= CHAPTER 4 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:52 AM

On the bridge of the Cheeky Albert, Captain Salazar Sharp gave the order to his pilot, Evans; “Open the channel again.”

“Audio only?” asked Evans.

“Audio only.”

She nodded to Salazar, letting him know that they were now in contact with the Symphony.

“Captain Singh,” said Salazar. “I did warn you that any resistance would be met with extreme violent force…”
‘… But I wasn’t thinking quite THAT violent, thanks Richards,’ he thought.

“So you did, Captain Sharp, so you did,” came the slightly bitter response. “In my long career, I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered another vessel whose warning shots ripped ten holes in my ship.”

There was a tense pause. Salazar was about to apologise, but a stern glance from Jiang told him to maintain a dignified silence. Or as close as he could get to a dignified silence, anyway.

Captain Singh continued, “You have bested us, Captain Sharp. Your ship is faster and more manoeuvrable than mine, and I now have a very clear understanding of the weaponry at your disposal, and your willingness to deploy it. We cannot outrun you, and we cannot outgun you. I find myself with very few options…”

Salazar, Evans and Jiang exchanged expectant looks.

“And so,” continued Captain Singh, “my crew and I will expect you in our docking bay shortly. I remind you, Captain Sharp, that we are a civilian cruise ship. We are not a military vessel. My crew are all innocent people, just doing their jobs. As you pointed out, most of them were not even aware of the cargo which has made us your target today. I implore you to remember this, Captain Sharp. These are innocent people, just doing their jobs.”

Salazar was impressed by her dignity. She had failed to protect the men and women under her command, and she knew it. She was beaten. But she held her head high, and even now, was still fighting for the safety of her crew, the only way she currently could. He admired that; she was indeed a worthy adversary. She had been rational, she had been articulate and, although they were enemies, she had treated him with respect. He owed her the same.

“Sure. See you soon!”

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On the Symphony, crew members were arriving on the bridge, joining Captain Singh, First Officer Sinclair and Third Officer Serrano.
The captain greeted them all formally, as usual.

“Good morning, Mr Martell, Dr Zivai.”

“Good morning, Captain,” said the Cruise Director and Ship’s Doctor.

“Good morning, Mr Lebedev, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Abara”.

More “Good morning, Captain”s from the Chief Steward, Second Engineer and Chief Technology Officer.

“… and good morning to you, Ms LeGuin”.

“Good morning, Captain,” said Deck Rating LeGuin, the most junior crew member there.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” continued Captain Singh. “we are about to be boarded by pirates.”

There were sharp intakes of breath and sounds of surprise from the crew.

“A short time ago, I spoke with Captain Salazar Sharp of the pirate vessel known as the Cheeky Albert…”

She paused to gauge her crew’s reaction to the name of this supposedly dreaded scourge of the system. Nothing.

“… and he informed me of his intention to board the Symphony, with his crew, and steal the payload that’s currently secreted in our main cargo hold. We employed evasive manoeuvres – which you would have felt as you made your way up here – but they proved unsuccessful. The pirate vessel has subsequently fired upon us, creating minor damage to the hull in ten locations…”

The assembled crew exchanged anxious glances, as they absorbed this information – this was going from bad to worse.

“… None of which is serious, all of which is being repaired. I am sorry to inform you, though,” her tone growing more grave, “that Captain Sharp and his crew will be boarding in approximately two minutes.”

At that moment, Chief Security Officer Torrence strode onto the bridge, carrying five close-defence plasma rifles. Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ellis entered behind him, carrying another ten guns between them. They began distributing the rifles amongst the assembled crew.

“I- I never knew there were so many guns on board”, First Officer Sinclair said apprehensively, as he unconsciously took one step away from the tall, stern Chief Security Officer.

“That’s because you didn’t need to know” said Mr Torrance, briskly distributing rifles to other nonplussed crew members.

“But we’re just a cruise ship!” Mr Sinclair protested lamely.

“Can’t be too careful,” said Mr Torrence, as he thrust a rifle into the startled Cruise Director’s hands.

Chief Security Officer James Torrence was one of three ex-military personnel currently on board the Symphony. Along with Mr Chamberlain – the ship’s Second Engineer – he had served with Captain Singh in the navy, and she had coaxed both of her old comrades to join her when she signed on for this cushy position. Mr Torrence’s duties aboard the Symphony of the Stars were a far cry from his earlier adventures. No espionage here, no high-speed chases, no infiltrating enemy encampments. No gun fights, grenade lobbing or hand-to-hand combat. The only action he’d seen on board the Symphony was breaking up a brawl in The Shifting Sands, and throwing the two would-be warriors in the ship’s brig overnight to sober up. He’d never admit it to anyone, but he secretly welcomed the prospect of a pirate incursion. The threat of being boarded by bloodthirsty bandits in a matter of moments had excitement coursing through his veins. For the first time in a long time, Chief Security Officer Mr Torrence felt ALIVE.

Mr Serrano and Mr Ellis handed the remaining rifles around, and the freshly armed, extremely worried cruise ship crew stood facing their captain.

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

The Albert made its way inexorably toward the Symphony’s docking bay hatch, sliding along the length of the larger ship’s hull. Its pace was leisurely, and the two ships’ hulls almost touched; the Albert was definitely invading the Symphony’s personal space.
In fact, if both ships were at a party, the Symphony would have nervously cleared its throat, self-consciously looked away, and made an excuse to go and get another drink.
That’s if it had a throat. And eyes. And if it was able to drink, and got invited to parties.

