512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Just beyond the range of the Symphony’s scanners, another ship was following it, matching its speed and course exactly. Long range scanners would probably classify it as a beat-up old freighter; something built to haul mundane, heavy cargo on short interworld trips. But closer inspection revealed its many blast marks, its hastily replaced panels, lights and parts… and its weaponry. This was no ordinary cargo barge. This ship looked as though its many battle scars had taught it a lesson, and it was damn sure it was going to win the next fight. Four plasma cannons – angled North, South, East and West – jutted out from its keel. Three Destroyer-class energy mortars were mounted on its port side, matched by three on its starboard side. They in turn were flanked by two arrays of four SPR seeker missiles. A large section of the ship’s cargo hold had been converted into a bomb bay, which also housed six torpedo tubes. To add to the general air of menace, someone had welded dozens of sharp, knife-like metal protrusions onto the ship’s hull, and finished it with a paint job that suggested spattered blood. A lot of spattered blood.
This terrifying spectacle, this waking nightmare, this harbinger of violent death from the stars was the infamous pirate ship known as The Cheeky Albert.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Inside, The Cheeky Albert’s crew had assembled in the ship’s communal area, summoned by their leader. Salazar Sharp was your typical flamboyant, amoral, charismatic, revenge-obsessed space pirate captain. He was well-versed in combat, kidnapping, piloting and various forms of weaponry. He was greedy, amoral and an Adrenalin junkie. The many years he’d spent pillaging, kidnapping, fighting, pursuing and being pursued had taken their toll on his body – a broken bone here, a scar there. Another scar there. And there, there… oh, and also there. In fact, his face had been so badly cut up in a knife fight 12 years ago, that he’d had extensive facial cosmetic surgery. This occasionally came in handy, when he’d prefer not to be recognised by associates from the old days. He possessed a certain rebellious charm, which made it easy for him to recruit new crew members, and hard for them to leave. But despite the many desperate, hair-raising, life-threatening adventures and misadventures that he and his crew had been through over the years, Salazar Sharp did not regard them as friends. Any sentimental feelings that may have dwelt in his breast were all reserved for Maggie. Maggie was five years old now, and she went everywhere with Salazar. She was playful, inquisitive, had twitchy, triangular ears and her favorite food was dragonflies. Maggie was Salazar’s pet fox, and the mascot of his ship.
Maggie was sitting contentedly at Sharp’s feet, and the ship’s first mate – a young woman named Jiang, who often acted as the captain’s conscience and the voice of reason – stood to his right, as he addressed his bleary-eyed crew.
“Look alive, everybody!” he yelled. “Today is the day. If all goes according to plan, two hours from now, every person on board this ship will be very, very rich. Evans? Can you hear me back there?”
“Aye Cap’n!” came a woman’s voice from the bridge. Evans was the Albert’s pilot, and she needed to stay at her post on the ship’s bridge, to ensure that their tracking of the Symphony stayed on course, stayed at the right velocity, and stayed undetected… until Sharp gave the word.
“Good.” Sharp continued. “As you all know, the Symphony of the Stars has been of special interest to me for a very long time now. Jiang and I have done a lot of homework on this ship, on its captain, and on its so-called ‘secret’ cargo. Now, we all know exactly what its cargo is….”
Smiles broke out on each of the eleven faces watching their captain. They were definitely waking up now.
“We all know exactly what its cargo is worth…”
Excitement rippled throughout the crew. Some of them giggled excitedly, nudging each other, and shifting on their feet, as greed bubbled through their bodies.
“And today, ladies, gentlemen…” Sharp continued, “WE WILL RELIEVE THE SYMPHONY OF THAT CARGO!”
A spontaneous, avaricious cheer burst from the crew. Its suddenness startled Maggie, and she ducked behind Sharp’s legs, as he waited for the hubbub to die down.
“But hear this… I want this raid to be as peaceful as possible. This is a cruise ship. It’s a soft target. Its crew are essentially waiters and maids. A couple of them may have weapons, but they won’t have the knowhow – or the guts – to use them. So on this incursion, you are to avoid any casualties.”
From Sharp’s side, First Mate Jiang chipped in; “Gotmund? Did you get that?”
Gotmund – a brawny, blond mountain of a man at the back of the room – nodded seriously. He was disappointed to hear this, but he accepted it. Gotmund was the muscles of the crew, and loved employing his considerable brute strength in fighting. He always won, and that made him feel good. A simple pleasure, but Gotmund was a simple man. He sighed, and contented himself with the knowledge that he’d be able to put his strength to good use in shifting the cargo.
“Yes,” Gotmund said.
“Say it back to me,” Jiang said.
“Avoid any casualties,” Gotmund said forlornly.
“Good, Gotmund,” said Jiang. “Captain?”
Sharp continued the briefing. “So, you all know what will happen next; I will contact the captain of the Symphony, inform her that we will be docking with her ship, that we will be entering their cargo hold, that we will be taking their cargo and that we will be leaving with it. She will protest, and attempt to take evasive action. They will not be able to outrun us, due to our superior speed, our superior manoeuvrability and the most excellent piloting work of Evans…”
“Thank you!” chirped Evans’s voice from around the corner.
“… and we will have them. If she chooses to voice any troublesome objections at this point, a warning shot or two should clarify her thinking. What sort of ordnance do you suggest?”
The question was addressed to Richards, a wiry, tense young woman sporting two pistols in hip holsters and a rifle slung over her back. Although her official role in the Albert’s crew was ‘weapons expert’, a more accurate description would be ‘weapons fanatic.’ She was a woman who loved her work.
