512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:02 AM

As Captain Diana Singh and First Officer Mr Sinclair waited for the rest of the crew to join them on the bridge, she ran through things again, for what felt like the hundredth time…

In the past week, two members of her crew had been murdered, by surreptitious lethal injections.
Nobody had embarked or disembarked in the past week, so the killer had to be one of the fourteen Symphony crew members currently on board. She knew it wasn’t her, so that made it thirteen. Tracing the victims’ final movements and reviewing the ship’s CCTV footage had proven fruitless. Whoever it was had thought of that, and had disabled or masked the relevant cameras, just prior to committing the crimes.

Captain Singh looked across the room at her First Officer, Mr Sinclair. It was difficult for her to believe that he could be the murderer. Firstly, because they spent so much time together when they were on duty; she’d realised that she was – subconsciously at least – aware of Mr Sinclair’s whereabouts most of the time. Secondly, because she was sure he was far too timid to do something as decisive and final as taking another person’s life.

Could it have been the Chief Security Officer, her poor departed friend Mr Torrence? She couldn’t bring herself to imagine that. Not just because of their friendship, but because of the character of the man; he was brave, he was a warrior. The concept of a fair fight – nobly fought, and justly won – wasn’t just something he’d learned in the navy; it was central to his makeup. No, if James Torrence wanted to kill you, he wouldn’t do it by sneaking up behind you and jabbing you with a needle; he’d do it face to face, and give you a chance to defend yourself. Anyway, he was dead now. If he was the murderer (and Captain Singh was sure that he wasn’t), he’d taken that secret with him. She blinked away a tear as she realised – again – how much she was going to miss him.

Then there was her other friend from her previous life – Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. Another battle-hardened veteran, whose life in the military was the only life he’d known for decades. A man who’d fought many fights, a man who knew what it felt like to kill someone. But his fights back then were always for a cause; he fought and killed for reasons. The validity of those reasons was another question, but Captain Singh couldn’t imagine him randomly and clandestinely killing his crew-mates for no reason other than… what? The thrill of the kill? No, that wasn’t the Mr Chamberlain she knew. That wasn’t her friend.

Deck Rating LeGuin? No, definitely not Ms LeGuin; Captain Singh was sure of that. She was too cheerful. And it wasn’t a “this-will-cover-up-all-those-murders-I-did” type of cheerfulness. Ms LeGuin was cheerful before the murders started, cheerful when they were discovered, and even cheerful now that the entire ship was being overrun by pirates. ‘How does she do that?’ wondered Captain Singh, a mite jealously. ‘It must be nice to be that breezily good-natured all the time…’

Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of Chief Steward Mr Lebedev arriving, breathless and sweaty, on the bridge.

“Shut the door behind me! Shut the door behind me! Shut the door behind me!” he panted, fearfully.

Mr Sinclair did so, as Mr Lebedev ran to the corner of the room farthest from the door, and slumped down onto the floor, wheezing and gasping.

Captain Singh looked at him. Could he be the ship’s murderer? This middle-aged, middle class, middling middle manager? She knew Mr Lebedev was a disgruntled soul – he often complained of being taken for granted, of being overlooked. “No one understands how hard my job is, but you’d all notice it if I suddenly wasn’t here!”, but was he disgruntled enough to commit murder? Looking at his heaving, frightened form, she’d have thought that he wouldn’t be fit enough for the task. That is, if the murder weapon wasn’t a tiny syringe. Unfortunately, the ‘weapon’ didn’t help her to rule anyone out at all.

“Mr Lebedev, are you alright?” she enquired, more out of politeness than concern.

“Yes… thank you, Captain…” he replied, in between gasps as he sat on the floor. “I dropped my gun… back in the Docking Bay… and so I’ve run all the way here… completely defenceless!”

“Well done,” said Captain Singh insincerely. “Rest assured you’re safe now, Mr Lebedev. Take your time, catch your breath, and stand by for further orders.”

“Yes Captain…” he wheezed. “Thank you, Captain.”

She nodded tersely. Mr Lebedev’s arrival had interrupted her theorizing, and she hadn’t even gone through half of the crew. It would have to wait. Turning her attention to her First Officer, she asked “Mr Sinclair, why haven’t any of the others arrived by now? I want everyone on the bridge before that Captain Sharp makes his way here”.

“It has only been five minutes since your order, Captain,” Mr Sinclair offered.

“Exactly – five whole minutes! Where are they?”

Mr Sinclair surveyed the screen that showed the crew members’ locations by tracking their communicator badges.

“Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis are currently down on F deck. Mr Ferrer, Mr Serrano and Dr Zivai are just leaving the Shopping Promenade, and Mr Chamberlain, Mr Abara and Mr Martell are at the aft edge of the Tranquillity Forest. All crew members do appear to be on the move, with the exception of Ms Arenson, who’s still at her post, in Engineering.”

“Oh, is she?” said Captain Singh. “We’ll see about that.”

