512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
“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… Any chance of reclaiming our home. That is all.”
When the final part of Captain Singh’s speech reached Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain, Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara and Cruise Director Al Martell in the Tranquility Forest, it only served to echo their last few minutes of bickering.
“The captain’s right,” said the grizzled Second Engineer. “We’ve been cowards. We’ve all been cowards… and now Torrence is dead. Do you know how long I’ve known that man?”
Yep, the others sure did.
“Fifteen years,” said Mr Abara and Mr Martell in unison.
“Fifteen years,” Mr Chamberlain continued, not listening. “Came up through the navy together. I saved his life once. But here’s the thing…” His eyes suddenly grew misty, as he rubbed his beard. “He saved mine twice. Today, I had a chance to even that score. God knows, I owed him that. But with all of you blasting away in blind terror, I –”
“Will you give it a rest?” interjected Mr Martell. “Man, we’re sorry, alright? We’re sorry Mr Torrence is dead, and we’re sorry it’s our fault. We’re sorry we’re not battle-hardened old warriors like you two, we’re sorry we don’t have ice running through our veins, and we’re sorry that we don’t get all super excited by the prospect of casually killing a dozen pirates before breakfast.”
Al Martell was a debonair, middle-aged cruise director with greying temples and a winning smile; his purview was co-ordinating shore excursions, organising concerts and singing the occasional big band tune for the Symphony’s more senior passengers. Al Martell was a Lover, not a Fighter. Well… at least in theory, if not in actual, technical practice.
Mr Chamberlain responded; “Don’t call me ‘Man’.”
In an effort to diffuse the tension, Mr Abara changed the subject. “Come on, you both heard the captain – let’s get up to the bridge.”
Chamberlain and Martell grunted their acknowledgement, and all three men headed for the elevators that would take them to the bridge.
Despite the fact that he outranked his companions, despite the fact that he had taken in all the captain’s instructions and was following her orders to the letter, Mr Abara’s mind was not 100% on the task at hand. He was usually a diligent, professional young man. He took his position as Chief Technology Officer very seriously. He had maintained, modified and improved practically all of the Symphony’s sophisticated computer systems – from environmental controls, to security protocols, to the VR suites. Although he’d never use the word… he was actually kind of a genius at this stuff, and his work aboard the Symphony had always been exemplary. He was proactive, he was ambitious, and his attention to detail was second to none.
But not this morning.
Mr Abara ran a hand through his shoulder length auburn hair and sighed. This morning, he was vague and unfocussed. It wasn’t the events of recent days. It wasn’t the fact that he’d been dragged out of bed before six A.M., it wasn’t even the fact that the Symphony was currently infested with a horde of vicious, heavily armed bandits. Chief Technology Officer Kit Abara was so distracted this morning because three minutes earlier, he had suddenly, and very much to his surprise, fallen in love.
That pirate! The petite one, with the brown bob haircut and the charmingly uncertain look in her big blue eyes. He’d only seen her for a few seconds – but that was all it took. From the moment the invaders had cut and kicked their way in to the docking bay, to the moment he and his crew mates fled, Mr Abara had only been watching her. She was intelligent and she was sensitive, he could tell. As she clumsily – gorgeously, delightfully – continued firing her augmented thermal rifle at him and his crew mates, Mr Abara sensed that she didn’t really mean it. Heck, she didn’t want to be in the middle of a chaotic, panicked gunfight any more than he did. He found himself pleased to realise that hey, they had that in common! And now he found that he couldn’t stop revisiting the image of her in his mind. A permanent dreamy smile had crept onto his face, he felt flustered, and butterflies seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his stomach. He couldn’t think of very much else. Yep, he was smitten, alright. He was besotted, hooked, head-over-heels. And he didn’t even know her name.
It was Devereux.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Devereux, of course, was completely oblivious to all of this. She hadn’t even registered Mr Abara during the frenetic gunfight that had burned so many deep black pockmarks into the walls, floor and ceiling of the Symphony’s docking bay.
The moment the Symphony’s crew had fled the area, Salazar Sharp had assembled his, in order to outline their next moves. He’d managed to resist his urge to physically discipline their weapons expert… but only just. Richards had set all of their weapons to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun’, in direct contravention of his orders, and even though he’d taken two sets of deep, calming breaths, he was still furious with her.
“Now,” Salazar began, to his assembled followers. “before we –”
“Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang, glancing in Richards’s direction. “I’d just like to congratulate you on your anger management there. Very impressive.”
“Thank you, Jiang. Now, before we go any further, can I ask everybody to PLEASE set their weapons to ‘stun’?”
Each crew member carefully changed their gun’s settings.
“All done? Everyone’s weapon set to ‘stun’ now?”
There was a chorus of “Aye, Cap’n”s.
“Good,” said Salazar. “Mine too.” And with that, he turned towards Richards, took aim, and shot her. There was a gasp from everyone watching, as Richards instantly hit the deck, collapsing in a crumpled heap.
Jiang rolled her eyes – it seemed she’d spoken too soon. Turning to the crew’s resident medico, Salazar said “Jelani? Revive her, would you?”
