William A Cain


William Cain is a writer of anything. Published across film reviews, music writing and his fiction work, the Goldfish journal extract shows the first chapter of his upcoming science fiction novel, ‘The Belt’.

Out to keep the reader gripped, Will likes a story with a bit of pace, and one that keeps the characters, and readers, checking over their shoulders, and watching out for the coming turn.

Email: William.cain1@gmail.com

View as PDF: William A Cain - The Belt

The Belt: Chapter 1


The hold is 8 hammocks high, and consistent with the largest of the transport ships, 235ft long. Accounting for possible deviations - prisoners moved for ill health and misconduct etcetera - that’s approximately 300 men: 16 pairs of boots swinging ahead of me, and 10 behind.

My sleeping bunk hangs in the top line, 6 rows in from the portside wall. Hanging proof, as such, that every research project requires its own particular luck. It is clear to me now, that in the random-allocation of this bunk, I have secured two key benefits in keeping me comfortable and sane in here: a surround of body heat, and a clear sight of the strip of round windows along the ship wall, the sound of the pealing white-surf from the hull beneath.

Sleeping so far off the ground like this- 15ft or so- was, as expected, a little disconcerting to start. But I am already feeling almost inspired. The position is a perfect place for my research. From this height I am afforded a relatively private observation platform, and kept mostly withdrawn from the threat of challenges from the other prisoners.

It will be another 18 days until we reach the Hudson Bay entrance, and up to 14 further if the ship turns north and continues up the coast. But since the outbursts of the first 48 hours, the hold has settled down nicely. Those convicts committed to demonstrating rebellion have, on second strike, been removed out of sight. And for the remainder of the party, our resolve is one of anticipation and quiet rest.

The complications of sea travel: nausea, diarrhoea, de-hydration, have all, predictably, been playing into my hands. It would be hard to find another passenger on this ship with a more proven set of sea legs beneath them. And as an anchor and aid against this widely expressed weakness on-board, I have secured a certain rank of ardour with the inmates.

Apart from the sporadic notes of over-full sickness, improved food rations seem to be functioning correctly. The prisoners, expecting a large and well-stocked meal morning, evening and night, tend to remain sedate and more conservative.

Now we lie and we wait. And hidden in the laps or under the folds of the bunks, it is never unusual to spot a stash of leftover cheese or bread: a simple possession that relinquishes boredom, and inspires in any prisoner, a more protectionist gate.

Only a few of the men still descend to the cold metal floor for exercise and a stretch. And the inmate who does will soon climb back up to bunk level, showing the discomfort of a speedy drop in body temperature. Even the large bodybuilding type, two bunks across from my own, has realised now that any kind of movement in this place has been rendered counterproductive. Besides, we all know of the walking once we arrive.

At 7pm there are two loud noises of release, the pneumatic pistons, then the iron on iron of the door. Finally the footsteps of the guards come through and the rattle of the trolleys and their respective servers. Procedure dictates that, on entering, all guards sound one hit with their baton to their shield. Tonight however, as with the last, this gesture of force has seemed mostly needless and all but ignored. By 6:59, and the first rattle of the food trays up out of the service lifts, the meal-call has rendered all prisoners alert and expectant.

I had read about this signal in my briefing papers, but nothing had prepared me for the startling effect on the ship. 10 minutes previous to the delivery of all meals, an electronic note issues through the inmate holds of the ship. The tone, whilst barely audible, sustains for 13.00 seconds at a frequency of 23khz, producing a ship-wide stimulation of over 70percent of the body’s key digestive enzymes.

Like all great scientific discoveries, the concept is so immediately effective and simple, as to seem almost obvious once told to a listener. And for this nature, the story has gained some notoriety around the research departments. A small team with hardly any resources had found success in their field and a huge buy-out in patents for the food industry. This was the fairy-tale ending that every stuffed-up, over-worked department team was dreaming of.

There was much jockeying in truth for the Vancouver fairy-tale. But looking over my briefing papers, I had been granted the first opportunity to get a sense of its real makeup in my head. The story had begun with an undergraduate’s dissertation paper, graduated to a rather speculative set of experiments on an insect box, further to a selection of small mammals, and eventually a canteen full of students on the Victoria Island campus.

As science, it was a demonstration of clean practice and good method: aims that started small, experiments carefully selected and tracked, proposals written up, and after three years, a landmark outcome. The final published paper drew on a test of 100 graduate students in the canteen hall. On issuing the tone to the unsuspecting diners, the team had tracked a body temperature rise of 2 degrees, speaking volume decrease of 62percent, and the food expenditure up by 1dollar 20 per head over the 2hour dinner service. The team had created the perfect consumer: quiet, quick eating, and most importantly- greedy.

By the third night in the prison hull even I could feel the saliva gathering beneath my tongue. We were hungry, and every prisoner knew that a word out of step would mean transportation to hold-set 2: a loss of 40percent of total food rations across the journey. This system was harsh, but extremely effective, and when transporting hundreds of men across an already dangerous ocean, it was a level of control that was necessary. We hadn’t lost one vessel since the meal-call was brought onboard.

I keep my eyes towards the ceiling and listen out as the shaking trays and grazing wire chains of the server’s boots get closer bunk by bunk. Finally I hear my server’s feet come together below, there is a pause where he gathers the trays, and the ladder beside me begins to reverberate with his climb. He comes up quickly, they all do: unsuitable to walk off their sentence mileage on the ground, these servers have been subsumed into the system itself, living out their sentences on board and picking up the mileage of the ship for their relief.

