512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
It had only been a few minutes since captain Salazar Sharp had dispatched his pirate crew throughout the ship (to capture any Symphony crew members they came across), but those few minutes had already provided the pirates with more than a few surprises.
Richards, Devereux and Jelani had found themselves in the ship’s morgue, where they’d discovered that one of the Symphony’s crew was a serial killer, before being interrupted by a “floating” corpse…
Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard had made their way straight to the Cargo Hold, where they’d discovered – to their avaricious ecstasy – that this ship really was transporting ten tonnes of gold bars…
And Captain Sharp and First Mate Jiang had found themselves fleeing for their lives in a luxuriant forest, where they’d only narrowly escaped being shot, burned, and crushed by a giant falling redwood.
The remaining Cheeky Albert crew members – computer genius Lightfoot, ship’s cook Suarez and Second Mate AJ had banded together, while their crew-mate Gotmund had, as always, headed out on his own…
Gotmund hadn’t encountered any Symphony crew members on his trip up to C Deck. He’d searched the end of the shopping promenade closest to the ship’s bow, and then made his way up to the mezzanine level, to the second of the ship’s three swimming pools. He’d been navigating by the map in the Symphony’s promotional brochure, which was currently displayed on the screen of the rectangular tablet strapped to his left forearm. These devices were standard issue for each of the Albert’s crew members. They served as communicators, cameras, sound recorders, and had at least a dozen other functions. Gotmund stood and stared blankly at the swimming pool’s rippling surface.
After he’d been doing this for a full minute, Gotmund had a thought.
‘This is boring.’
Granted, it wasn’t an especially profound or insightful thought, but that was Gotmund for you.
‘How can I take any hostages, if I can’t find any people?’ He was desperate for a chance to do what he did best – fighting and winning. He craved some action; a skirmish, a run-in, a bit of good old fashioned argy-bargy.
Sure, he did feel bad about killing that guy back there in the docking bay. But Gotmund thought that his weapon had been set to ‘stun’. As did all his crew mates. Why hadn’t Richards told him that she’d set them to all to ‘kill’, instead? She was supposed to be his best friend. He wasn’t sure why she’d keep this… trick (was it a trick?) secret from him. He just couldn’t work it out, and it hurt his brain to think about it.
So he didn’t. He just stood by the pool and stared at the water some more.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
As it happened, Lightfoot, A.J and Suarez were only one level above Gotmund, searching the most ostentatious of the ship’s three restaurants, Epicurus. Thirty tables filled the large room, looking unnaturally naked without the elegant cutlery, fine glassware and elaborate floral centrepieces they usually boasted. The three enormous, ornate chandeliers gracing the ceiling were lustreless, too – the only light source in the room being the sickly, unsettling red work-light that currently illuminated most of the ship’s interior. Each wall here had been hung with magnificent works of art; heroic and dramatic scenes from late 23rd century history, sunset landscapes on a dozen different worlds, and adoring portraits of some of the greatest beauties the system had ever known. Suarez gawked delightedly at all this extravagant splendour.
AJ and Lightfoot didn’t. Their outlook was altogether more practical; they only wanted to know if this restaurant was currently sheltering any Symphony crew members they could capture. If it wasn’t, they could cross it off the list and move on. They still had a lot of ground to cover.
To Suarez, though, Epicurus was a destination. ‘Now this is more like it!’ he couldn’t help thinking. A short, rotund, and outwardly cheerful man, Alfredo Suarez had served as ship’s cook on the Cheeky Albert for almost a decade now. It was, he’d always thought, a post that was far beneath him. His family had always venerated fine food and wine. He was the son of two chefs, and his four siblings had all followed in their footsteps. But after a series of bad decisions, by the time he was 22, young Alfredo had become estranged from his family, and firmly ensconced in the criminal underworld. His considerable skills in culinary improvisation, his extensive knowledge of fine wines and his general air of bonhomie had made him a popular addition to various gangs and criminal crews… but he’d always felt he was destined for greater things. And this raid was about to make them all possible. With his share of the gold, he’d be able to live the life he’d always dreamed of – the life he deserved. He’d teach his family a lesson. He was about to become a wealthy, distinguished gentleman of leisure, never settling for anything but the very best, most exclusive, most exquisite, most fashionable food and wine available to humanity. Perhaps after all this was over, he’d even book a cruise on the Symphony of the Stars as a paying customer. He smiled at the thought. But right now, there was somewhere he simply had to go. It was the reason he’d suggested that he, Lightfoot and AJ begin their search here. It was the one and only place on the Symphony that Suarez was desperate to visit, ever since he’d read those entrancing words in the brochure;
our extensive cellar,
home to over 12,000 bottles of the finest and rarest and most exotic wines, spirits and liqueurs ever assembled in this – or any other – system.
