512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
On the bridge of the Symphony of the Stars, Captain Diana Singh, her First Officer Mr Sinclair and the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev had just been joined by Second Officer Aku and Deck Rating LeGuin, who were both still breathless and soaked from their disastrous encounter down in the Cargo Hold.
“Ms LeGuin, Ms Aku.” Captain Singh’s greeting was perfunctory, distant.
“Captain,” they both nodded.
“Are you injured?”
There was a pause.
“Ms Aku, please tell me what you were thinking.”
“As a result of your reckless, hot-headed, foolhardy actions, Ms Aku, every single item of our cargo – including the gold – is now lost to the vast reaches of space. There is now an enormous hole in the side of my ship. But most importantly Ms Aku, a healthy, innocent 23-year old man – Deck Rating Mr Michael Ellis – is now dead. Mr Ellis is the second member of my crew who has died today, Ms Aku, and his blood is on your hands. Mr Ellis died as a direct result of your decisions, a direct result of your actions.”
“But captain, I was -”
“YOUR DECISIONS!” Captain Singh exploded. “YOUR ACTIONS!”
There was a startled silence. None of the crew members on the bridge had heard their captain raise her voice like this before. She took a deliberate, measured breath, regarding her Second Officer disdainfully.
“If we weren’t currently under siege, and in a state of emergency, Ms Aku, I’d be throwing you in the brig immediately. And indefinitely.”
Ms Aku’s heart skipped a beat, as she felt something crack inside her. A metaphysical slap in the face, the implications of her actions hit her suddenly, and with full force. Captain Singh was right. Ms Aku’s role model, her mentor, the woman she admired above all others was disgusted with her. And it occurred to Ms Aku that her own actions had been disgusting. She hadn’t been brave, she hadn’t been clever, resourceful or strong – she’d just blindly stumbled towards danger, driven by her lust for cheap, easy glory. And she’d dragged two trusting, innocent subordinates along with her. Only one of them had survived. Ms Aku now saw herself as Captain Singh saw her. Her knees weakened and began to buckle, but she willed herself to stay upright. ‘Stay strong,’ she told herself. ‘Don’t show her any weakness.’ She felt the shame rising in her, from her toes to her head. How had she been so selfish, so stupid?
A whispered “Yes, Captain,” was all she could manage.
Captain Singh turned from Ms Aku and addressed the rest of the assembly.
“But as it is, I need all hands to play their role in defending the Symphony – defending our home – and in making those pirates pay. To that end, I have dispatched Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara to Engineering, to provide assistance and support for Ms Arenson.”
Looking around the room, Ms LeGuin asked “What about Dr Zivai? And Mr Serrano and Mr Ferrer?”
“They’re on their way back here together,” Captain Singh responded. “They’ll be here any minute.”
Spotting Ms LeGuin’s concerned look, the Captain reassured her.
“Oh, you needn’t worry about them running into the pirates, Ms LeGuin – we’ve had a stroke of luck there.”
Captain Singh nodded to First Officer Mr Sinclair, who brought the video feed from the Shifting Sands lounge up on the bridge’s main screen.
“For some reason, at this stage in proceedings…” Captain Singh continued, gesturing to the screen, “the pirates have all decided to go to the pub.”
Sure enough, the overheard cameras showed eight pirates sitting at the bar, listening happily to some story Marie was telling, with exaggerated gesticulating and comical facial expressions.
“Ms Arenson,” said Captain Singh, alerting her Chief Engineer. “Please lock all entrances and exits to the Shifting Sands lounge.”
“Yes Captain,” came the response from the Engine Room.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
At the bar, none of the pirates noticed all the entrances and exits being silently closed and locked. They were too busy listening to Marie;
“This feller goes up to the recruitment officer at a circus, and says ‘Hello, I’ve come about the contortionist job you had advertised.’
‘Oh yeah,’ says the recruitment officer, ‘so how flexible are you?’
He says ‘well, I can’t do Thursdays…’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Of course,” Captain Singh continued. “just because we now have the pirates locked away, that doesn’t mean the latecomers are completely safe…”
She looked deliberately, searchingly into the eyes of Mr Sinclair.
“There’s still a murderer in our midst.”
And into the eyes of Mr Lebedev.
“And unless it was poor Mr Torrence or poor Mr Ellis…”
And into the eyes of Ms Aku.
“… that killer is still on the loose. Possibly even in this room.”
And into the eyes of Ms LeGuin, who simply nodded cheerfully at her, in response.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer were indeed making their way back to the bridge, as per their captain’s orders. They’d caught an elevator up two levels from the Shopping Promenade, and were currently making their way through the library, towards the elevators that would bring them up the remaining two levels to the bridge.