“I’d say a couple of rounds from the plasma cannons across the bow, then I’d follow that with four little proton disruptor stingers glancing off the port side aft, four off the starboard side and two more just grazing their bridge. That’ll show ‘em we mean business.”
Raising his eyebrows, Sharp replied “Thank you, Richards. We will of course halve those numbers. This measure will ensure that Captain Singh is of a reasonable frame of mind, and she will then allow us to dock with them, via the cargo access hatch in the hull, aft -”
Jiang interrupted “Sorry Cap’n, just to check…” then, raising her voice, “Evans, do you foresee any problems with the docking procedure?”
“Nope!” came the cheerful reply from around the corner. Sharp nodded, and continued the briefing.
Two crew members at the back of the group were not paying attention. The taller, muscular man – Skarsgard – was listening to his diminutive best friend Fullbrook, as he outlined his plans for his share of the loot.
“Well, not so much a mansion… more a palace, really,” Fullbrook enthused. “They’ve got all these beautiful grand palaces built into cliffs overlooking the sea, from 500 years ago or something. On the Northern continent. I can’t believe you don’t know the waterworld Fontora. It’s even one of the Symphony’s destinations!”
“Sorry,” said Skarsgard.
“I forgive you, mate – I’ll even let you come and visit! Hey, why don’t you buy a palace there too? We can be neighbours!”
“In a beautiful grand palace next door to your beautiful grand palace?” asked Skarsgard.
“In a beautiful grand palace next door to my beautiful grand palace!”
Skarsgard laughed. He had always found Fullbrook’s enthusiasm contagious, ever since they were at school together.
“It’s a thought, I suppose,” he said.
“More than a thought, buddy,” Fullbrook countered. “It’s a certainty! Mate, when we make this haul… you and I will be able to buy anything we want. Any. Thing. The only limit is your imagination! Think big, Skarsgard!”
Skarsgard nodded, and said “To quote the Bard, ‘My favourite amount of anything is’…”
Fullbrook joined him in completing the quote “…‘TOO MUCH’!”
Skarsgard looked around the room at his crewmates – at Suarez, Jelani, Devereux, Lightfoot and A.J. By the end of the day, they’d all be filthy rich. Each of them would have more loot than they could spend in five lifetimes.
First Mate Jiang took over the briefing, running final individual pre-raid checks with all crew members.
“Richards,” she called, “do all crew members have fully charged weapons, all set to ‘stun’, and spare ordnance?”
“Devereux, do you have all the codes needed to access the Symphony’s docking bay, its cargo hold, and all doors in between?”
“Jelani! As the captain said, we’re not expecting significant trouble, but you do have your full field medikit, all instruments and medical supplies, just in case?”
“AJ? Lightfoot? You good to go?”
“Good to go,” barked A.J.
“Good to go,” barked Lightfoot.
First Mate Jiang turned her attention to the ship’s cook – a portly, sweating man in his late thirties. “And finally, Suarez! This is a big day, and we all have a lot of work to do – do all crew members have full bellies?”
“They do indeed!” Suarez boomed merrily.
Salazar had picked up Maggie the fox, and was now holding and stroking her as he came to the end of his briefing. “One more thing. Once we’re on board the Symphony, do you all know where to meet, if I need to call a three-fourteen?”
General affirmative noises from the crew.
“Good. Any questions? Yes, Gotmund?”
“Cap’n, I know you said no casualties… but how do you feel about injuries?”
Salazar gave a non-committal shrug.
Gotmund smirked, as Fullbrook’s hand shot up.
“How will you be spending your share, Cap’n?”
Various crew members smirked, and looked at Sharp curiously.
“I’ll think about that once we’ve got it back here. Now, unless there are any other questions…?”
“Good luck, everyone…” He looked each of his crew members quickly in the eye, as he milked the pause… “Now let’s GET RICH!”
Another covetous cheer went up from the crew, as Salazar strode from the communal area to the bridge.
The crew dispersed. Some checked their weapons again, some challenged others to a game to pass the time, while others returned to their quarters, hoping to get a little rest before the raid.
Salazar and Jiang arrived on the bridge, where the pilot Evans was closely monitoring the console in front of her.
“Evans, it’s time. Let them see us.”
Evans nudged the controls, and The Cheeky Albert accelerated slightly, smoothly surging forward and into the range of the Symphony’s scanners.
Salazar and Jiang exchanged looks. The Symphony of The Stars would be able to detect them now, and would surely be hailing them in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Salazar took a deep breath, considering all the planning he’d done to bring them to this point. Still cradling Maggie in his arms, he absently scratched her head, tickling her behind the ears. They waited.
A minute passed.
Maggie grew restless, wriggling in Salazar’s arms. He put her down, and she scampered off down a corridor.
Another minute passed. It seemed somehow slower than the first one.
Jiang felt the need to check. “Evans, we’re definitely detectable by their scanners at this range?”
“Yep,” the pilot assured her.
A third, separate, different minute passed. What was taking them so long? Salazar had spent countless hours studying Captain Diana Singh, and he was sure she would have been onto them before this.
Less than a minute later, four minutes had passed, and he was beginning to wonder if he’d misjudged Captain Singh. Had he made a serious error? He was just about to ask Jiang’s opinion when a voice crackled over the Albert’s speakers.
“Unidentified craft, this is Captain Diana Singh of the civilian cruise ship Symphony of the Stars. Please state your name, cargo and destination.”
Salazar took a deep breath, as he thought ‘Well, here goes….’
Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here.