512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
5:57 AM

When she heard the ‘battle’ from the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh was astonished by the cowardice of her crew. Of course she understood that they weren’t soldiers, but for them to fall apart like this? She glanced at that fainthearted First Officer of hers, Mr Sinclair. The man couldn’t even grow a moustache properly – what WAS that on his top lip?

‘Typical,’ she thought.

This was the crew she was saddled with, and their gutless incompetence had just cost Mr Torrence his life. He’d been the only one of them with any measure of courage. Apart, perhaps, from her Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain – and just what had he been doing during all of this? Struggling to stifle her chagrin, she tapped her insignia, opening a general channel to all of them.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Symphony, this is your captain. Now hear this. In your encounter with the intruders in the docking bay, your behaviour has been…”

She bit her lip.

“… less than honourable. Our Chief Security Officer is now dead. But, in a final selfless act, he left his communicator channel open. As a result, I have heard the conversation of the invaders, and I now know their next move. They are coming for you. They plan to take you all hostage, before stealing our cargo. They will show no mercy, as their murder of Mr Torrence has demonstrated all too clearly. So no matter where you are currently cowering, I order you to make your way to the ship’s bridge, as quickly as possible. I repeat – this is an order. Right now, we all need to be together, to stand together and to fight together, if we are to have any chance of repelling these marauders, and reclaiming our ship…

To have any chance of reclaiming our home. That is all.”

Suddenly remembering the one crew member who’d been away from all the action, she opened a channel to her Chief Engineer.

“Ms Arenson, that includes you, too. You may take your leave of the engine room now. Please bring the ship to a full stop and make your way to the bridge.”

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

When they saw Mr Torrence killed right next to them, Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer had sprinted out of the docking bay as fast as they could. They were now three levels higher, creeping nervously along the opulent shopping promenade. It was unsettling seeing the promenade like this – silent, deserted, and bathed in the dim, red-tinged work light that the ship defaulted to when not carrying passengers. Although none of the boutiques currently had any staff or customers, their window displays still featured mannequins – barely visible in this sickly, artificial twilight – draped in exotic furs, gowns and jewellery.

“That one moved!” blurted Deck Rating Ferrer.

He was a shallow young man, hedonistic and not especially brave. He’d signed on as a Deck Rating (the lowest, entry-level position) on the Symphony a year ago. Not because he was interested in travel, in the cruise industry, or even in customer service. He had signed on for two reasons; in his words, “Reason One? Chicks. Reason Two? PAAARTAAAYS!” And, to his smug satisfaction, things had pretty much panned out as he’d hoped. He was tall, he was athletic – he spent a lot of time in the ship’s gym – and he’d been genetically blessed with a blond, blue-eyed male model’s looks.
The ladies loved him.
Unfortunately, he’d also been blessed with a blond, blue-eyed male model’s intelligence.

“Don’t be stupid. It didn’t move. They can’t move; they’re mannequins.”

That was Mr Serrano, the ship’s Third Officer. Higher ranking than Mr Ferrer, a couple of years older, and a good deal more rational. As they continued past yet another pretentious, polished gift shop full of overpriced trinkets, Mr Serrano realised he’d finally shaken off the crazed terror that had gripped him back in the docking bay. And yet, although that chaos was behind him now, there was one very specific part of it that he’d been replaying over and over again…

“Did you hear the pirates say anything back there?” he asked both of his companions.

“Like what?” asked Mr Ferrer.

“Pretty hard to hear anything above all that pandemonium,” said Dr Zivai.

“I thought I heard one of them say ‘We just want the gold’…”

Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer stopped walking and looked at Mr Serrano.

“Captain Singh never told us what they were after,” he continued. “She never told us what the ‘payload’ in the cargo hold actually is… Do you think we might be transporting gold? If we are, it’d have to be a lot of gold, wouldn’t it? I mean, to attract this sort of attention…”

And whether or not Mr Serrano’s saying this convinced either of his companions, it had certainly just convinced him. If he had any residual fear, it completely evaporated at this moment. To be replaced by simple, wholesome, good old-fashioned greed.

“Mr Serrano, I think that’s the least of our – ” began Dr Zivai, but she was interrupted by the voice of the captain coming through all their communicators.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Symphony, this is your captain. Now hear this. In your encounter with the intruders in the docking bay, your behaviour has been… less than honourable. Our Chief Security Officer is now dead.”

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

The Symphony’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev was currently even further away from the docking bay, given that he ran at the sound of the first shot. As he’d sped, terrified, along D deck and towards the bow of the ship, the same seven words played on a continuous loop in his head;

“OhwhydidIdropmygun? OhwhydidIdropmygun? OhwhydidIdropmygun?”

His shaken, scrambled instincts had led him straight to the wellness spa. He felt he needed relaxation, he needed serenity, and he needed them NOW, goddammit! Three seconds after he’d reached the entrance, run inside, and locked the door behind him, Captain Diana Singh’s voice came through on his communicator. It took him a moment to focus on her words; to register them above his own frightened panting. Did she just say that Mr Torrence is dead?

