512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Salazar Sharp could always be sure that whenever he called a three-fourteen, he’d have his crew’s undivided attention. He knew they’d drop whatever they were doing and make their way to the predetermined rendezvous point. He was certain that the three-fourteen was one order – perhaps the only order – that he could issue to that devil-may-care crew of his that they’d follow every time, without fail.
You see, a “three-fourteen” was Cheeky Albert crew slang for a-trip-to-the-pub-for-a-drink-and-a-chat.
It had been common parlance on the ship for so long that by now they’d all forgotten how the term came about. It made sense once upon a time, though. Years ago, when the Cheeky Albert’s crew was larger, Salazar had called the ship’s first Official Emergency Drinking and Debriefing Session after they’d all narrowly survived a particularly harrowing hostage situation on Rigel VI. Feeling that they could all use some liquid refreshment – and fast – Salazar immediately bought three drinks for each of his fourteen crew members the moment they arrived at the first seedy bar they found. And that set the tone – not to mention the pace – for the evening ahead of them. Over the next few hours, they drank, they talked, they laughed, they cried, they drank, they fought, they laughed, they made up, they kissed, they hugged, they sang, they drank and they laughed again. The event was very good for the pirates’ morale… if not their livers. And by the tail end of the evening (which, as it turned out, was actually the middle of the next morning) they’d taken a vote, to include the newly named ‘three-fourteen’ as one of the Cheeky Albert’s Totally and Utterly Essential Emergency Protocols.
Unsurprisingly, the vote was unanimous.
Yesterday, before embarking on this particular raid, the Albert’s crew had perused the Symphony’s brochure, and decided that, should a three-fourteen be necessary, the Shifting Sands lounge would be the place for it. The Shifting Sands was the largest and most elegant bar aboard the Symphony of the Stars. It was located astern, on A Deck, and modelled after the opulent Jazz Age and Art Deco bars of the early twentieth century, back on earth. Thick burgundy carpets, marble topped bars with shiny brass fixtures and warm, muted downlights were the order of the day here. Golden geometrical designs adorned the chocolate brown walls, and each table had a warmly glowing frosted glass ornament as its centrepiece. There were soft, deep brown leather couches, and intimate booths, where the lighting and the upholstery were softer again. The Shifting Sands was somehow spacious yet cosy, and its myriad seductive, plush comforts welcomed you in, making you suspect that very soon, you’d never want to leave.
Salazar and Jiang were the first to arrive. Like every other location they’d covered on this ship, they approached the bar’s entrance with extreme caution; weapons drawn and armed, not knowing what waited for them round the next corner…
The ship’s sensors had noted their approach, and a second before they entered, the bar’s lighting state changed from the dim red worklight to its usual warm, inviting ambience. And a second or two after they’d crossed its threshold, and as they were still taking in its convivial opulence, a jovial, gravelly female voice rang out:
“Whoa-Ho! Here’s a couple of likely looking customers!”
Instinctively, Salazar and Jiang whipped their rifles around to aim at the source of the sound, and saw a buxom, middle-aged woman in a formal white hospitality uniform, cheerfully regarding them through sparkling eyes, as she polished a cocktail glass.
Salazar and Jiang exchanged a look.
‘Wha- ?” said Jiang, probably not that helpfully.
But Salazar was confused too. Why wasn’t this barmaid shooting at them? Wasn’t she scared? Hadn’t she heard Captain Singh’s announcements? Didn’t she know that the entire ship was currently being overrun by a reckless band of marauding, bloodthirsty pirates?
“Welcome to the Shifting Sands! I’m Marie. Now, what can I get you?”
“Erm…” said a confused Salazar, trying to sound nonchalant, and almost succeeding, “Do you have rum?”
“Do we have rum? Do we have rum?” chuckled Marie the barmaid, glancing conspiratorially at Jiang. “He asks me ‘Do we have rum?’!”
Jiang shrugged and smiled politely.
Turning to Salazar, Marie asked “Light, gold, aged or dark?”
“Erm, dark” he replied.
“Rigelian, Terran, Betelgeusean?”
“Jamaican, Portuguese, Cuban, Australian or Guyanese?”
“And for you?” smiled Marie, turning back to Jiang.
“The same.” She didn’t want a grilling like that; she just wanted a drink… and to know why they’d been so warmly welcomed here.
“Coming right up!” chirped Marie, and bustled away to get the drinks.
When he called this three-fourteen, Salazar had expected that he’d be the one behind the bar here. He predicted the place would be deserted, and if it wasn’t, he was just going to stun whoever was here, standing in his way.
He certainly hadn’t banked on receiving such a gregarious greeting. But before he and Jiang could work out why they were being treated to such convivial hospitality, Devereux, Jelani and Richards walked in.
“Cap’n, Jiang,” said Devereux, nodding her greeting.
Richards spotted Marie behind the bar, and instantly swung her rifle up and aimed it at the barmaid. Salazar gestured for Richards to lower her gun, as he said “Glad you three could make it. Join us in a drink? This is Marie.”