Suarez knew that the cellar adjoined this restaurant. He slipped away from the other two, surprisingly quietly and quickly for a man of his girth.
AJ and Lightfoot didn’t see him leave.
Suarez thrilled to the idea that he’d soon be alone – entirely alone and uninterrupted – with all that liquid magnificence! Of course, he had no idea how vulnerable that would make him, to one of the Symphony’s crew members. One of the “waiters and maids” (as Salazar had called them) who was, in fact, a serial killer.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The serial killer who’d been haunting the thoughts of Captain Diana Singh for days now. Her mind returned – as it had so often recently – to the killer’s possible motivation. She thought about the two victims…. Well, the two victims so far. Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck. She’d pored over their files more times than she cared to count, but she had yet to find anything to suggest a reason for anyone to want to kill them.
Anton Vickers: Age 24. Mr Vickers’ official title was Second Technology Officer. He reported to Mr Abara, and was essentially his apprentice. He was an enthusiastic assistant, always keen to learn more about the ship’s systems and machinery – especially the maitbots. Despite being relatively new to the crew, he’d already proven quite brilliant at maintaining and upgrading them, and had even designed some very clever new programs and features for them. He did, however, have an unfortunate fondness for practical jokes. He’d replaced the birdsong soundtrack in the Tranquillity Forest with loud polka music, he’d rigged all the replicators in the staff canteen to only ever deliver lukewarm banana custard, and he was the reason Mr Martell’s regular crew safety briefing had been interrupted by 12 pairs of maitbots bursting in, doing a rather good Viennese waltz.
And that was just last week.
‘But,’ thought Captain Singh, ‘were Mr Vickers’ jokes actually annoying enough to make someone to want to kill him?
Tania Stuppeck: Age 38. She worked in Housekeeping, and was Mr Lebedev’s second-in-command. An efficient, pragmatic woman who was a lot more down-to-earth and sensible than her superior. It was well known that they had frequent differences of opinion, and they’d often been heard arguing in the corridors… which naturally cast suspicion on him. But would Mr Lebedev ever bring himself to murder her? Captain Singh didn’t think so. She couldn’t picture her fastidious, unmanly Chief Steward as a killer. Quite apart from the moral – and physical – considerations of actually killing someone, she wasn’t sure he’d cope with the untidiness. On the other hand, was there someone else who Ms Stuppeck had irritated even more than she irritated Mr Lebedev?
Whoever the killer was, Captain Singh had to ensure that their first two victims would also be their last. The stakes were too high – she had to unmask and punish the murderer, before they struck again.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ms Aku, Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin stood in the doorway of the Symphony’s dimly lit Cargo Hold. The smouldering remains of the door’s touch panel told them that whoever was inside, they certainly weren’t gun shy…
This was Ms Aku’s chance.
“Weapons drawn,” she whispered urgently to the two Deck Ratings. “And make sure they’re set to ‘kill’. We’re not taking any prisoners.”
Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin nodded nervously.
Ms Aku was still ashamed of her efforts – and the efforts of her crew mates – in their first encounter with the pirates, back in the docking bay. She would make her captain proud of her yet. This was her chance to redeem herself. It was her chance to be how she imagined Captain Singh was, back when she was in the Third Offworld Navy; fierce, on the front foot, and completely fearless.
“THIS IS SECOND OFFICER AKU, OF THE SYMPHONY OF THE STARS,” she yelled boldly into the darkness. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER IMMEDIATELY, OR FACE THE CONSEQUENCES. WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED!”
Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin looked at each other, both thinking ‘Um… no, we don’t.’
“YOU HAVE UNTIL I COUNT TO THREE!” Ms Aku continued. “ONE… TWO… THREE!”
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.