512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
“Ms Arenson, please respond.”
The Symphony’s Chief Engineer had not yet acknowledged her Captain’s earlier order.
“Ms Arenson”, Captain Singh repeated. “Can you hear me?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Symphony’s Engine Room was on B deck, two levels below the bridge, at the aft-most point of the ship. It was the hub from which all of the ship’s main systems were controlled; life support systems, electrical systems, security systems, maintenance and repair systems – including the maintenance and repair of the maitbots themselves – and of course the the ship’s propulsion system.
The Symphony of the Stars – like most ships these days – was fuelled by SPR (Stardrive Permanent Regeneration). This was a power generation system developed in the mid-22nd Century, and was essentially the logical conclusion of the solar energy technology pioneered 200 years earlier. Like those early systems, SPR used photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy and convert it into electricity. The clever bit was the amplification capability of each of these miniaturised cells. This technology massively boosted the solar energy being received, which meant that any visible starlight could provide useful energy. The SPR solar cells were able to extract useful energy from any star that could be seen, be it near (four light years away) or far (10 light years away). And given that the natural home of a spaceship is in space, surrounded by millions of stars in every direction, the invention and mass production of SPR meant that no spaceship would need to be without power ever again. The cells were thin, flexible, and extremely resilient, and it wasn’t long before they were being built in to the exterior skin of every new spaceship. SPR was truly revolutionary, and it heralded the age of endless, free energy to power every system on every spaceship, forever. Stardrive Permanent Regeneration was the life’s work of Professor Caroline P. Stardrive, who only completed the first working model of it when she was 90 years old. At the press conference following the first successful prototype tests, one reporter facetiously asked “Professor Stardrive, do you think that your surname always meant that you were destined to invent the ultimate stardrive?”
The professor looked puzzled, then surprised.
“Oh!” she replied. “I’d never noticed that before.”
SPR had already been ubiquitous for 150 years when Ms Arenson began her career in engineering. Jane Catherine Arenson had always been a brilliant mathematician and analyst. The daughter of two celebrated maths professors, she’d been born with what was once called dwarfism. As result, all stations and consoles on her turf – the Symphony’s Engine Room – were set low, to the perpetual inconvenience of her immediate subordinate – the former military man Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. He had complained about this so many times, and she had responded “Naawww… Tough Luck!” so many times, that it had become a running joke between them. She was brilliant, logical, and well-liked by the Symphony’s crew, although that had taken a little while, because although she’d been blessed with the infinitely complex and brilliant mind of a mathematical genius, Ms Arenson had also been blessed with the social skills of a mathematical genius.
“Ms Arenson,” the captain’s voice pierced the Engine Room’s efficient silence. “Please respond. Are you on your way to the bridge?”
Ms Arenson tapped her insignia badge, opening her communicator’s channel.
“No Captain,” she responded. “Sorry.”
“I take it you received my earlier order? To bring the ship to a full stop and make your way to the bridge?”
“I received it, Captain. I’m just not doing it.”
Up on the bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair shot a concerned glance at Captain Singh, who simply said “Ms Arenson, please explain yourself.”
“Captain, as you well know, my Engine Room is the nerve centre of this vessel. Every significant system we have is controlled from here. Whoever controls this room, in many ways, controls this ship.”
Mr Sinclair snorted at this, muttering “Delusions of grandeur. If she thinks – ” But Captain Singh cut him off with one of her caustic glances.
Ms Arenson continued. “If this room were to fall into the hands of the invaders, the consequences simply do not bear thinking about. And so I won’t be deserting the Engine Room at this time. I won’t abandon the responsibilities of my position, and I won’t commit dereliction of duty to this ship. Sorry Captain, but I won’t be making my way to the bridge; I’ll be staying where I am, and defending this room from those marauders. At all costs.”
Captain Singh considered Ms Arenson’s position, and was about to respond, but –
“And quite frankly, Captain Singh,” continued Ms Arenson. “I’d feel a lot more comfortable if Mr Chamberlain were here, defending the Engine Room with me”.
There was a pause, as Captain Diana Singh considered all she’d just heard. Perhaps she had been hasty, in summoning all of her crew members to the bridge.
It was probably a slightly longer pause than was warranted.
“Just so, Ms Arenson. I can see how Mr Chamberlain’s skill set would currently prove useful to you. I’ll send him back to Engineering immediately, to provide you with support.”
“Thank you, Captain,” she said.
Captain Singh nodded instinctively, although she knew Ms Arenson couldn’t see it.
“Thank you, Ms Arenson.”
Captain Singh tapped her insignia communicator again.
There was no response.
“Mr Chamberlain, please respond.”
Nothing. Captain Singh shared a concerned look with Mr Sinclair.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
As it turned out, Mr Chamberlain had an extremely good reason for not answering Captain Singh’s call – he was currently otherwise occupied, in a fierce gunfight with the pirate Captain Sharp and his First Mate Jiang.
Gunfire, explosions, battle cries and panicked yelling echoed through the Tranquillity Forest, which, it was fair to say, was not currently living up to its name.
