= CHAPTER 3 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:50 AM

On the bridge of the Albert, the voice of the Symphony’s captain was heard loud and clear:

“Please state your name, cargo and destination.”

Salazar took a deep breath. Showtime!

“Open the channel,” Salazar told Evans. “But audio only. I don’t want her to see me just yet… State our name? Why, Diana! Are you telling me you don’t recognise the universally feared and dreaded pirate ship known as The Cheeky Albert?”

“I’m afraid not.”

She looked at her First Officer, Mr Sinclair, who shrugged.

“To whom do I have the honour of speaking?” she enquired.

“Oh Diana, I beg your pardon – how rude of me. I… am Salazar Sharp! Soldier of Fortune, Plunderer of Riches, Fighter of Fights, Breaker of Hearts, Scourge of the Stars, and devoted pet owner.”

‘Modest,’ she thought. “I am Diana Singh, captain of -”

“- the civilian cruise ship Symphony of the Stars,” he interrupted. “I know. You’ve been in the post since its maiden voyage five years ago. The FrontierLine Corporation sought you out for the role, coaxing you away from your distinguished 40 year career in the Third Offworld Navy, which saw you honoured with several awards, including the Order of the Blue Star for exemplary bravery and the prestigious Cross of the Three Navies.”

Captain Singh was starting to feel uneasy – how did he know so much about her?

“It appears you have the advantage of me, Captain Sharp. I must ask you again – will you please state your cargo and destination?”

“Certainly, of course, I’d be happy to. Cargo? We don’t currently have any cargo on board, Diana, but I do most certainly have plans to rectify that. And as to your second question… our destination is your cargo hold. My crew and I will be docking with your ship shortly, entering the cargo hold, and relieving you of your secret payload.”

“What?”

“Oh, I’m sorry – was that not clear? We’re gonna steal your cargo. Within the next hour or so.”

“I’m sorry Captain Sharp… Cargo? What cargo?”, asked Captain Singh. “We’re not a cargo ship, we’re a cruise liner.”

“Yes, I am aware you’re a cruise liner, thank you Diana,” Salazar said, a little condescendingly. “I’m referring to the secret payload you’re delivering to your bosses at the FrontierLine Corporation, on this particular voyage.”

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh, First Officer Sinclair, Second Officer Aku and Third Officer Serrano all exchanged concerned looks.

“Oh come on. You know… ” Salazar continued. “The cargo whose very existence is so highly classified that most of your crew aren’t even aware that you’re carrying it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Captain Singh said.

“Aaah, but that’s the thing, Diana – you do. You’re one of the few people who actually has the security clearance to know exactly what I’m taking about.”

“Captain Sharp, I can assure you that The Symphony of the Stars is nothing more than a humble luxury cruise ship …”

Diana paused. Thinking, stalling for time.

Salazar paused too, but his was more for dramatic effect.

Sensing the time was right to break both of these (simultaneous, identical, matching His ‘n’ Hers) pauses, Salazar spoke.

“I’m talking about the gold, Diana.”

“Gold?”, she spluttered.

“Gold. That pallet in your cargo hold, holding ten tonnes of gold bars. You know the one? About a meter high, a meter wide, a meter deep? Shiny? Sort of… golden coloured? So much heavier than it looks? THAT gold.”

Silence hung heavy in the air on the Symphony’s bridge. Sinclair, Aku and Serrano looked expectantly at their Captain. Though her face remained perfectly still, myriad options efficiently whirled through Diana Singh’s mind for half a second, before she settled on one.

She burst out laughing.

“GOLD? And TEN TONNES, you say? Oh, that’s good! That is a good one!”

First Officer Sinclair and the others copied their captain’s laughing – tentatively, unconvincingly.

“Ha ha ha ha hhaaa….”

Captain Singh continued, still chuckling, “You have a very fertile imagination, Captain Sharp – I’ll give you that. Of course I can see why you, as a professional pirate, would love us to be carrying ten tonnes of gold, ripe for the picking… but what conceivable reason could you have for thinking that we actually are?”

“One of my crew members, Lightfoot, is extremely proficient at – shall we say – research”, he answered. “She can find almost any information, including information that doesn’t particularly want to be found. She tells me the FrontierLine Corporation has recently converted some of its considerable assets, and is in the process of discreetly bringing them home to their central operational HQ. Of course, I don’t know why they’ve converted this portion of their immense wealth into gold bars, and frankly it’s none of my business, but -”

Captain Singh snorted. “’None of your business’? After what you’ve said so far, that’s a bit rich!”

