512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Up on the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh still hadn’t heard back from Mr Chamberlain, and she was starting to feel anxious. After their brutal murder of Mr Torrence, had the pirates now killed Mr Chamberlain too? The thought of losing two friends – her two best friends in the entire crew – within just a few minutes of each other was unbearable. Or perhaps he’d fallen victim to the threat much closer to home – the Symphony’s resident murderer. She was unaccustomed to feeling quite this impotent, to feeling quite this powerless.
Captain Singh considered the remaining suspects – her remaining crew members – one by one.
She’d only just been speaking to her Chief Engineer Ms Arenson, and hadn’t detected any guilt, or any hints of deception, in her voice. But then, Ms Arenson was clever; in fact, she was a mathematical genius. But was she a murderer? Given the portable, discreet, tiny murder weapon, she’d be as just able to use it as anyone else – her size would be no barrier. Her diminutive stature tended not to be a barrier for Ms Arenson anyway. As Captain Singh saw it, the fact that Ms Arenson had been born a little person didn’t present anywhere near as many challenges as the fact that she’d also been born an incredible nerd.
But then, nerds had never been in short supply on the Symphony of the Stars. There was the Chief Technologist Mr Abara… but he was a professional, diligent crew member, whose work had always been exemplary. Captain Singh had never seen him display any violent or antisocial tendencies, although she did suspect that he was probably more interested in machines and and systems than people.
Of course she had no idea how desperately, madly, head-over-heels in love he’d fallen, just a few minutes earlier.
Another young man, close in age to Mr Abara, was the Deck Rating Mr Ellis. Captain Singh had to admit that she didn’t know much about Mr Ellis at all. He was right down at the opposite end of the ship’s chain of command, and their paths had hardly ever crossed; she could only recall a handful of exchanges with him over the three years he’d been on board. He was young, energetic, and seemed pleasant enough… but the only remarkable thing about him, from Captain Singh’s perspective, was that he was so… unremarkable.
Then there was that other young Deck Rating, Mr Ferrer. He was blonde, blue-eyed, handsome and athletic… but again, Captain Singh hadn’t had much to do with him. Her overall impression was that he was vain, hedonistic and not especially bright. What possible reason could he have to go around killing his crew mates? She drew a blank.
Could Dr Zivai be the murderer? She was certainly a cold, efficient character… but it was hard for Captain Singh to get past the fact that Dr Zivai was, well… a doctor. It was her duty – not to mention her career – to save, heal and prolong lives; not to end them. On the other hand, no one would have had easier access to the murder weapon – syringes and Phexetocin. Which was not to say that she was the only person who could have access to it…
Could her Second Officer Ms Aku have had access to the weapon? There was no doubt in Captain Singh’s mind that Ms Aku was a smart, proactive, intelligent young woman, and Captain Singh also knew that Ms Aku idolised her. She was always extremely respectful, dutiful and disciplined, whenever she was on the bridge. Captain Singh liked all of these qualities in her younger charge; in fact, Ms Aku reminded her of the young officer she herself had been, some forty years earlier. She knew that Ms Aku would do almost anything to impress her, but surely that couldn’t include murder… could it? Just how warped would Ms Aku’s sense of “duty” and her eagerness to impress have to become, in order for that to be a real possibility?
Her Third Officer Mr Serrano couldn’t be the murderer, surely. He was an unremarkable, respectful, compliant officer. Captain Singh had never had any problems with him; he’d always followed her orders perfectly; efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. He was a good twenty five years younger than her, and they did not have much in common. She knew nothing of his life outside his work – whether he had a family, friends or any connections outside the hull of the Symphony.
Captain Singh chided herself for not taking a more personal interest in her crew. Not because she wanted to be closer to them (she was in no way sentimentally inclined), but because knowing them more personally might’ve provided her with some vital, concrete clue to this current mystery.
And what of her Cruise Director Mr Martell? The self-appointed “Party-Animal-In-Chief”? No, that silver fox and would-be ladies’ man was a lover, not a fighter. Or so he kept telling everyone. But on the other hand, was he telling them that because he was hiding something? It occurred to Captain Diana Singh that she was now starting to second-guess herself. She was going around in circles, and couldn’t fully trust her own instincts anymore.
But then again, she also couldn’t trust anyone on her crew right now. Not until she’d solved this thing. And it was essential that she solve it, just as it was essential that she had to somehow get these invaders off her ship. These were the two goals immediately in front of her, and so these were the two goals that currently occupied all her energy. Diana Singh was looking forward – always looking forward. For the past 30 years, she’d always looked forward. She’d made it such a habit that she’d almost forgotten why she never looked back.
Her anxious reveries were interrupted by a familiar voice coming through over her communicator.
“Captain Singh,” said her Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. “My apologies for not responding to your call earlier.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, happy and grateful to hear his voice. He sounded a little breathless, but otherwise alright.
“Mr Abara, Mr Martell and I came across two of the pirates in the Tranquillity Forest and there was an exchange of fire.”
“Negative, Captain. Unless you count one of the giant Terran sequoias, and a few of the smaller trees. The maitbots have extinguished all the fires.”
“And the pirates?”
“They got away.” He sounded crestfallen.
“Thank you, Mr Chamberlain,” she said, in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. “But the main thing is that you, Mr Abara and Mr Martell are alright. I am grateful for that.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Listening in to the conversation, Mr Abara and Mr Martell were buoyed by this all-too-rare glimpse of their captain’s softer side.
“Mr Chamberlain, I’m now amending my previous orders. Rather than coming up to the bridge, I want the three of you to head over to Engineering. Ms Arenson has elected to stay there and defend the Engine Room, should any of the invaders make their way there. The three of you are now to provide her with support.”