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

On the Albert’s bridge, Evans’s delicate piloting brought the Albert’s main hatch into contact with the docking bay hatch. She killed the engines, and engaged the magnetic clamp and airlock protocols. The two portals were far from an exact fit – the Symphony’s hatch was at least twice the size of the Albert’s. Gaining access wasn’t going to be one of Devereux’s delicate code-breaking, lock-picking jobs – this time, it was going to require some old-school breaking and entering.
“A.J?” called Salazar.
“Aye, Cap’n?”, called the crew’s mechanic.
“Got a little metalwork assignment for you.”
“No problem, Cap’n. I’m happier cutting than shooting,” said A.J., patting one of the many power tools strapped into the multi-pocketed harness covering his powerful torso.
“I may need you to do a bit of both this time.”
“Aye, Cap’n.”
The volume of Salazar’s voice increased now, as he addressed the entire crew.
“Alright, ladies, gentlemen – this is it! As A.J.’s cutting through the door, I want us all to assume the usual incursion formation. Now, I don’t expect any resistance from their ‘welcoming committee’. We’ve shown them we’re a force to be reckoned with, there’s only about a dozen of them, and they’re all soft! Just waiters and maids. We will all be armed, with weapons drawn and aimed. They will not be armed – “
Jiang whispered in Salazar’s ear.
“Good point, Jiang. Correction – one of them may be armed. That’d be their Security Officer. But that’s only one person, so let’s make sure they understand that they’re well and truly outgunned. And remember, the aim is no casualties. So let’s get on board…”
Excited rumblings amongst the crew.
“Let’s get to the hold…”
Shuffling feet and eager elbow nudging amongst the crew.
“And let’s GET THAT GOLD!”
There was an explosion of energy in another avaricious cheer, and all twelve members of the Albert’s crew charged towards the ship’s main hatch, as Maggie ran along behind them. As they jogged, an impromptu chant went up;
“Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!
Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!
Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!”

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

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh was fielding apprehensive questions from her extremely jumpy crew.

“Captain, you really want to give each and every one of us a gun?”asked the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev. “After what’s been happening here over the last few days?”

Captain Singh answered without hesitation. “Faced with these thieving, murderous marauders, we’d be extremely foolish not to be armed. Mr Torrence?”

“Agreed, Captain. Our only problem,” the Chief Security Officer answered, “is that we don’t have ENOUGH guns.”

“And hear this,” the captain continued. “You are not to set your guns to stun; all rifles are to be configured to their fullest lethal capabilities. And that is an order. We will give no quarter. They see us as a flying hotel full of gutless, soft hospitality staff, but they are in for a very nasty surprise. Ladies, gentlemen, we have a common enemy here; an enemy outside the Symphony.”

“To add to the enemy we’ve got inside…” thought twelve of the thirteen crew members listening to her.

The captain continued. “Now is not the time to be afraid.”

“No kidding – we’ve been afraid for weeks,” thought those same twelve crew members.

Noting their frightened expressions, the captain continued. “Of course I’m mindful of recent events. And if fear is something you already have, then use it! Channel it into your efforts to repel them! Let’s show them that we are a force to be reckoned with. Let’s arm up, let’s get down to that docking bay, and let’s blast them right off the Symphony and back on to their ridiculous, spiky bucket of bolts!”

Her words seemed to be working. The crew members seemed to be standing taller. She delivered her final reassurance.

“… And I’ll be right there with you.”

“Begging your pardon, Captain,” It was Chief Security Officer Torrence. “but I must strongly advise you to remain on the bridge. It’s the captain’s place. Right now, we need you in command more than we need you in combat. I know you’re a warrior, captain – you don’t need to prove that to any of us – but your place is on the bridge.”

He looked deep into her eyes. They’d known each other so long – and been through so much together over the years – that she knew that this time, he was right.

She capitulated. “Just so, Mr Torrence.”

“And might I suggest, Captain, that you keep First Officer Sinclair here with you, to assist with the co-ordination of operations?”

“Just so. Mr Sinclair, you’re with me.”

Realising he’d now be well away from any fighting, First Officer Sinclair released a rather unmanly squeak of relief.

Mr Torrence took command of the rest of the crew now. “Ladies, gentlemen… let’s make our way to the docking bay. Safety catches off. Good luck, one and all.”

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The Albert‘s crew had assembled just inside the ship’s main external hatch, where Salazar was checking a display panel on the wall. The integrity of the seal between the two ships was confirmed. He hit a control on the wall, and the external hatch slid open, to reveal the pristine white metal of the cruise liner’s docking bay door.

“A.J.,” he said. “Over to you.”

The ship’s mechanic stepped up to the door, ignited his portable welder, and holding it at arm’s length, began deftly cutting a straight horizontal line through the metal, just above head height. The other pirates shifted excitedly from foot to foot, eager for the moment when they would burst through…

Within a minute, A.J. had expertly burned the outline of a large rectangle – two meters high and four meters wide. As the last shower of sparks was hitting the floor, he deactivated and holstered his welder, and planted a well-aimed kick at the middle of the rectangle. With a quick, metallic wrenching sound, the last scraps of metal connecting the shape to its surrounds snapped, and the enormous slab of steel fell forward and onto the floor of the Symphony’s docking bay, landing with a reverberating boom.

The twelve well-armed crew members of the Albert were surprised to find themselves face to face with eleven equally well-armed, wild-eyed Symphony crew members, whose fear and aggression were so palpable, it was only an instant before the first shot was fired.

In some ways, though, that instant felt more like a week…

 

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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