“THIS IS FOR JOHN TORRENCE!”, yelled Mr Chamberlain, as he fired his close defence plasma rifle repeatedly at the plants that Salazar and Jiang had dived behind. Blue-hot energy bolts sizzled past their ears and into the tree trunks behind them, making sparks, embers and ragged chunks of sizzled bark rain down on them. Salazar crawled quickly forward on his belly. “Jiang! Follow me!” he whispered urgently. As the pirate captain and his trusty first mate hurriedly dragged themselves forward, desperate to stay silent, desperate to stay unseen, Mr Martell and Mr Abara came up alongside Mr Chamberlain, rifles drawn.
“Where did they go?” asked Mr Martell.
“Not sure,” replied Mr Chamberlain, who had instantly fallen into the role of military leader, which he’d played so often in his earlier career. “Mr Martell, you go that way,” gesturing to the right. “Mr Abara, you go that way,” gesturing to the left. “We’ll flush ‘em out.”
Mr Martell nodded, reluctantly, and took a couple of steps further into the forest. This was also done reluctantly. He didn’t want to shoot anyone. He was no warrior; he was the ship’s Cruise Director – the Party-Animal-In-Chief! (A job description he’d coined for himself, which he rather liked.) ‘Plus,’ he thought, ‘The pirates had guns too, didn’t they? And we’ve already seen how they use them…’ If Al Martell found the idea of shooting someone unsavoury, the idea of someone shooting him was positively distasteful. He stalked onward, nervously.
Mr Abara also did as he was told, automatically following the order of his more senior crew mate. His thoughts, though, were not one hundred percent on the task at hand. He was thinking about HER. That pirate – the one who had captured his heart, even as she was shooting at this head. ‘Where is she now?’, he wondered, dreamily. ‘What’s she doing at the moment? I bet that whatever it is, it’s adorable.’ He stopped for a moment, as he spotted a flower – a Rigilian pansy. He bent down, picked it, and brought it to his nose, savouring its exquisite sweet fragrance. ‘She’d smell even better than this. I know she would.’ he thought. He sighed as he put the flower behind his ear and slung his rifle over his shoulder. As Mr Abara mooched further into the forest, he smiled. He’d already forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. When he came alongside the brook, and heard its cheerful, innocent sploshing and bubbling, he wondered if her laugh sounded like that. ‘Surely it must,’ he thought. It was a sound so happy, so musical, so… angelic. He sat down on the soft grass by the brook, and watched the koi darting around in the shallows. ‘They’re pretty, alright,’ he thought. ‘but not as pretty as her…’
“I KNOW YOU’RE IN HERE!”, yelled Mr Chamberlain. “AND I’M COMING FOR YOU!”
Salazar and Jiang had moved some twenty metres by now; they were still flat on their bellies, hiding behind some shrubs, and slowly making for the forest’s exit, on the port side of the ship. There was a series of loud blasts, as a barrage of bolts tore through the shrub in front of them, instantly igniting it, and slammed into the tree trunk behind them. Mr Chamberlain had found them , and was now charging straight at them, with two guns blazing. In front of them was the burning shrub, beyond that was the charging Mr Chamberlain, and to their left, some thirty metres away, the exit… As Salazar frantically tried to calculate their chances of making it to that exit alive, there was an almighty shuddering CRACK. It came from behind them. Salazar and Jiang whirled around, to see the gigantic tree trunk behind them shudder, tremble and start to slowly fall towards them. The gunfire that had missed them had hit the tree, more or less in a horizontal straight line. The blasts had shattered the trunk’s integrity, burning a series of weak points right through it. The tree had no choice but to fall – straight towards them, and the rapidly approaching Mr Chamberlain.
Mr Chamberlain skidded to a halt. He was now staring at a two storey tall tree falling straight towards him. He instinctively sprinted to the right, as fast as he could – he needed to dodge not just the trunk itself, but all its enormous boughs and branches, any one of which could also kill him.
Jiang and Salazar knew that this was their chance. Jiang sprinted toward the exit, Salazar right on her heels, as, with an enormous deep swooshing noise, the tree came down behind them. It smashed through half of the burning shrub, whose fire was now spreading to the grasses, flowers and leaf litter around it. They felt the rush of wind at their backs as the falling trunk and all its branches displaced all the air around it. They made it to the door, opened it, and ran out into the ship.
Back in the forest, on the other side of the fallen tree, stood the stunned Mr Chamberlain. He was panting, and his face was badly scratched by a few of the falling tree’s smaller branches that he hadn’t quite managed to avoid in his mad dash.
As he stood there, collecting himself, 15 maitbots scurried onto the scene and expertly deployed their fire-extinguishing capabilities to dowse the various small spot fires around him.
Salazar and Jiang were running along C Deck, and had put some 50 meters or so between themselves and the Tranquillity Forest when Salazar suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Jiang was surprised to see a look of panic in her captain’s eyes.
“Where’s Maggie?” he asked.
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.