512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
The Albert’s twelve crew members were stunned to see eleven members of the Symphony’s crew pointing eleven close-range plasma rifles at them. ‘They’ve all got guns? All of them?!’, thought Salazar. ‘But they’re just waiters and maids…’ Despite his shock, he did manage to shout the two words his crew needed to hear.
The pirates all sprang back into the Albert, behind the jagged, smoking edges of A.J.’s freshly-cut entrance way, just as a volley of blue plasma bolts seared the air around them, slamming into one of the Albert’s interior walls behind them, burning and tearing holes in the dirty grey metal.
“WAIT! Stop, stop, STOP!”, Salazar shouted. “HOLD YOUR FIRE!”
The cruise ship’s crew did not comply.
Terrified, paranoid, and unfamiliar with how guns actually worked, they kept firing and firing and firing again, not focussing, not aiming… just blindly shooting bolt after bolt of lethal concentrated energy. Explosions peppered the Albert’s floor, its ceiling, its internal doors. It was fortunate there were no significant control panels or instrument consoles near the Albert’s main hatch; they’d have been obliterated by this indeterminate strafing. As it was, the Albert’s main hatch opened into a dingy, empty gunmetal antechamber – there were a couple of corners to hide behind, but with twelve pirates currently scrambling to save their skins, demand for these hidey-holes was high.
The Symphony’s docking bay could afford its crew more cover – there were bulkheads, structural supporting columns and instrument consoles, even a couple of lifeboats to hide behind.
The gunfire, yelling and smoke made it impossible for Salazar and his crew to know what was going on. Who was where? Were they all shooting? How many shots did they have left? When would they stop? Although it felt like they were being attacked by an army, the pirates actually outnumbered their opponents. The Symphony’s captain and First Officer were still on the bridge, their Chief Engineer had stayed in Engineering, and their Chief Steward, the prim and proper Mr Lebedev, had lost his resolve, dropped his gun and run screaming from the room the moment the first shot was fired. It was now twelve against ten. Twelve experienced, battle-hardened, soldiers of fortune armed to the teeth… against ten terrified, hysterical, cruise liner employees ruled only by fear and panic.
The Symphony’s crew was confused, frantic. No longer ruled by reason, they kept blindly firing their guns – guns most of them had never used – in random yet deadly swirls, loops, waves and sweeps.
The Albert’s crew – all vastly better marksmen and women – returned warning fire, in those rare moments when they could get a retaliatory shot. They deliberately aimed above their adversaries’ heads, or at the floor in front of them; they only wanted to scare them into submission.
“WE DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU!” yelled Jiang.
“WE JUST WANT THE GOLD!” yelled Fullbrook.
Like Salazar said, the folks they were up against were just waiters and maids, who didn’t deserve to die today…. But the pirates’ merciful impulses were being ever so slightly tested by the fact that THE SYMPHONY CREW WOULD NOT STOP SHOOTING AT THEM! Well, perhaps not specifically at them – the terror-stricken cruise crew seemed to be shooting at everything – walls, floors, ceilings… in fact, it was only dumb luck that prevented them from shooting each other.
Being under this barrage of blindly aimed fire tipped some of the pirates over the edge and into a revenge frenzy; they returned fire; serious fire. Shots that were intended to kill – but their opportunities for clear shots were few and far between.
The Symphony’s docking bay had become a maelstrom of panicked, incompetent, deadly chaos.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
From the bridge, Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair had been watching, with growing horror. Watching, that is, until all the docking bay’s CCTV cameras were destroyed by various random blasts. Now that they’d lost their eyes on the docking bay, all they had was the static-plagued audio feed; the gunshots, the explosions, the grunting, screaming and indistinct yelling…
Tapping the insignia on her uniform, Captain Singh opened her personal communicator.
“Symphony crew, report in!” she yelled, struggling to be heard above the mayhem.
“SYMPHONY CREW, REPORT IN!” She yelled again, louder this time.
No crew member responded. They were too busy blindly firing in the general direction of the intruders.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The pirates realised that this wasn’t planned. They’d all been in enough gunfights to know the danger posed by an amateur with a gun. But these weren’t just any amateurs with guns – they were angry, terrified, panicked, irrational. And most of them looked like they’d never even seen a gun, let alone fired one. They only barely knew which end the trigger was at. And yet, they fired. And they fired, and they fired, and they fired again. Horizontal storms of plasma bolts continued to rip into the walls and floors around the pirates, and strafe the corners they scrambled to hide behind.
Richards had had enough. Holding an augmented photon pistol in each hand, she jumped out from her bolt hole, letting loose a visceral roar, as she blasted away at her assailants in the docking bay. None of her shots found them, in their protected positions. And somehow they still managed to keep firing in her direction, in the direction of her crew mates… in all directions, in fact. Even into the ceiling above them.