Sharp raised an eyebrow. “Is that supposed to be a pun?”

“No.” she said.

Captain Diana Singh did not do puns. “Do go on.”

“Diana, you said it yourself – the Symphony is just a humble luxury cruise ship. It’s easily overlooked, an indulgent spacefaring hotel for vacuous, overentitled holiday makers. Sure, anyone could expect to find a few trinkets in the safes in the passengers’ cabins… but no one would ever think to look for ten tonnes of gold in your cargo hold.”

Salazar Sharp allowed himself a self-congratulatory glance to Jiang and Evans.

“… Well, almost no one.”

Captain Singh had clicked into alert battle mode, and was trying to think three moves ahead. She silently signalled Second Officer Aku to begin rousing and briefing the crew. She’d need them all assembled on the bridge and awaiting their orders as quickly, efficiently and quietly as possible.

This was not a drill.

Grateful that the link was audio only, so Salazar couldn’t see these preparations, she asked “So what exactly are your intentions, Captain Sharp?”

“I just told you. We’re going to dock with your ship, come inside and steal all the gold. Any resistance you give us will be met with extreme violent force.”

Captain Diana Singh drew herself up to her full, impressive height.

“You know I can’t allow you to do that, Captain Sharp. I can not, and I will not, let you attack a civilian ship full of innocent passengers. 2000 innocent people; men, women, and children!”

“You’re quite right, Diana. But you see… you won’t be letting me do that. Because the Symphony isn’t currently carrying any passengers, is it? You and I both know that you’re currently bringing the empty ship back to drydock, for the round of repairs and maintenance that’s scheduled every five years”.

Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair looked at each other, flabbergasted, both wondering the same thing – how the hell did he know that?

“Oh, and in case you’re wondering how the hell I knew that…” Sharp continued, “… My researcher, remember? So right now, the only souls on board your ship are you and the thirteen members of your skeleton crew. And given that it’s not yet 6 AM, I’d be willing to bet that apart from the two or three of you on the bridge, all the others are still fast asleep in their quarters down on F deck.”

Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair exchanged a look. Well, he was half right.

“And if you’re wondering how I know where the crew’s quarters are -”

“Your ‘researcher’.” said Captain Singh, flatly.

“No, I read the brochure. So! If you’d be so kind as to make your way to the main docking bay door, Captain, my crew and I scheduled to be there in – Evans?”

Evans checked the screen in front of her.

“Three and a half minutes, Cap’n.”

“Three and a half minutes. Oh, and Diana,” Salazar continued. “Please don’t bother altering the encryption on the docking locks, or changing or updating any of your ‘randomly generated’ security algorithms in an attempt to keep us out. I have a crew member for all that stuff as well.”

This time, the pause was Captain Singh’s, and hers alone. And when she spoke, her tone was grave, threatening.

“You will fail in this, Captain Sharp. I will see to that.”

“I mean what I say, Diana,” Sharp responded. “If you – or any of your crew – offer any resistance, we will meet it with extreme violent force.”

On the Symphony‘s bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair caught Captain Singh’s eye. He looked sweaty, anxious. Although she gave him a reassuring nod, she couldn’t help thinking ‘When’s this man going to grow a backbone?’

Salazar’s voice bounced back onto the bridge of the Symphony; “See you soon, Diana!”

Although she couldn’t see his face, Captain Singh knew he’d said that with a wink.

The channel closed. Three minutes now. She’d have to move fast. Tapping the captain’s insignia on the shoulder of her uniform which also served as her communicator, she called “Ms Aku?”

“Yes Captain?” the Second Officer’s voice replied.

“The crew’s ETA on the bridge, please?”

“One minute, save for Ms Arenson, who insisted on resuming her post in Engineering.”

“Just so. Thank you, Ms Aku.” Captain Singh tapped the insignia again.

“Mr Torrence?”

“Yes Captain?” a male voice, gruff.

“If ever we needed a Chief Security Officer and Master-at-arms, that time is now. Please retrieve all of the ship’s personal armaments from the weapons locker and bring them to the bridge. Take Mr Ellis and Mr Ferrer to assist you.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Thank you, Mr Torrence.”

Tap.

“Ms Arenson, are you currently in Engineering?”

“Yes, Captain,” came the reply from the Chief Engineer.

