512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
“But HOW were they murdered?” asked Devereux.
As Doctor Jelani was about to answer, the door to the morgue slid open with a gentle “shoosh”. The three pirates whirled around, rifles cocked, aimed, and ready to fire, to see an empty doorway.
Thirty centimetres above the floor, a pair of shiny black shoes hovered across the threshold and into the room, their toes pointing towards the ceiling. They were followed by a pair of white-trousered legs, then a white-jacketed torso, and finally the lifeless face of the Symphony’s Chief Security Officer. It was the corpse of Mr Torrence; flat on its back, and apparently floating into the room.
Richards, Jelani and Devereux all stared, wide-eyed, as the cadaver continued to glide towards them, remaining firmly at knee height. Startled, they all awkwardly moved out of the oncoming corpse’s way, as it drifted past them and towards the other end of the room. It was heading for the wall of unoccupied cadaver drawers.
Richards, Jelani and Devereux were not superstitious people. They were tough, hard-bitten soldiers of fortune, and they’d all seen more than their fair share of death and dead bodies. None of them believed in the supernatural, and they certainly didn’t believe in ghosts… But this? As they continued to stare, riveted, at the ‘floating’ body, they each slowly realised that it wasn’t actually floating at all.
Mr Torrence’s corpse was being carried by four maitbots; two underneath his shoulders, and one underneath each of his legs. The sturdy, highly adaptable little robots had been smoothly scooting along on their crablike legs, expertly distributing the Chief Security Officer’s dead weight amongst them, while balancing him on their black, flat-topped casings.
The moment they reached the wall of drawers, the four little robots halted, and slid out from under the body, gently lowering it to the floor in the process. One of them stood directly in front of the bottom drawer’s display panel, extended a spindly metal leg and entered the unlock code. The drawer slid out from the wall, to its full two-meter length.
Then, working in perfect silent synchronisation, the maitbots gently lifted Mr Torrence’s body off the floor and held it above them. Their legs all extended now, in unison, bringing the corpse level with the open drawer. In a series of smooth, delicate – almost gentle – movements, they deftly transferred the body into the drawer, softly depositing it on its back.
For the next few seconds, the four little droids stood perfectly still before the open drawer. To Richards, they almost appeared to be observing a respectful moment’s silence. Then the maitbot nearest to the drawer entered its lock code, the drawer slid shut, and the Symphony’s unfortunate Chief Security Officer disappeared from view.
Richards, Jelani and Devereux had watched this entire silent procedure anxiously, motionlessly. They didn’t know if the maitbots could see or hear them, and what danger – if any – they presented.
They needn’t have worried. The maitbots were programmed for maintenance and mundane chores; not for defence, and certainly not for attack. Now that their job was done, the little crustacean-like robots silently scurried out of the room on their thin, strong metal legs, and the door swished closed behind them.
All three pirates breathed huge sighs of relief.
“Well?” said Devereux, looking expectantly at the doctor.
“How were they murdered?”
Apparently, they’d all tacitly agreed not to mention the unnerving spectacle they’d just witnessed.
“They’ve been poisoned,” Jelani explained. “Intravenously; each cadaver has a very small puncture mark. This one; on the neck, this one; the upper arm, and this one; the left buttock. I found very, very small traces of Phexetocin; that’s a toxin that usually breaks down completely, once it’s done its job.”
“Its job?” repeated Richards.
“Instant, massive cardiac arrest. The heart just… stops. Only takes about 10 milliliters, only takes about 10 seconds. Very efficient. Elegant, even.”
“Elegant”? Jelani was starting to make Devereux and Richards even more uncomfortable than they already were.
“But who in their crew would have access to this… ‘Phexetocin’?” asked Devereux.
“Any one of them,” answered Jelani. “If they were clever enough.”
Devereux and Richards looked at each other. They were both now officially freaked out. Richards spoke for both of them when she said “Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”
Richards, Devereux and Jelani left the morgue. But one of them would be back there again, all too soon.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
One deck below them, three of their crewmates were steadfastly making their way towards the cargo hold, eager to get their hands on the fabulous treasure they’d been promised. Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard had certainly heard Captain Sharp’s orders, but for them, rounding up hostages came a very distant second to scoring the gold they’d been told was in the hold. Ten tonnes! If the Albert’s crew split it evenly amongst them, it would still net each of them more wealth than they could ever hope to spend. And it was virtually within their grasp. They could almost smell it. They had to see it. They needed to touch it.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Four decks above them, the Symphony’s Second Officer Ms Aku, and Deck Ratings Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin were striking out for the same destination. Their self-appointed mission was to defend the invaluable cargo, and repel these despicable marauders. As Second Officer Aku led Deck Ratings Ellis and LeGuin out of the theatre and through its foyer, they trod lightly, warily. All three had their rifles drawn, and were on high alert, never knowing if the fearsome invaders would be waiting for them around the next corner.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?” chirped Ms LeGuin.
