= CHAPTER 19 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:37 AM

The murder of Suarez was not complicated.

The Symphony’s resident killer had heard him, and carefully crept into the room through a door just behind him, completely unnoticed. Suarez was drunk and distracted, so there’d been plenty of time to pull the syringe out of one pocket, and to take the small vial of Phexetocin from another.

Plenty of time to draw 10 milliliters of the deadly fluid into the syringe, and plenty of time to ascertain exactly which region of Suarez’s corpulent form would receive the fatal jab.

The murder of Suarez was quick.

The killer stabbed the needle into Suarez’s neck from behind, just to the right of the nape and depressed the plunger, delivering the entire dose in just under a second. Suarez, shocked by the suddenness, the violence and the pain of the attack, turned to see his assailant. As he stared in confusion at his killer’s face, he was too shocked, too violated to speak. It was only his frightened, bewildered eyes that silently asked the most desperate, final, crucial of all questions... ‘WHY?’

The killer simply smiled in response. As the poison flowed swiftly through Suarez’s veins, a depraved parody of joy surged through the killer. These were the moments the killer lived for. This abominable, twisted thrill; this vile, depraved power trip had been an element of the previous murders too, when poor Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck had breathed their last. Suarez began to struggle and convulse, clutching desperately at his heart. His legs began to twitch, then jolt. Then his arms began spasming too, as he fell from his sitting position to the floor, gasping, wheezing and frantically, fruitlessly, trying to pick himself up. All too soon, a quiet, high-pitched sound briefly escaped his lips; half a cry, half a sigh…. And he was still.

That insatiable connoisseur, that jovial gourmand, that irrepressible bon vivant, the amiable Alfredo Suarez… was dead.

The killer shuddered in delight, savoring the hideous, warped travesty of pleasure found in this moment, before pausing for a second, turning and leaving the room.

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Back in the Shifting Sands, the rum and the conversation were flowing freely, and Captain Salazar Sharp had warmed to his theme.

“Can you imagine,” he asked his crew, “waking up here every morning in your own Presidential Suite? Endless five star dining, every type of entertainment you could ever think of, all the butlers, maids and servants you could ever want…”

“What? Where?” asked Gotmund. He’d only seen the Symphony’s skeleton crew members they’d encountered so far, and assumed that there was no one else on board.

“The ship’s Synthetic Humans. They’d all be powered down right now, because there’s no passengers at the moment. Not much point wasting consciousness on a Synthetic Human when there’s no one for them to serve.”

Salazar spotted Marie.

“Oh. No offence, Marie.”

“None taken!” she replied. “Consciousness is overrated anyway… AS THE ACTRESS SAID TO THE BISHOP!”

She laughed heartily at this, and Lightfoot concluded that Marie’s double entendre programs probably needed a damn good defragging…

… if you know what I mean.

The pirates’ doctor, Jelani, had been listening quietly to all of this, and was finding the idea of retiring to the good life aboard the Symphony of the Stars more appealing by the minute. She made a hand gesture to Marie; the universal sign for “May I have another drink, please?”

The cheerful barmaid opened another bottle of rum and brought it over.

“Just what the Doctor ordered!” she chortled, pouring Jelani another.

“Thanks very much, Marie. Would you mind leaving the bottle?”

“No worries” was the reply, accompanied by an ever-so-slightly mistimed conspiratorial wink.

Jelani liked Marie. Even though they’d only known each other for a few minutes, Jelani had warmed to this sassy, saucy Synthetic Human. She liked Marie’s merriness, her eagerness to please, her repertoire of jokes, and her generosity with the beverages. And right now, Jelani was picturing herself as a permanent resident here on the Symphony, as she drained her glass and poured herself a triple. Her retirement here would be leisurely, yet full; swims, massages, strolls through the Tranquility Forest, happy hours spent exploring the contents of that library… It would be bliss, she reflected, as she drained her glass, and poured herself another.

She’d pamper herself every day here. Extravagant meals in the restaurants, every conceivable spa treatment, every last indulgence for body and mind that the VR suites had to offer. And (she’d just decided) she’d pop in here, to the Shifting Sands, every afternoon at cocktail hour, for a drink or two and a friendly chat with her new best friend Marie.