“I have heard the conversation of the invaders, and I now know their next move. They are coming for you.”

Mr Lebedev gasped.

“They plan to take you all hostage, before stealing our cargo. They will show no mercy, as their murder of Mr Torrence has demonstrated all too clearly.”

‘She DID…’ thought Mr Lebedev. ‘She did say that!’ This was all too much; he wasn’t meant for this. He was Crispin Lebedev, Chief Steward of the luxury cruise ship Symphony of the Stars. He was an overweight (but only slightly overweight, he told himself), middle-aged, balding man, who’d spent his last twenty-five years climbing the ladder in the luxury cruise starship industry. Housekeeping, staff management and budgeting were his forte. Expertly wielding a close defence plasma rifle to heroically kill hordes of ransacking pirates? Not so much. Prior to this, his most serious challenge aboard this ship had been the horrendous waking nightmare of reconciling a drastically wayward pillowcase inventory.

‘Captain Singh will fix this,’ he thought. ‘She’ll know what to do.’

Even the sound of her voice just now – despite the bad news it conveyed – had comforted him. She was ex-military, she had extensive combat experience… he had always taken solace in her authority, in her wisdom.

“Captain Singh will fix this.”

He was surprised to hear himself saying the words out loud. His decision had been made. He wouldn’t be staying here; the many and varied services of the wellness spa would have to wait. Although he hadn’t (yet) been instructed to, Chief Steward Crispin Lebedev opened the door, glanced nervously around, and started running toward the elevators that would take him to the ship’s bridge.

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

In the centre aisle of the Symphony’s 1000 seat theatre, Second Officer Ms Aku and the two Deck Ratings Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis had also halted their retreat, and were listening intently to the captain’s announcement.

“So no matter where you are currently cowering, I order you to make your way to the ship’s bridge, as quickly as possible. I repeat – that is an order.”

Second Officer Ms Aku was, as always, hanging on Captain Singh’s every word. She idolised Captain Diana Singh; her dignity, her intelligence, her vast professional knowledge, her confidence and her coolness under pressure. From the moment Ms Aku met Captain Singh, she’d wanted to win her approval, she’d wanted to impress her… in fact, if she was totally honest with herself, she probably wanted to be her. And now this.

But… “cowering”? Did Captain Singh just say they were “cowering”?

It was clear what she had to do. This was an opportunity; a chance for Ms Aku to redeem herself, to prove that she was more than just Second Officer material.

“We’re going to the cargo hold,” she stated.

Both Deck Ratings looked at her, confused.

“But Captain Singh ordered us to make our way to the bridge,” protested Mr Ellis.

“I know that, Mr Ellis,” said Ms Aku. “But sometimes orders should be disobeyed. I, for one, want to show the captain that I’m no coward. You, Ms LeGuin and I will go to the cargo hold, we will defend the Symphony’s cargo, we will prove ourselves as strong and as brave and as valiant as Captain Singh herself, and send these depraved looters running home with their tails between their legs! And besides… aren’t you curious to find out what this cargo is?”

Mr Michael Ellis was curious about the cargo, to be sure… but was he curious to the level of potentially-getting-shot-and-killed-by-pirates-and-dying-a-painful-and-futile-death? ‘Yeah, probably not,’ he thought. He just wanted to go home. He was 23 years old, and had only just finished his three year contract on the Symphony. It had been fun at times, but it was definitely time to move on; he’d folded enough towels, delivered enough trays of gaudy technicolor cocktails, and shielded his eyes from enough pairs of pale, hairy, elderly, obese millionaire’s buttocks crammed into too-tiny swimsuits to last him a lifetime.

But there was something in what Ms Aku said; he did want to know what he and his crew mates had just been putting their lives on the line for.

She was disobeying the captain’s orders, but Ms Aku still outranked him – and as such, he was obliged to follow her instructions at all times.

And what if he refused, and Ms Aku and Ms LeGuin went off to the cargo hold without him? The way things were, he didn’t exactly fancy being left alone at this point.

“Yes, Ms Aku,” he said. “The cargo hold it is.”

“Excellent,” responded the Second Officer. “Ms LeGuin?”

“These seats are really comfy,” observed Deck Rating LeGuin.

Since they’d stopped for a breather here in the theatre, she’d plonked herself down in seat H35. If you could somehow distil pure cheerfulness and optimism into the body of a diminutive, bubbly, brunette 22-year-old woman, Ms LeGuin would be the result. Her disposition was way beyond ‘sunny’; it had all but gone supernova. Despite appearances to the contrary, she had been paying close attention to the conversation, and was totally on board to go to the cargo hold with the others.

“Oh yes, Ms Aku,” she said. “I’m with you and Mr Ellis. Let’s go to the cargo hold, and defend the payload that’s there… whatever it is.”

“Thank you, Ms LeGuin,” said Ms Aku.

“I mean, after all,” said Ms Le Guin, brightly. “This sort of stuff doesn’t happen every day, does it?”



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

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