Mr Abara and Mr Martell exchanged a worried look. That sounded dangerous.
“Yes Captain, we’re on our way,” was the immediate response from Mr Chamberlain, before either of his crew mates had a chance to voice any objection.
“Thank you, Mr Chamberlain.”
“Thank you, Captain,” he said, ending the communication. Then, as he turned to his companions “Well, you heard the captain – the Engine Room it is.”
“She’s changing her orders?” Mr Martell said. “She never does that.”
“Extraordinary circumstances,” barked Mr Chamberlain, although he had to agree – it was out of character for Captain Singh to do this. “Come on,” he said, checking that his rifle was still armed, “Let’s go.”
Carefully picking his way through the charred undergrowth and fallen tree limbs, Mr Chamberlain led Mr Martell and Mr Abara out of the Tranquillity Forest. Bringing up the rear, with a hopeful, goofy grin on his face, the lovelorn Mr Abara thought ‘I wonder if we’ll run into her on the way…’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, four levels below the Tranquility Forest, the pirates Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard were standing outside the Cargo Hold, staring forlornly at the touch panel that would open the door… if only it weren’t locked.
“Now what do we do?” asked Fullbrook.
He genuinely had not counted on this eventuality. Kevin Fullbrook was a greedy man, not a smart one.
“Well,” began Evans, frowning. “I guess we could go and find -”
BLAM! She was interrupted by the painfully loud explosion made by Skarsgard shooting the touch panel, at point blank range. Fullbrook and Evans instinctively leapt back from the ensuing shower of sparks. They didn’t hear it due to the ringing in their ears, but by the time the smoke had cleared, the Cargo Hold door had slid open, with a metallic swoosh.
As the last remnants of the smoke dissipated above their heads, the three pirates strode into the Cargo Hold, weapons drawn. It was dark – illuminated only by the ship’s dull, ruddy worklight – but they could discern that the vast, warehouse-sized room was almost empty. At the far end of it, though, they could just make out some pallets, loaded full of… something. As they drew closer, Evans counted 20 pallets in total – each one was a metre wide, a metre high and a metre deep. They’d been stacked two pallets high, so they formed ten two metre tall structures. For some reason, they had not been arranged symmetrically; these two meter tall structures seemed to be placed almost randomly near the wall, creating a little maze of laneways between them.
Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard came nearer still, and saw that the contents of each pallet had been wrapped in black plastic. But surely they had to have labels on them somewhere…
Fullbrook’s greed was swelling within him; as his pulse quickened, so did his pace; his walk turning into a jog, then a run, then a sprint, as he dashed towards the pallets. This visceral avarice proved contagious, as Evans and Skarsgard soon found themselves joining him, bolting towards the two metre high stacks. They all skidded to a stop as they arrived and started frantically searching the black plastic covered surfaces for labels. The labels were easy to find, and each time they spotted a new one, they shouted its contents out;
“Shampoo and assorted toiletries!”
“Protein – Type A!”
“Maitbot replacement parts!”
“Protein – Type B!”
Within a minute, they’d read all 20 labels. It seemed all 20 pallets were loaded with completely commonplace, everyday items.
“Damn,” moaned Fullbrook. “None of the labels said ‘Gold’.”
As mentioned above, he was not a smart man.
He stared at the floor disconsolately. Evans rolled her eyes, as Skarsgard began using his long fingernails and considerable strength to tear into the black plastic on the pallet closest to him. This particular one did, as promised, contain nothing other than maitbot replacement parts. Following his lead, Evans and Fullbrook began tearing into the plastic on the pallets nearest them, too. After ripping open the plastic on fifteen of the pallets, only to reveal the contents specified on the labels, all three pirates were starting to have doubts.
Tearing wearily into the plastic on yet another pallet, Evans said “What if there is no gold?”
“No, but there has to be,” said Fullbrook, desperation edging in to his voice. “There just has to be!”
“What if Salazar has brought us all here on a wild goose chase?” Evans continued.
“No,” said Skarsgard, as he uncovered another pallet load of linen. “I refuse to believe he’d do that. What possible reason could he have?”
“I don’t know, Skarsgard,” answered Evans. “All I know is -”
There, on the upper pallet in front of her, right at eye level, something shone through the hole in the black wrapping. In the red worklight, it was the colour of amber. She touched it; it felt cold and metallic. With surging energy and trembling hands, she tore frantically at the plastic, ripping it off in great chunks. Her frenzied activity brought Fullbrook and Skarsgard to her side, as her efforts roughly, hurriedly unveiled…
Brick upon brick upon brick upon brick of shiny, lustrous, wondrous… gold.
The bricks were in stacks of ten, and this side of the pallet showed ten stacks. She scooted across to the other face of the pallet; it was five stacks wide. Quickly doing the calculations in her head, Evans realised that this pallet contained 500 bricks of solid gold.
So it was true.
It was all true.
Her breathing quickened, as she drank in the sight of it, scarcely daring to make a sound in its sacred presence.
Skarsgard, too, was rooted to the spot – transfixed by the loot, and overtaken by a state of blissful, avaricious rapture.
Fullbrook’s eyes were assailed by tears of joy, and he wept freely. His shoulders jerked up and down, as his hands impulsively wiped the tears away, lest they interrupt – for even a second – his glorious view of the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful gold.
Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard embraced each other, basking in the glow of this moment, surrendering to the staggering wave of happiness that had suddenly swamped them.
And right at that moment, three figures appeared in the Cargo Hold’s doorway. Symphony crew members Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis were here to defend the ship’s precious cargo, and they’d arrived not a moment too soon.
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.