The tray appears first, warped steel with three compartments: a yellowy steaming mush, bread roll and slice of hard cheese. I drop my voice to the bottom of my throat. Thank you, I say. But the server’s eyes, visible through the thin slit in the dark green hood, show no sign of recognition.

The tray rests on my chest below my nose, its trail of steam evaporating quickly. If anyone on the ship but the officer knew something, it would? No, it is just a healthy paranoia, I am certain.

It is after my mealtimes that I use my luxury. I pull the earphone from the side of the fastened black watch, and press in the music note button. The face light switches on, and the warning beep sounds: each play of the song will cost me 0.2 miles on the surface. I press the button again: 36.4 miles accounted before sentence. I should not use it too much, should other prisoners begin to notice my disregard for the mileage I am accounting.

The melody rings out privately between my ears, and after 3 plays, I turn onto my side, and look towards the strains of moonlight through the port windows. I breath-deeply and time my breath with the swinging of the hammocks, try and feel the waves of the surface on the vastness of the ship’s hull. I try and gage the depth beneath, wonder about the possible contours of the ocean floor, and the animals that might live in the darkness and pressure out this far. My brain climbs up and down between the notes, then up and up towards the chorus. It was through such a window that this journey began, another thick plastic disc, rising and falling with the churning darkness of the sea outside. It was almost a decade ago now when I was last on board that vessel, marooned a mile out of port. Back before the belt was born, back when I thought I was settling down, early thirties; a finance manager with a pretty young wife.

We were prisoners then too, from the engine-crew to the ship’s captain. But our sentence was undisclosed. 1896 thousand litres of pre-processed, high-grade oil sitting in the barrels out on deck, and we would god damn have to sit our asses out there until the markets found some ground. Outside, big business was jockeying for space to spread their favourable predictions. But as finance man on the ship, I was the closest thing that came to answers. And as the company wasn’t budging, communication with the shore had all but dried up.

For the first few weeks I would wake up and pretend that today would be the day, and we would get our docking number. Bearded heroes, sea-stained into the bars, stoic and ready to drink it all clean and away. And I would dress then, and put on my tie, and after two eggs from the kettle, go up in front of the boards. Everyone would be there: the crew, the oil company officers and the captain’s team on the balcony.

And the boards hanging on the wall would flip over like mechanical train schedules, echoing around the hall. Sometimes like an avalanche, sometimes just the flick of a single digit, but nothing ever went our way. Our train showed no signs of arriving; in fact, with every day it seemed less likely. And at night I stood out on deck, minding past the locked cage of underfed security dogs outside the stairwell, looking out at the lights of Barcelona open up in the distance. The noise of the sea was never disappointing, and the air would never fail to clear my head.

Everyman on ship became an expert on those lights and that board. But the crew still came to me for some kind of other sign. When can we expect the numbers to change? They asked. When will the market begin to re-stabilise? And further and further, more personal. Should I tell my wife I’ll be back in a month, or two or three? After a week or so of being docked, I couldn’t take the constant figure heading.

I took to eating my meals in my room, and only coming out in the mornings. Then the captain sent a young woman to ask, would I prefer the numbers to be personally delivered to my cabin each morning?

So I would stay inside. Would sometimes hear knocks at my door, sometimes shouts, but if it wasn’t the protocol, I wouldn’t hear it. And it was in that cabin, locked in from the world outside, that I finally saw what it was to be trapped. With all my fear, and past, and impotence: with all my growing sense of guilt.

At thirty years of age, and with a sense of passion for my first long sea voyage, I had filled the wooden shelves that lined that 5metre by 5metre cabin with an extended list of the great adventures of the past two centuries: put them all on the Paypal, first editions where I could find them.

I had run numbers for the prison system before- short contract stuff by Her Majesty’s service- but only now had I thought of, had I actually become, the prisoner inside. This wasn’t the news coverage of dysentery within the walls, or the growing violence in the over-filled cells, but locked in that cabin, in the bottom of that marooned ship, it felt like something to me.

My revolution in the prison system: born in a low-lit room, sitting over a small computer day after day, looking out over the circular window, and a sea that never moved. It would affect millions. That feeling that overtook me, when, from a state of listless hope, something grew. With nothing but reflection, the human mind chews away on itself, but given some reason, or a road to walk down? Perhaps?

I had worked for hours, all day mostly. And now here I was, 10 years later, on a prison ship heading for my own invention. The Belt. Its name was synonymous with bad press. But who better to prove the news stories wrong? Who better to go inside and get the facts?

The last day on that ship, as my work was drawing to a close, I heard a loud knock on the door. Three splintering hits on the wood, and something told me this wasn’t the crew.

Mr Forester?

I half stood up, hovering above my chair and waiting for another sign, or preferably, not one.

Sir? The voice was deep and rough.

Sir, the ship’s captain requests to see you? I froze in the spotlight of my desk lamp.


Yes, yes certainly. I said, quietly freeing the drawer of my desk, and swiping with an arm, the collection of pencil-scrawled notes and nut boxes across my desk.

The captain entered with a security guard for each shoulder. He was a short man, shorter than myself, and for the first time, he approached me in a casual outfit, a grey hooded jumper, blue Cubs cap and Nike trainers. He held his hand out to me, the sweatshirt hanging uncomfortably on him.


Yes Captain. I said.

We need to get you off this ship. Tonight.

And that was the first time I passed through undercover. Out of my cabin, eyes to the floor, my papers stuffed in the rucksack on my back. But lying here now, my back pressed deeply into the hammock, the prisoners breathing softly on all sides of me, the shore seems a lot further off. This time it might not be so easy.