Richards’ attempt told her best friend – the brutish Gotmund – that it was time for him to obey his warrior instincts too. He’d played nice for long enough. It was time to click in to battle mode, and change the outcome of this fight, the only way he knew how. Gotmund had spotted one member – and only one member – of the Symphony crew who seemed to know what he was doing. This tall, stern-looking man had been aiming at the pirates before shooting. He moved quickly, smoothly, efficiently, the shots pulsing from his gun at rapid, measured intervals. He was the only one of them who was shooting to kill. Gotmund surmised that this man was the cruise ship’s Chief Security Officer… and the pirates’ biggest threat. Choosing his moment carefully, Gotmund waited until yet another volley of plasma bolts had strafed the wall behind him, leapt up from his cover position, fired two bolts directly at the man’s chest, and ducked down again.
Mr Torrence was jolted backwards and off his feet. A stunned expression on his face, his hands released their grip on his rifle, as he fell in a heavy, dislocated heap on the floor. He lay there, motionless. This sent a shock of horror through the three crew mates fighting alongside him – Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer. They were stupefied that their Master-at-arms had fallen at the hands of these intruders, and so quickly. Each of them realised, in a flash of nauseating clarity, that they could be next. They fled from the docking bay, deserting their crew mates and sprinting off into the depths of the ship.
Although he was still hiding, pressed up hard against the grimy metal of one of his ship’s bulkheads, Salazar saw them go, and seized the moment.
“Ha ha! THREE OF YOU JUST RAN AWAY, SO THAT LEAVES ONLY SIX! THE MATHEMATICIANS AMONG YOU WILL REALISE THAT, AS A RESULT, THERE’S NOW TWICE AS MANY OF US AS THERE ARE OF YOU! LOOK, WE ALL KNOW HOW THIS IS GOING TO END, SO I THINK IT WOULD BE IN YOUR BEST INTERESTS IF YOU JUST -”
He suddenly stopped as he realised he didn’t need to yell; his voice could be heard clearly. The gunfire had stopped. It had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Salazar chanced a swift look around the corner, and into the docking bay of the larger ship.
Empty. The remaining six crew members had disappeared.
From the moment the first shot was fired until now had probably only been about forty seconds.
Salazar waited a couple more, before motioning to his crew to move into the docking bay, but to keep their wits about them – this could be a trick.
It wasn’t a trick. The remaining cruise ship crew were scared out of their wits, they were exhausted, they were in shock, and their ears were ringing. They’d all simultaneously and unanimously arrived at the prudent decision to bugger off.
Salazar, Richards and Gotmund cautiously approached the prone figure of Mr Torrence.
“How long till he wakes up?” Salazar asked Richards.
“I got him twice. In the chest,” Gotmund explained, helpfully.
Behind them, the remaining members of the Albert’s crew were cautiously moving into the Symphony’s docking bay.
A smirk played across Richards’s mouth. “Oh, he’s not waking up, Cap’n.”
Salazar and Gotmund both looked at Richards, confused.
“What?” said Gotmund.
“Richards, you assured me that you’d set all the crew’s gun to ‘stun’.”
“Yeah, look. About that…” replied Richards. “I lied.”
Anger welled up in Salazar – his fists clenched, his teeth ground against each other. Barely containing his rage, he spluttered
“Richards, what the HELL?”
“You said there were fourteen people in this crew.” Richards replied. “Fourteen people between us and that gold. That’s fourteen problems. Now we only got thirteen. You should be thanking me.”
Salazar’s rage at Richards was instant. His hands became fists, his eyes grew wild, and he looked like he was about to hit her.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh had heard every word of this exchange. Mr Torrence had kept his communicator’s connection to the bridge open throughout the entire battle, right up to the moment he was killed. And, as it now turned out, even past that moment.
Captain Singh’s face betrayed no sign of her deep, instant anguish. Her features were cold and implacable, as she turned away from her First Officer, and stared blankly at the star-filled vidscreen in front of her.
“I wanted to go with him,” she said quietly, more to herself than to First Officer Sinclair. “But he insisted I stay on the bridge.”
“Captain, if you were there, you couldn’t have saved Mr Torrence.”
She turned and glared at him.
“You heard it, Captain,” he continued, growing more unsure of himself under her penetrating gaze. “It was chaos down there.”
She continued to glare at him.
“… And he was right. Earlier, I mean. We need you here, in command, more than we needed you there. We all need you here.”
He felt he was no good at this. Was he getting through to her? Was he offending her?
Captain Singh turned away from Mr Sinclair again, unable to hold his eye any longer, not wanting him to witness her pain. She thought of Mr John Torrence, Chief Security Officer, Master-at-arms; her old comrade, who she’d dragged into duty on this vessel. She had insisted he sign on here. This was her fault. She whispered two words, soaked in sorrow;
“… My friend.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Down in the docking bay, Salazar Sharp had closed his eyes and taken ten deep breaths. His crew had all waited as he did, with First Mate Jiang nodding her approval. When he opened his eyes, he felt better.
Until he saw Richards.
Closing his eyes again, he took another ten deep breaths. The crew waited patiently for this too. When he opened his eyes this time, Salazar Sharp seemed calmer, more focussed and ready to move on.
There were impatient, embarrassed nods from various crew members.
“Alright! Now here’s what we’re gonna do next…”
The Albert’s crew took a couple of steps closer to their captain, forming a rough semicircle around him.
Just a few metres away was Mr Torrence’s lifeless body.
Alone, and growing cold.
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.
Text copyright (c) 2019 Stephen Hall
All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com