The trio exited the theatre’s foyer, past posters for the last show that had played there; a run-of-the-mill farce set on a space station, entitled Sheesh – No Atmosphere!
Their path then took them past two of the Symphony’s four rock climbing walls. These three storey high surfaces – studded with brightly coloured handholds and footholds – formed one edge of the Symphony’s vast central atrium. The atrium, however, stretched even higher than the rock climbing wall, occupying four storeys of vertical space. It was a hub for the ship’s passengers; somewhere to meet and socialize before heading off to experience the vessel’s many amusements.
On its ground floor were the theatre, shopping promenade, various cafes and the bases of the two rock climbing walls that Aku, Ellis and LeGuin were now passing. Its second level housed the Wellness Centre and the VR suites. Level Three of the atrium was home to the vast library, one of the three swimming pools and Epicurus, one of the ship’s three restaurants, which adjoined the ship’s extensive cellar. The top level of the central atrium housed provided access to the ‘Symphony Spacewalk’ attraction (in which passengers donned a spacesuit and went for an actual spacewalk outside the ship), The Shifting Sands cocktail lounge, and the premium accommodations of A Deck.
The ship only went one level higher than the atrium. That was the upper deck – home to the ship’s bridge, another restaurant (the not-so-imaginatively named La Brasserie), and the ship’s largest swimming pool, which was also the embarkation point for its two celebrated waterslides. The smaller one was an enclosed tube that twisted and turned through just two levels – from the upper deck down to level three of the atrium, where it disgorged its riders into the pool there. The big waterslide – and the main attraction, if you like this sort of thing – was the ‘Mad Maelstrom.’ This too was an opaque, enclosed tube, but it was at least three times longer. It dropped all the way from the upper deck to the ship’s very lowest level, spiralling, zigzagging, curling and coiling. In fact, it traveled through most areas of the ship, and – thanks to some very clever engineering – somehow seemed to drop even further than its actual length. Eventually, it spat its brave bathers out into the ship’s third swimming pool. This pool was at the bow of the ship, and effectively filled the front part of the vessel’s underside; anyone swimming in here was only separated from the vacuum of space by the hull directly beneath the pool’s floor. This lowermost level of the Symphony also housed the ship’s brig, laundry, engineering, some crew accommodation… and the cargo hold.
In fact, the cargo hold backed on to the third swimming pool – one strong dividing wall being the only thing separating the cargo hold and all that it contained from 126,000 litres of water.
However, that amount only accounted for one tenth of all the water currently aboard the Symphony. The development of Water Synthesis Technology three hundred years earlier had truly been one of humanity’s turning points. Once the challenges of establishing hydrogen mines up in the earth’s heterosphere had been conquered, harvesting the required oxygen had proven to be the relatively easy part. Miraculously, the political will had existed to make the fruits of this great leap forward accessible to all. In the space of a single generation, the earth’s landscape had changed – not just environmentally, but agriculturally, industrially, socially, economically, even philosophically. With cheap universal access to an all but limitless supply of clean fresh water, it was a moment in human advancement that was right up there with the invention of the wheel, the internal combustion engine, or the internet. Unfortunately though, some pun-loving tabloid journalist had dubbed this epochal breakthrough “The Great Watershed”.
And that term had stuck.
Over the years, the decades, and the generations, the science had naturally evolved. And now Water Synthesis Technology had become so efficient, portable and ubiquitous, that virtually anybody could access the means to actually make water out of thin air. Predictably, manufactured water was now far more common than naturally occurring water.
Manufactured water filled the ornamental koi pond on the shopping promenade that Ms Aku, Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin were currently passing, as they continued toward the cargo hold. The koi in the pond were synthetic, of course, but they looked like the real thing. So much so, in fact, that the maitbots had to regularly clean their ponds of all the food scraps thrown in by well-meaning but dim passengers, who didn’t realise that the fish they were ‘feeding’ were really just sophisticated assemblies of smart circuitry.
The three Symphony crew members arrived at the elevator, and started the journey down four levels. In just a couple of minutes they’d get to the cargo hold.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Evans Fullbrook and Skarsgard were approaching it now. They ran to its door, barely able to contain their excitement.
“We’re nearly there, we’re nearly there!” squealed the diminutive Fullbrook.
“I can’t wait to SEE it,” said Skarsgard, while Evans simply said “Goooold,” although she made it more of a breathy, luxurious exhalation than a word.
They pressed the panel to open the door.
Nothing happened; it was locked.
Well, of course the door to the cargo hold was locked – why wouldn’t it be?
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.