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

On their journey to the ship’s bridge, the Cheeky Albert’s captain Salazar Sharp, its first mate Jiang, and its mascot Maggie the fox, were now approaching the forward edge of the Tranquillity Forest.

“I mean, where do you even begin?” Jiang asked Salazar. “How do you even start this dialogue with her? Have you thought about that?”

“You don’t think blasting our way onto their ship and killing her Chief Security Officer might have broken the ice?” he responded through a bitter smirk. This mission had not begun the way Salazar had planned, but he was still determined to have his meeting with the legendary Captain Diana Singh. And it had to be face to face. He needed to see her with his own eyes. He needed her to see him, too.

“What do you think, Maggie?” Salazar cooed indulgently to the little fox jogging alongside him, who, on hearing her name, stopped and looked up at him. He gave her an affectionate scratch behind the left ear.

First Mate Jiang watched this interaction between owner and pet, realising that she and the ship’s mascot were the only two souls from the Cheeky Albert who knew the real reason Salazar had brought them all here. He’d confided everything to First Mate Jiang; he always did. She’d often wondered why she was the only crew member to be afforded the captain’s confidence in this way. Perhaps it was her long history of discretion and loyalty. Perhaps it was her cool, clear-headed intelligence. Could it be all her visible scars? Maybe they made Salazar view her as a kindred spirit. Or perhaps it was just her kindly, smiling brown eyes, peering out from beneath the jet black fringe. Whatever it was, First Mate Melissa Jiang was (although you’d never catch him using this particular F-word) Salazar Sharp’s closest friend.

They reached the Tranquillity Forest, and she pressed the panel to open its door. As it slid open, revealing the wall-to-wall green vista of lush foliage, grasses, flowers and three storey tall trees, Salazar and Jiang gasped.

The Tranquillity Forest occupied a large area amidships, just to port of the central atrium. It was indeed home to 10,000 trees, shrubs and plants from earth and elsewhere, just as the brochure had bragged. And they were expertly curated – the thick-trunked Terran sequoias thrived in harmony with the Rigilian ferns, whose translucent emerald fronds delighted the eye. The dense Amazonian vines stretching between the treetops twisted prettily around the sturdy boughs, while down below, nestled amongst the Velan feather-shrubs, were two highly prized Centauran Masterpiece-Trees. By an accident of evolution, every individual fruit borne by these miraculous plants was a naturally-occurring work of art, boasting patterns and designs so complex, intricate, delicate and sublime, they’d rival the work of any Old Master. They regularly had passing art lovers transfixed for hours.

They tasted like crap, though.

Weeping willows bowed gracefully over the brook that wound through the forest; a brook stocked with more synthetic koi fish that sparkled gold, yellow and white, as they darted amongst the lush Ophiuchan waterweeds.

The koi, however, were the only fauna (or faux fauna, as it turned out) who made their home here. In the early design stages of the Tranquillity Forest, the task of populating it with the requisite birds, insects and small adorable mammals found in real forests was quickly consigned to the ‘Too Hard’ basket. Their random behaviour and unpredictability was a disincentive, not to mention the myriad health and safety issues. And to populate the forest with the various synthetic versions was deemed too expensive. In the end, they’d settled on the sounds of birdsong and insect and animal life being piped in to the forest from cleverly concealed ambient speakers. The Symphony‘s passengers were none the wiser, and indeed many of them spent hours happily craning their necks, eagerly trying to spot the sources of all that delightful birdsong. Of course, there were no passengers on board today, so the birdsong hadn’t been switched on. The silence gave the forest’s beauty a layer of eeriness, gently nudging the atmosphere away from ‘tranquil’, and slowly toward ‘tense’.

On the ground a metre ahead of Salazar was a twig. A twig that had fallen to the forest floor yesterday. It was, as far as twigs go, a very fortunate twig. You see, this twig was about to fulfil the most dramatic and noble destiny that any twig could ever dare to hope for. Over the millennia, billions of twigs had fallen to millions of forest floors all over the earth – and all the other tree-sustaining planets – but only a small handful of these fallen twigs had ever been called to their one ineffable, ultimate, sacred purpose. That rare, final, pivotal MOMENT that would make any twig’s separation from the tree, its slow-drying death and its final sacrifice so very, very sweet…

Jiang and Salazar continued to move through the forest, craning their necks to take in the unexpected botanic splendour that surrounded them, as Maggie bounded along behind. Suddenly, Salazar stepped on the twig, snapping it loudly.

Symphony crew members Chamberlain, Martell and Abara were at the other end of the forest, waiting patiently for the elevator that would take them up to the bridge, when they heard the loud snap of a twig being stepped on.

“What was that?” barked Mr Chamberlain rhetorically, arming his gun and looking back towards the centre of the forest. There was someone else here! His pulse quickened instantly, his warrior’s blood was up – here was a chance to avenge the death of his friend Mr Torrence.



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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