The main room of the dockside pub was crowded. The smell his James a few moments before the noise – sweat and beer, plus wood smoke from the fire, mixed in equal proportion with a few other secret ingredients designed to give the room a particular smell that settled into hair and clothing. James knew that after a night at the pub his clothes would smell of the place for at least a week.
Across the room a group of men had glasses raised and were calling his name. He grinned and pressed through the mass of bodies to get to them.
“A toast!” roared one, a burly dock worker called Billy.
“Not yet, not yet.” a shaven headed companions said, pulling Billy’s raised glass down to normal levels.
James settled into a seat, “So, what’s new tonight?” he asked.
Billy poked a drunken finger into the upper arm of the shaven headed man, “Drew here has a new recruit he wanted to introduce to us, dont you Drew?”
Drew looked up and shrugged, “Well, yes. Our little _Hellfire Society_ needs new members if it’s to survive. No offence James, but we thought we’d lost you there. Sarah had a wonderful civilizing effect on you. We’re as sorry to hear she’s gone as we are pleased to have you back among our number!”
James nodded at the well meaning comments, “Thanks Drew. Now, the new recruit … where is he?”
Drew waved to another man standing a few feet behind him. They looked incredibly similar in build, height and shared the common smooth shaved head. The more James looked at them the more convinced he became that they’d come from the same mold.
The man stepped close to the table and spoke slowly in a lilting drawl, stongly suggestive of a country upbringing. “My name is Zachary, or just Zach or even just Zee. Take your pick.”
James nodded and waved a hand around the table, “So Drew told you about us … the _Hellfire Society_ … so called because at one time or another (and the more recent the better) the establishment of the church has told us that we have the devil in us, and we’re destined for hellfire. So, what’s your story?”
Zach paused and looked at the seated form of Drew for a moment before speaking, “Well, I suppose I fit with that. You see, I dont have a soul … and without a soul you cant go to heaven, now can you?”
James shook his head, “True enough. Buy the next round and you’re in, the newest member of our _Hellfire Society_.”
There was a small round of drunken applause from the table.
“You already know Drew, the ugly mug at the end of the table is Billy who wants to drink a toast to you. I am James, and this here…” James put an arm around the drunkard next to him, “… this, is Vincent. What else do you want to know? Well, lets see, I’ve never seen Drew get angry and if he ever did, I think the world might end. Billy stopped putting notches on the bed-post from his many female conquests after he’d weakened the bed from so much cutting that it broke under his weight. Hmm and Vincent, well, I’ve never seen him without his gloves on, have I Vinnie?”
Billy interrupted him at that point with his glass raised, “To our newest recruit: may the barman never call time until you’re good and ready!”
The toast brought a rousing cheer of “Hear, hear!” from the table.
Li Phan wrestled with the computer rendering of James life. It wanted to display the memories in a linear fashion. Finally she had the software pinned down and applied the elecronic equivilent of a choke-hold. The operating system gave up and gave her access to the feature she’d wanted: the display turned into a spiral with loops aligning repeated memories above one another in neat stacks. She scrolled forward and back across similar memories, picking one at random. It was like the stick figures that she’d drawn in the corner of her notebook, each scene slightly different to the last time he’d experienced it – repeated nights walking along the docks to the pub being highlighted as a major linkage. She watched as his pace past the hotel slowed over time, how he’d finally paused to swap a few words with one of the waiting women. Then had come a watershed moment. She stopped the forward progress and tracked back around the spiral.
She followed the evening in question: well before leaving for the pub James had shaved. He cut the beard completely leaving only his famous mutton chops. She froze the playback in shock at the moment of shaving: in his hand was a gleaming silver straight-edge razor with a single word stamped on the blade: “Sheffield”. It couldnt be! In a flurry of keystrokes she pulled up an entry from the scout service archives.
> The first modern cut throat (straight edge) razor complete with decorated handles and hollow ground blades was constructed in Sheffield England, the centre of the cutlery industry, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Benjamin Huntsman produced the first superior hard steel grade, through a special crucible process, suitable for use as blade material in 1740. Huntsman’s process was adopted by the French sometime later; albeit reluctantly at first due to nationalist sentiments. The English manufacturers, ironically, were even more reluctant than the French to adopt the process and only did so after they saw its success in France. Sheffield steel, a highly polished steel, also known as Sheffield silver steel and famous for its deep gloss finish, is considered a superior quality steel and was still used well into the twenty second century in France by such manufacturers as Thiers Issard.