Marie smiled at the three newcomers as she served the first two drinks.
“Hello, hello, hello!” she chortled. “Triple trouble now! Hey, if two’s company, (she gestured to Salazar and Jiang) and three’s a crowd (and here, to Devereux, Jelani and Richards)… then what does that make five? You tell me!” and she laughed heartily, as the five pirates regarded her, nonplussed.
Salazar shot the newcomers a hapless look, but his voice was casual as he said “we’re having the usual. Would you like the same?”
“I think that’d be wise,” said Jelani.
“Three more of the same please, Marie,” said Jiang.
“Coming right up, like a nasty pimple!” she chuckled, and busied herself getting the order.
Richards, Jelani and Devereux carefully put their rifles down (but within easy reach, as always) and settled in to the bar stools alongside Salazar and Jiang. It was only then that they realised someone was missing.
“Hey, where’s Maggie?” asked Richards. She’d been too surprised by Marie to notice that the ship’s mascot wasn’t here. And yet Salazar Sharp and his pet fox were inseparable; everyone knew that.
“We got separated,” said Salazar, his brow furrowing. “I wanted to keep searching for her, but…” he looked at Jiang, almost accusingly.
“We’ll find her, Cap’n,” she said. “I promise.”
“Of course we will, ” “She’ll turn up.” “She’s just exploring, that’s all,” the three newcomers chimed in. As their drinks arrived, Jelani raised her glass.
“To Maggie!” she said.
“To Maggie!” echoed the others, downing their drinks in one gulp, and slamming the glasses on the bar.
“Same again please, Marie!” said Richards.
“Of course, of course – some more of the sauce!” she giggled, as she scooped up the five empty glasses and scooted off.
“What’s her deal?” Devereux asked Jiang.
“Hello!” boomed a deep male voice behind them.
It was Gotmund. He stomped up to the bar, and sat himself down, heavily, next to Richards. There was a big, relieved grin on Gotmund’s face. He hadn’t much liked the confusing, fruitless, non-confrontational sneaking around of the last half hour, and he was very grateful that a three-fourteen had been called. Other than fighting, this was one of the few things he understood. This was something he knew how to do, something he was good at; drinking with his mates.
“Gotmund!” said Richards, slapping her friend on the back. “The usual?”
Lightfoot and AJ arrived a few seconds later, gawping appreciatively at their luxurious, inviting surrounds. Jiang greeted them with a question;
“Where’s Suarez?” he asked. “Wasn’t he with you?”
“We must have got separated back at the restaurant…” Lightfoot began. AJ finished her sentence. “… But I’m sure he’ll turn up!” as he approached the bar, rubbing his hands together.
Salazar was less than impressed by his crew’s lack of attention to detail.
“Hello Lightfoot, AJ. So, from the look of things,” he sighed, “No-one’s managed to take any hostages yet?”
The pirates all shook their heads. There were a couple of murmured “Nah, sorry Cap’n”s.
Salazar exhaled heavily. “And has anybody seen Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard?”
More shaken heads, accompanied this time by a few shrugged shoulders.
“So instead of increasing our numbers,” Salazar continued. “with hostages we can use as bargaining chips, we seem to have gone from a crew of thirteen… down to just the eight of us here. All in the space of half an hour.”
“Thirteen?” blurted Gotmund. “But we’re a crew of twelve…”
Salazar fixed him with a piercing glare. “Are you saying that Maggie doesn’t count as a member of our crew?”
“No Cap’n. Sorry Cap’n”, mumbled Gotmund, and guiltily guzzled the rum that Marie had just set down in front of him.
She immediately relieved him of his empty glass. “Same again, Big Fella?”
“And what about you two latecomers?” Marie continued, winking at AJ and Lightfoot. “Will you be having the same?”
AJ and Lightfoot nodded dumbly, as they both bellied up to the bar.
“Thank you!” Lightfoot called after Marie, as she watched her zip back to that suddenly very popular rum bottle.
“Interesting,” said Lightfoot, easing herself into an available bar stool. “Marie’s a Shh.”
“Really?” asked Richards.
“Yeah, of course she is.”
‘Shh’ was the slang term for SHs – Synthetic Humans – and it was a borderline offensive term. It was fine for Synthetic Humans to use it, to refer to each other by that term – it was their word – but for real humans to use it was generally considered bad form. But Lightfoot had never bothered herself too much with such niceties.
“How do you know?” asked Gotmund.
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Lightfoot. “If she was just a regular human Symphony crew member, she’d have been scared of us. She’d have shot us – or (considering their marksmanship) shot in our general direction – the moment we walked in. There’s no way she’d have greeted us as warmly as she did. I’m tipping she’s got no idea what’s been happening for the past half hour. And that could only be the case if she’s been in here, powered down and offline. No reason for her to be switched on when the Shifting Sands doesn’t have any customers. But then we arrived, and she’s all systems go.”
Gotmund was impressed.
“Also,” Lightfoot concluded, “she’s got wheels instead of feet.”
Gotmund leaned over the bar and peeked down. It was true.
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.