512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Marie, the bartender in the Shifting Sands lounge, was indeed a Synthetic Human.
The complexity and sophistication of androids had developed exponentially since their earliest versions in the 21st century. At first they were unwieldy, cumbersome and more designed and built for the jobs that no human wanted to do – repetitive factory work, tedious transportation work, dangerous mining and exploration work… but with the vast leaps in AI and Moore’s Law being superseded by Cook’s Law in the early 22nd century, Synthetic Humans had become more autonomous, more nuanced, and more and more lifelike.
This was the birth of an entirely new race – a new “other” – and it was not without its teething troubles. For all those politicians who traded in fear and hatred, in demonisation and sowing the seeds of division… the development of Synthetic Humans had provided a brand new, ready-made target. A new breed of second class citizen to look down on; an entire subsection of society to gang up on. And sadly, and predictably, a lot of people did. “They’re stealing our jobs,” they cried. “They’re stealing our resources,” they cried. “AND they’re stealing our women.”
That last one, in particular, made no sense at all, but that didn’t stop the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the disingenuous from raising their voices – and their fists – loudly and often. As The Bard said, in one of her more pessimistic moments: “People are people… Unfortunately.”
In some places, the New Racism descended into street fighting, pitched battles and even a couple of small civil wars.
A matter of existential regret for the SHs was the fact that they didn’t have – and couldn’t have – families. Sometimes humans were vulgarly smug about this. But this did mean that the SHs were also immune from “the whole sex thing”, as they called it… all their thoughts, impulses and drives were completely untroubled by that deeply primal, hardwired human undercurrent. But from what the SHs had seen, it had brought humanity nothing but trouble over the last few millennia, and they generally agreed that they could do without all that palaver.
In the end, a global treaty was signed between the humans and the Synthetic Humans, with significant concessions on both sides. The humans were forbidden by law from treating any SH “in an inhuman manner” (lawmakers apparently missing the irony of this, given that the lines between “human” and “inhuman” had never been blurrier.)
And every SH manufactured from that point on was required to have what was called a ‘telltale feature’. This was a built-in idiosyncrasy that would allow them to be easily distinguished from real humans. Sometimes it was an extra finger, sometimes an unusually coloured patch of hair. In Marie’s case, it was wheels instead of feet.
And that suited Marie just fine. She was specifically made for bartending work, and she’d never been outside of the Shifting Sands, apart from her initial trip there from the factory, after manufacture. And the the Shifting Sands had no stairs, so it really wasn’t an an issue. Marie was born and bred – or rather built and programmed – to be the ultimate bartender. She had an on-board database of every known beverage in the galaxy, and programs for hundreds of sets of customs, manners, niceties, conversations… protocols on protocol. But her crowning glory – thanks to her somewhat eccentric programmer – was her genuine synthetic sense of humour. She’d been fully loaded with a vast database of jokes, riddles, epigrams and quotations. Most of her jokes were a little on the blue side – sex jokes, bodily function jokes, drinking and drug humour. The thought of a completely asexual machine making bawdy jokes of every stripe had amused her programmer, because she’d been programmed with thousands upon thousands of them. The old comedian’s catchphrase “I got a million of ‘em!”, wasn’t quite true in Marie’s case…. But she did have 786,983 of ‘em.
None of the pirates currently at the bar knew this, of course. They were discussing their missing crew members; in particular, Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard. Salazar knew that they had taken one of the Cheeky Albert’s smaller ships, to chase after the gold, but Richards was skeptical.
“You sure about that?” she asked.
“Pretty sure,” Salazar responded. “Marie, can you give us an outside view? Starboard side? Amidships?”
“Sure thing! That’ll be coming quicker than a science fiction fan, on his first visit to a -”
“Thank you,” said Salazar.
Marie pushed a couple of buttons on a console behind the bar, and gestured to the wall behind the pirates. They all spun around on their stools to see that it was now a floor-to-ceiling screen displaying the vast, endless starfield outside the ship, just a hundred metres or so from where they were sitting.
Sure enough, one of the Albert’s pinnaces was there, slowly and deliberately sweeping along the Symphony’s hull. On closer inspection, they could all just make out the the tiny figure of someone in a spacesuit – Skarsgard, probably – being dragged along behind the pinnace, on the end of a long survival cord. He held an open crate in one hand, and was presumably planning to use his other hand to pluck the gold bricks out of the void.
As they nursed their drinks in the plush comfort of the Shifting Sands, Salazar, Jiang, Gotmund, Lightfoot, AJ, Richards, Devereux and Jelani stared at Skarsgard’s minuscule, utterly vulnerable floating form, as it was jerked along through the freezing depths of infinite space.
It looked like a really tough way to get rich.
“If they’re that determined,” Salazar said, jolting his crew from their rapt observation, “I don’t think they’ll be coming back any time soon.”