Li unfroze James, let the computer begin mining his memories again and stepped back from the console. The razor was more than a symbol of James’ mood improving. She paced around her lab not knowing how to process the facts. Here was a window, albeit a wide one, that gave a concrete timeframe for the manufactured culture. 18th to 22nd Century was potentially a long time, but if she could get the actual razor itself, she’d be able to date it and what bonus would they pay for being the first to date the culture! Protocol Seven had locked the records, clearly showing that she’d uncovered this singular image of James shaving. If she could prove an independent audit-trail between the image and the concrete evidence itself, the bonus would be hers. Images of a life outside the scout service flashed through her mind and she strode out of the lab to find the Captain, and petition him for a shuttle and escort to travel over to find the razor.
James finished shaving, cleaned his razor and held it up to the gaslight. The edge looked burred. He sighed and put it away. He hated to leave the edge in such an apalling condition but he knew that he needed to get moving soon. He promised himself, the blade, and the memory of the Doctor Kohler that he would return and _strop_ the blade later on. Minutes later he was riding a cab heading for the docks.
He was surprised to see only two women lounging against the front of the dockside hotel. He stopped.
“Where’s Rosie?” he asked.
One of the women turned away and started off along the street. The other looked at her, then back to James, “What’s it to ya?” she demanded.
“I … uhh …”
The woman laughed, a mocking cackle, “She’ll be done soon enough. You’ll get your turn.”
James blushed, “No! I was just …”
The woman waved her hands, “Doesnt matter to be luv, you keep your reasons. She’s with some toff. I dont think we’ll be seeing her the rest of the night. Now, how’s about a nice …”
James lost the rest of her invitation as he turned on his heel and strode off toward the pub.
Li paused outside the Captain’s office door. She raised her hand to knock, then dropped it. In her mind she rehearded a speach about needing first-hand verification of findings, that a VR matrix wouldnt be admissible in scientific circles, other reasons popping up to add weight to why it was that she needed time for some field work.
She raised her hand to knock again. What if the Captain said “no”? Multiple failing scenarios spiralled through her brain and she let the hand drop. She leaned against the corridor wall as her mind whirled with the possibilities. All seemed to carry equal weight. She couldnt choose between them. Faced with insurmountable and growing odds against succeeding she turned and took a half-step away from the door.
No! She _had_ to get that bonus. She spun around and fueled with the blazing desire for recognition and a way off the ship she knocked.
“Come!” the Captain called.
Li swung the door open, stepped inside, closed it behind her and launched into her prepared monologue.
The Captain waited. He was sat behind his desk, still, attentive. She wasnt used to people paying her this level of attention. It spurred her on, gave her hope, and she completed the monologue breathlessly.
The Captain sat back in his chair, “So, to comply with Protocol Seven, you want to put not only your own but someone else’s life at risk. Not to mention risking a shuttle.” he said, to sum up.
Li’s hopes melted and she took an involuntary step back.
“Now, why not tell me the real reason you want to go?” he coaxed.
Li was floored. Was her argument that transparent? She shifted her focus inward, running through the words again. No, everything seemed in order.
The Captain sat and waited, displaying infinite patience.
It finally registered that Li needed to say something to him, to cut short her introspection.
“You cant deny me direct access. I need that bonus!” she blurted, and froze in horror as it dawned on her what she’d said.
“You need a bonus, a find large enough that you’ll walk away from this mission able to retire?” He asked.
Li hung her head. It seemed so petty, “Yes.”
“Take Eric then. He needs the exercise. Shawna and I are more than capable enough to run this ship while you’re all away.” he said.
Li turned for the door with a new spring in her step. She planned to visit Eric immediately. This was too good a moment to lose. She needed the razor, and planned to let nothing stand in her way.
The Captain waited until Li had left the room before pressing a virtual button on his desk surface. With the door locked securely he stood. He ran his left hand down the font of his torso from throat to groin. In its wake the sensor-net parted. The edges peeled back. His hands fell to his sides and the sensor net slowly peeled off. Instead of falling to the deck it hung there, peeling off shoulders and back, then unrolling down his legs. Finally the sensor net was free and a ripple of pleasure passed over its surface, sheer pleasure at being free from the wire-frame humanoid mannequin it had been forced to occupy all day. The ‘net rippled and flowed away from the now inert mechanical bodyshell back up onto the seat, extruding a pair of small maneuverable tentacles to begin typing, returning to the task of running the ship.