“Erm – Aye cap’n,” stuttered Jelani, as she opened her portable medikit and knelt beside Richards. Doctor Jelani had healed all of the Albert’s crew over the years, including herself. There’d been cuts, burns, blunt force traumas, puncture wounds, broken bones, poisonings, near drownings, electrocutions… but this was the first time she could recall treating any of them for ‘friendly fire’. She sighed and pushed her grey-blonde hair off her forehead, as she selected a stimpak from the kit. It only took a second for her to administer a perfectly calibrated cocktail of synthetic adrenaloids.
Richards sat up instantly – wheezing, blinking and dazedly looking around her, before eventually saying….
“You see I have no problem shooting you, Richards,” said Salazar, giving Maggie a friendly scratch on the top of her head. “Don’t give me any more reasons to do it.”
“Er… No, Cap’n,” said Richards, shaking her head, while waiting for her eyes to begin focusing properly again.
“Now!” barked Salazar, to his assembled – and slightly unsettled – crew. “We’ve got them running scared. This is a good thing. I want you all to split into the usual groups, spread out, round them up, and take them hostage….”
Gotmund raised his hand.
Gotmund’s hand went down again.
“There is to be minimal violence; shooting is to be avoided at all costs. They’ve already seen us kill one of them, and you saw the way they ‘fought’ in here. They’re clearly terrified. We will take them easily. Keep your channels open, stay in touch. As for finding your way around… you’ve all still got your copies of the ship’s promotional brochure?”
They all nodded.
“Good. That should do us. Once you’ve captured them, bring them all to the cargo bay….” A smirk broke out on his face. “… we just might need them, to help us get all that Gold over to the Albert!”
At this, all members of the Albert’s crew broke in to one of their avaricious cheers.
“Jiang and I will join you in the cargo hold in due course. But first, I have some unfinished business with Captain Singh.”
So saying, Salazar, Jiang and Maggie headed for the elevator that would take them up seven floors, to the ship’s bridge.
Lightfoot, A.J. and Suarez left the docking bay by the starboard door, while Devereux, Jelani and Richards headed for the opposite exit; the door on the port side of the docking bay.
Gotmund struck out on his own – as he always did – calling the elevator to take him up three levels to C deck. That seemed to him to be as good a place as any to start searching for the absconders.
Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard took the elevator one floor down, to the lowest accessible level of the ship. The level with the cargo hold.
The level with the gold.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In the hours that followed, the Albert’s crew would cover a lot of ground on the Symphony as they searched for potential hostages. They were, of course, no strangers to this. The many raids they’d mounted on other ships over the years had made them accustomed to the barely-familiar floor plans, the uncertainty of not knowing who, or indeed what, was around the next corner, and the stretches of dimly-lit tedium, violently interrupted by explosions of life-or-death combat. As they dispersed throughout the various levels and areas of the enormous vessel, some were diligently following their captain’s orders, while others were just obeying their own (greedy) hearts’ desires…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In their search for the Symphony’s crew, the first place Devereux, Jelani & Richards (the Albert’s codebreaker, doctor and weapons expert) reached was the ship’s morgue.
Of course they knew that every cruise ship had a morgue. Occasionally, people died while they were on holiday, and the ships had to be prepared for that unlikely eventuality. And of course they knew that this morning, the Symphony’s morgue would be dark, lit only by that sickly reddish glow of the empty ship’s worklight.
Thing is, the three of them also knew that they had a bunch of armed, terrified, trigger-happy enemies somewhere on the ship, who’d most certainly shoot them – or at least incompetently shoot at them – on sight.
These three pirates were rational adults, they were tough, they were professionals, and they knew all of these things. They knew that a morgue was just another room. A room featuring cold storage facilities, to accommodate up to ten adult corpses.
The oppressive quietness didn’t help. Perhaps they were imagining it, but it did feel like this part of the ship had been soundproofed; even the usual, comforting omnipresent hum of the ship’s engines sounded muffled in here.
As the three of them cautiously entered the morgue, rifles drawn, eyes and ears open for any cowering cruise ship crew members, Devereux was the first to spot it.
Two of the ten drawers were currently occupied.
Their display panels were dimly illuminated. She walked over to the first one and read:
NAME: ANTON VICKERS
Devereux pressed the button to open the drawer. She wasn’t sure why she did that… fear? Disbelief? Morbid curiosity? Probably the latter. Sure enough, the drawer slid open to reveal a 24 year old man, wearing the uniform of an entry level deck rating.
Richards had now come up alongside Devereux, and read the display panel on the next drawer:
NAME: TANIA STUPPECK
Richards had no hesitation in opening this drawer. Inside was a 38 year old woman in a pristine maid’s uniform. At first glance, she appeared to be sleeping.
But she wasn’t.
It was then that, with her professional curiosity getting the better of her, Doctor Jelani examined both bodies. Richards and Devereux watched, as she thoroughly inspected them, and scanned them with one of the gizmos from her medical kit.
Eventually, Jelani said “These people were both murdered. Some time in the last 5 – 7 days.”
“Ah, so that’s why they’re all so trigger happy,” said Richards.
Devereux looked at her, not quite understanding.
Would Richards have to spell it out?
Devereux kept looking at her.
Evidently, she would.
“Someone on the Symphony’s crew is a killer.”
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.