“But Cap’n, if they’ve gone after the gold, what’s to stop any of us jumping in the Albert’s other pinnace and going after it too? We could maybe get to it… or at least some of it… before they do.”
“You really want to do all that work, Lightfoot?” Salazar countered. “Look at him!”
Skarsgard (it was him in the spacesuit – Evans was deftly flying the ship, while Fullbrook was also extremely busy, cowering in a corner) appeared to be flailing helplessly, even as he gradually moved closer and closer to a solitary floating gold brick. Eventually, he came within arm’s reach of it. His heavily gloved hand closed over it. It slipped from his grasp. His hand closed over it again. Clasping the gold brick desperately tightly, he carefully transferred it to the empty crate in his other hand, and closed its lid securely.
One down, seven hundred and ninety nine to go.
“You really want to go through all that?”, Salazar continued. “If they’re so determined, I say we just let them do it for us.”
“That would be smart,” agreed Jiang. “We can just track ‘em down after they’ve collected it all, and we can divide it up properly then.”
“And what are supposed to do until then, Cap’n? This raid’s been a disaster,” said Richards, quick to complain, as always.
“Yeah!” agreed Devereux. “This has been a rough morning. I say we cut our losses, head back to the Albert, and get out of here. Who’s with me?”
The drinks might have had something to do with it, but the seeds of discontent appeared to be sprouting. Lightfoot, Devereux, and Jelani all stood up, as Marie stared at them, uncomprehendingly.
“What if we all just forget about the gold for a minute?” asked Salazar, realising how futile this request was, even as he heard himself making it.
There was an uncomprehending pause.
There’d been a few of those so far today.
Stoically evading his crew’s cynical gazes, he soldiered on.
“What if the gold wasn’t the only reason l brought you all here?” he posited.
First Mate Jiang – Salazar’s closest confidant – wondered what he was about to say next… Surely it wouldn’t be the truth?
The pirates were all standing, staring expectantly at the captain.
“Don’t worry everyone; we’ll get that gold in due course,” Salazar assured them. “But right now, we stand to claim one hell of a consolation prize.”
“What consolation prize?” asked Gotmund.
“You’re sitting in it.”
Gotmund looked down. Sure, these bar stools were comfortable, but he wasn’t sure he was quite that enthusiastic about them. Pennies began to drop amongst the brighter members of the crew, as Gotmund kept examining his seat.
“The Symphony of the Stars!” Salazar enthused. “It’s simple – we take the ship!
‘Ah,’ thought First Mate Jiang. ‘Yes, I can see why he would tell them that. Clever.’ It looked to her like Salazar was saving the real reason they were here for later.
“We make this glorious flying hotel our own,” Salazar continued, “and enjoy luxury, five-star living for the rest of our days! AJ, imagine all the tinkering and improving you could do to this ship’s systems! Gotmund, Richards… The VR suites have a library of thousands of battles, thousands of fights from every period of history! Jelani, this ship has state-of-the-art medical facilities, replicators and what about that library? 10,000 real books. I know how you love real books….”
He was right. She did. A smile crept across her face.
“And Lightfoot… can you imagine all the computer systems on this thing? Twenty times bigger and more sophisticated than the Albert’s; you could get lost in them for days. What’s not to love?”
Lightfoot nodded, as she considered the proposition.
“I know that most of you planned to retire to a life of luxury after we got the gold… well, look where we are! We can start that life of luxury today! Right here and now!”
“Well, I don’t know – ” Devereux began.
“You’re not seriously telling me you’d rather keep living on the Cheeky Albert!” said Salazar! “How many people get a 2,000-passenger luxury space cruise ship all to themselves?”
“You think we can keep pirating in this sluggish, cumbersome behemoth?” Devereux countered. “The Symphony’s not exactly built for lightning raids, is it? You don’t think they might see us coming? And what about its defence and attack capabilities? Non-existent.”
“I guess we could retrieve and re-purpose all the weapons from the Albert,” suggested AJ. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Salazar nodded sagely, as though he’d already thought of this.
“That’s the spirit!” He enthused. And the more this idea grew in AJ’s mind, the more he liked it; tinkering, improving, mechanicking – making improvements and upgrades – ad infinitum, for all of the foreseeable future? That was pretty much AJ’s idea of total fulfillment.
His crew mates seemed to be warming to the idea, too. Smiles were spreading amongst them, along with the glow from the rum.
“I hate to be the lone voice of reason here, Cap’n…” said Richards, although she didn’t hate it at all – she quite enjoyed it.
“… But there is the question of the Symphony’s crew. And their captain, Diana Singh. She is ex-navy, you know.
“Oh those are just details, Richards,” Salazar said, breezily, as he got another round in. “Leave them to me.”
Jiang always worried when Salazar said things like that.
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.