would admit to isolate the source of his consternation. At first, he briefly entertained the notion he was jealous. The cat never visited his quarters. The cat never sat with him during meals. But that was ridiculous. His upbringing had made sure to eradicate any sense of longing or jealousy, any need for others. He was a Lukas. He was of The Lonely. That was his nature and his solace.
One night, looking out over the ocean, it came to him. It wasn’t that he was jealous. It was that the cat, somehow, did the Great Work better than he.
It never sat with the same person twice, or in the same place. It never showed anyone undue affection or picked a favorite among the crew. It kept to itself, interacting under polite sufferance, but sufferance nonetheless. The cat was not Lonely. The cat was Alone. Perfectly, effortlessly alone. It was everything Peter longed to achieve.
He was… jealous? Perhaps. Challenged, certainly. Peter considered his options. The obvious route was unacceptable: he was Lonely, not a monster. He eventually selected an easier alternative, one that might pay off in the long run. One that would serve as a reminder of what had been taken, or given, depending on where you were standing. And then the creature’s removal would serve to make his crew less than whole. It was perfect, elegant. Cruel in the exact way he loved.
His newest crewmember had settled but never quite settled in. She ate alone, worked jobs that required as little contact with the others as possible. He respected that. In different circumstances, he could have used that, shaped her further. But she had another role to play.
He arranged for the Tundra’s route to make a clandestine midnight stop at Lambay for essential repairs, where Peter knew the draw of her old stomping grounds would prove irresistible. He inspected her cabin after their departure and found her berth empty of its few possessions. And the cat. He hadn’t even had to nudge her. That night, Peter tumbled into a deep and dreamless sleep the first time in months.
He still does. Aside, every now and then, from the nights when he awakes with the sense memory of a small form on the bed next to him, paying him no attention whatsoever.