The thick green carpets here – and the thousands upon thousands of leather-bound book spines lining the shelves – deadened what little sound there was. The library was empty now, and bathed in that familiar, dim red worklight, but even when the ship was heaving with passengers, this place was always preternaturally quiet. People had great respect for real, paper-and-leather books; in this day and age, a real book was a sacred thing. Not just as a cultural link to the past. Not merely as an artistic or creative link to the past. And a book was more than a documentary, historical link to the past. It could be all of these things, of course – but to the people of this time, it was so much more. Just the fact of a real book, as a means of storing and retrieving information, was a wonder in and of itself. The notion that someone had procured and assigned a quantity of paper – the pulp of wood from a tree that was once a living thing! – to permanently record a collection of words and images that would be committed, locked on to – married to – that paper forever! The very act of it contained such boldness, such confidence, such faith in the future! ‘Someone, somewhere will want to read this one day,’ the people who made real books back then must have thought. ‘Perhaps even after we’re all dead. And so, we will give them that opportunity.’ A staggering gamble. A gutsy leap of faith. And what of the leather bound volumes? Wrapping the skin of an animal that was once a living thing around that paper, which was also once a living thing… the two-fold ultimate sacrifice. And although that sacrifice wasn’t freely volunteered – or even suggested – by that tree or that animal, it was still a profound thing. Yes, the fact that the Symphony of the Stars boasted a library of 10,000 real books was a great enticement to its passengers, and they would never enter this place without being struck by its manifold significance, and adopting a devout, reverential silence.
The library was completely silent now, too.
Apart from that scurrying sound.
“Ssh!” Mr Serrano said suddenly, gesturing for his companions to stop. “Did you hear that?”
Both Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer shook their heads. They all stood perfectly still, listening carefully, straining their ears.
The scurrying sounded again; quick, light footsteps. They all heard it that time.
“Maitbots?” whispered Mr Ferrer.
“I don’t think so,” whispered Dr Zivai.
“Me neither,” the Third Officer agreed. “Not frequent enough. And too irregular, ”
The footsteps of a maitbot were frequent and rhythmical; they had eight legs, after all. Whatever was making this noise didn’t.
All three of them instinctively checked that their rifles were armed, and crept forward, as quietly as they could.
They heard the scurrying sound again, coming from behind one of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases on their left. Mr Serrano moved quietly to one side of the bookcase, signalling to the others to take the other side. Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer complied. They steadied, centred themselves… then, on Mr Serrano’s nod, the three of them leapt out from behind the bookcase, weapons drawn, trigger fingers tensing, and stopped.
There, on the plush rug in front of them, sat a fox. She was curled up, and too busy fastidiously licking her tail to notice them.
Mr Ferrer’s relief exploded from him in a loud “Ha!”, which made the fox stop her grooming and look up.
“Hello!” smiled Dr Zivai, “how did you get here?”
The fox eyed her coolly.
The sight of the animal took Mr Serrano back to their first encounter with the pirates. “I think I saw her before. In the docking bay…”
He seemed to remember staying close to the one who was giving the orders. “… I have a feeling she might belong to their captain.”
“If that’s the case…” said Mr Ferrer, “then she’s a bargaining chip.”
“Their captain will be at our mercy,” Dr Zivai agreed. “We’ve got to catch her.”
Maggie eyed the three strangers suspiciously as they shouldered their rifles and began slowly moving toward her, each one of them wearing a plastered-on smile that was far creepier than they’d intended. Before they’d taken two steps, Maggie had darted under a reading desk, around a corner and out of sight. This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to catch her – she was the mascot of a pirate ship – and she knew a thing or two about quick escapes.
“This way!” Mr Serrano said, sprinting off in the direction of Maggie’s initial trajectory, and out of sight. But the moment Dr Zivai started to follow him, she heard something behind her – had a bookcase been knocked over back there?
“No – I think it’s this way,” she said, turning in that direction.
Mr Ferrer was about to agree with her when he heard something else – a chair being nudged? – behind him. They had to act quickly or this valuable orange asset would get away.
“Let’s split up! You follow the noise you heard, I’ll follow mine,” he suggested.
Dr Zivai nodded. “I’ll see you up on the bridge.”
“Tally-Ho!” grinned Mr Ferrer, warming to the idea of his own personal fox hunt.
And they were off.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In the corridor outside the Symphony’s Engine Room, reinforcements for Ms Arenson had finally arrived, in the form of the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain and the Cruise Director Mr Martell. They both looked up into the cameras above the door, as Mr Chamberlain tapped his communicator badge.
“Ms Arenson, we’re here.”
A moment passed before the door to the Engine Room slid open, revealing the Symphony’s Chief Engineer – distraught, crying, tears streaming down her face. Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell stared at her uncomprehendingly – what had brought this on?
“I killed him”.
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.