She had earned this. Dr Jelani was 49 years old, but the past two decades of piracy had left her with the care-worn visage of a woman well into her sixties. She was tired of it all; the fighting, the running, the killing and the maiming, the rushed emergency patching and re-patching of war wounds. The futility of fighting to save the lives of so many people, only for them to be killed soon after…

Yes, she was ready to retire. More than ready. She didn’t want to go haring off around the galaxy, chasing after 800 floating gold bricks. She’d had enough. She wanted to retire, and she wanted to retire right now. In fact, as far as she was concerned, she now was retired. Had been since Salazar reminded her about the Symphony‘s library.

“I’m retired,” she said out loud.
Nobody heard. Jelani didn’t care. The act of saying it – of making the decision concrete – was the important thing. As far as she was concerned, her Golden Years started NOW, and good luck to anyone who tried to convince her otherwise.
She finished her drink and poured herself another.
Raising her glass in the air, she said “Here’s to my retirement!”
Again, no one heard.
Again, Jelani didn’t care. She took a celebratory swig and smiled, as the liquor warmed her throat and then her chest. She looked around the plush, warm, tastefully appointed surrounds. Yes, she liked being retired. She liked it very much. Now, what was Salazar banging on about?

“We’d be living in The Lap of Luxury!” the pirate captain enthused.
“That sounds good,” Lightfoot conceded. “Back on the Albert, weren’t even in the vicinity of Luxury’s thigh.”

That sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

“Living here would make us all soft,” offered Richards, grumpily.

“I have absolutely no problem with that,” said Devereux, swigging her drink.

Gotmund nodded. “I’ve never been soft before…” he reflected.

“But Richards,” Salzar countered, “if we still want to explore, to strike out and see the galaxy… we can! This is still a ship, you know. And we can still take it anywhere we want.”

That also sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

“And have you seen the Symphony’s shore boats?” Salazar continued.

“Only in the brochure,” said Richards.

“They’re like the Albert’s pinnaces… only a hundred times more spacious, plush and luxurious.”

“And I’ll bet they were built this century,” AJ chipped in, “Not like ours…”

Salazar nodded approvingly at AJ; it looked like he was coming around. “And, AJ – wouldn’t you love to have all those maitbots at your disposal, for all those dangerous, dirty repair jobs? How easy would they make things for you?”

AJ nodded, smiling. “Sure. Back on the Albert, we never had anything that even came close!”

This too, sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

in fact, all of this was sounding reasonable to Dr Jelani.

‘And furthermore,’ she thought to herself, ‘I’m really enjoying these drinks.’

She poured herself another.

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Salazar was right. The Symphony’s vast army of those hardy little multi-purpose droids was probably the most significant labour saving device on the ship. At this moment, twelve maitbots had been dispatched to the bottom of the vessel, to start mending its hull breach, while another six had started repairing the hole in the adjacent wall, between the (newly empty) swimming pool and the cargo hold.

Ten more were efficiently working away in the Tranquility Forest, clearing away debris, replanting damaged specimens, and tidying up the aftermath of the firefight from when Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara had encountered Salazar and Jiang, half an hour earlier.

And a minute from now, four more maitbots would be dutifully scurrying toward the Epicurus restaurant’s cellar, for the grim task of retrieving the cooling, coagulating, pallid remains of Alfredo Suarez.

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Salazar’s pitch had come to an end.

“So…” he said, fixing each crew member with an excited, expectant look, “What do we think? Are we all agreed? Do we take the mighty Symphony of the Stars for our very own?”

“Aye, Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang.
“Aye, Cap’n,” from Second Mate AJ.
“Aye, Cap’n” said Gotmund, looking at them, following suit.
“Aye, Cap’n,” from Devereux and Lightfoot.
“Aye, Cap’n,” a little less enthusiastically from Richards.
“Ayye, Caaaap’n”, said Dr Jelani, her voice slurring quite a bit more than she intended.

“Haha! Wonderful, wonderful!” Salazar enthused. “When Suarez turns up, he’ll be so happy with this turn of events!”

Clapping his hands and rubbing them together, Salazar barked “More drinks, Marie – more drinks, immediately!”

Marie filled all the pirates’ glasses, and as Salazar raised his, each one of his crew members did as well.

“You have all just made a brilliant decision! This will change everything for us. Relieving Captain Diana Singh of the Symphony of the Stars won’t just bring each and every one of us the most palatial, sumptuous, extravagant home we’ve ever known… it will also make Captain Diana Singh suffer for what she’s done.”

Salazar’s voice grew quieter and colder now.

“For what she’s done to me.”

 

 

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

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