“I’m about to order Evasive Protocol Sequence 001. Please be prepared to accommodate and compensate for any sudden power fluctuations.”

“Yes Captain.”

“Thank you Ms Arenson”. Turning her attention back to the bridge, and her Third Officer…

“I expect you overheard that, Mr Serrano. On my mark, please engage Evasive Protocol Sequence 001. Let’s show that conceited privateer that this ship is a lot faster than it looks.”

“Yes Captain,” said Mr Serrano.

“….Now!”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If you’d been observing the Symphony of the Stars from outside the ship from a fixed point in space, what you’d have seen next was this.

The liner’s bow dropped 90 degrees as its velocity increased threefold. It raced downwards in a straight line, before abruptly turning to starboard. Then it accelerated again, reaching five times its usual cruising velocity, and heading straight for a small moon nearby. Just when it seemed like it was on a certain collision course, it swung quickly to starboard again, as its engines pulsed, their outlets glowing brighter and brighter as they neared their limits, roughly booting the ship forward, suddenly at eight times its cruising velocity.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

And when Salazar Sharp and his crew observed the Symphony of the Stars from inside their ship, they saw pretty much the same thing.

“Impressive,” he nodded. “Then again, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from her. Evans, let’s keep up with them, if we can.”

“’If we can?’” Evans snorted derisively, as she expertly manipulated the console in front of her, putting the Albert’s photon engines through their paces. The Albert matched the Symphony’s varying velocity and trajectory easily. Evans’s expert piloting put the two vessels in such close unison, it was as though the cruise ship was casting a smaller, spiky, blood-spattered shadow.

“So we’re on them, then?” Salazar asked.

“Stuck like glue, Cap’n,” was Evans’s answer.

“You want to open channels again, Cap’n?” asked Jiang.

“Not just yet; I think this calls for some more direct communication. Do the warning shot thing, Evans.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

While still expertly shadowing the ducking, weaving, lurching, rolling behemoth, Evans tapped her console, and the Albert’s warning shot program was engaged.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

If you’d been observing this moment from outside from a fixed point in space, you’d have seen that the Symphony had decided to slow down now, and was resuming a more fixed, stable course. You’d have come to the conclusion that the enormous, stately liner had quickly realised it was just too slow and unwieldy to outrun the nimble, spiky speed machine that was virtually clinging to its hull.

And you’d have been right.

Predictably, the Albert echoed the Symphony’s moves perfectly, also slowing and taking a more steady-as-she-goes line.

A moment passed.

And then, just as the Symphony was meekly slowing to its usual cruising speed, came the ‘warning shots’.

There were two ominous thuds, as the Albert’s plasma cannons shot two brilliant blue energy bolts across the bow of the Symphony, each coming so close that it left scorch marks on the hull. Then, from the energy mortar arrays, two small proton disruptor missiles launched and sped towards the cruiser. Then four more. Then another two. And another two. Ten in total, all locked on and rocketing towards different spots on the Symphony’s pristine, white, expensive hull. As each one impacted, a small explosion erupted, as a section of the cruiser’s outer metal skin was violently ripped off and sent hurtling into space.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh was furious.

“What the HELL? Is that their idea of warning shots? Computer! Damage report.”

“No crew or passengers have been harmed. Minor localised hull breaches in ten locations,” was the reply, in the usual reassuring times of the ship’s computer. “Compartments adjacent to all breaches have been isolated and voided of oxygen. Maitbots have been dispatched to all damaged locations to commence repairs”.

“Why did they do that?” First Officer Sinclair stammered in disbelief. “We’d slowed! It was clear that we were no threat to them, and we certainly weren’t going to be able to outrun them…”

On the bridge of the Albert, Salazar Sharp wasn’t exactly thrilled, either.

“What the HELL? Evans, is that your idea of warning shots?”

“Don’t blame me,” the pilot protested. “The warning shots protocol was programmed by Richards. And anyway, they’re only little ones – the damage isn’t as bad as it looks.”

Salazar fumed “RICHARDS! Get in here!”

First Mate Jiang and Evans the pilot looked at each other.

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” said Jiang. “We’ve got them where we want them.”

On the bridge of the Symphony, First Officer Sinclair and Third Officer Serrano looked to their captain.

“Well, gentlemen, they’ve got us where they want us,” she said. “But what they don’t know is that they’ve just signed up for one hell of a fight.”

 

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.

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