= CHAPTER 20 =

466 years in the future.
A Tuesday afternoon.

4:58 PM

“Today, Diana, you are a woman,” 50 year old Dr Anthea Singh enthused in honeyed tones, as she raised a glass of champagne. Her daughter Diana was eighteen today, and her small, loving family was gathered around this long, elaborately laid dinner table in honour of the occasion. The doctor stood at the head of the table, regarding her daughter with shining, adoring eyes. Diana’s father Raj sat contentedly to her left, accompanied by his other two children; Diana’s brother Armin and her sister Davina. Open, loving smiles shone on all their faces.

At the the opposite end of the table was the guest of honour, beaming delightedly, her pretty, innocent face the epitome of carefree happiness.

Diana’s eighteenth birthday celebration dinner was in full swing at her family’s palatial home; an imposing mansion in the Edwardian style, that somehow managed to nestle unobtrusively in its natural surrounds. The mansion had been ingeniously built into the lush foothills of the rain forest, in what was once called the Sinharaja region of what was once called Sri Lanka.

Its wide, white stone terrace – where the family now gathered – commanded a stunning view of rolling hills in every direction, all blanketed in dense, teeming rain forest. Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers swooped and dived just beyond the balcony, their pink, indigo and orange plumage echoing the myriad hues of the splendid, cloud-flecked sunset. The air was filled with the pleasant gulping song of tree frogs, as phalanxes of bats soared out over the lush green canopy, beginning their evening’s hunt.

Privilege and wealth wafted around the Singh family like so much sweet, expensively fragrant smoke. But good fortune and extreme comfort had attended them for ten generations now, and they wore these blessings lightly.

As Diana sat there, arm in arm with her devoted boyfriend Tim, she looked from her family to him, then back to her family again. ‘I just can’t decide,’ ran her uncomplicated teenage train of thought, ‘who I love the most; who at this table makes me the happiest! I love Tim so much! And I love them so much! And I love him so much! Oh, I’m sure my heart will burst!’

“Happy Birthday, my darling,” said Diana’s father, as he too raised his glass. “We’re just so proud of you.”

“Thanks Dad,” Diana responded, not surprised to hear her own voice cracking with emotion.

“And on that note…” Raj Singh continued theatrically, “your mother and I received a certain communication today. A communication from the cadet selection and recruitment panel of the twelfth regiment, of the Asian arm…”

Diana knew where her dad was going with this.

“… of the Terran fifth Division, of the sixteenth fleet of the Third Offworld Navy!”

Raj paused, relishing the air of happy suspense he’d created.

Unable to contain herself any longer, Diana blurted “… AND?”

A grin spread quickly across his face.

“And… You’re in.”

“I’m in? I’M IN! Aaargh!” she shrieked excitedly. “I’m in!”

“Admitted with ‘Exemplary Distinction’,” her father nodded. “You aced all the theoretical exams, got near perfect scores in all the VR situational simulations, and flew through the medical and physical tests.”

“… Naturally,” said her mother.

“I’m in! I’m in! I’m in!” Diana repeated in thrilled tones as she kissed Tim excitedly, again and again, in between more delighted squeals.

“Congratulations, babe…” he chuckled. Tim and Diana met each other in High School and had officially been a couple for two years now. Theirs was a rare variety of young love; not just passionate, playful, physical and hormonal, but also respectful, companionable and fun. It was a true meeting of the minds as much as anything else, and each of them was certain that, in finding the other, they had found The One. Neither of them wanted to remember life before they met. Neither of them could imagine ever being apart. Now Tim gently removed Diana’s arms from around his neck as he stood.

“Di,” he said. “I’m so happy for you. You’ve always dreamed of joining the navy, and you’ve worked so hard for this. You deserve it, babe. And now,” Tim continued, feeling himself beginning to blush, “I hope this isn’t going to complicate things too much… but there’s something I want to ask you.”

Diana’s pulse quickened. Her smile was instantly replaced by an earnest, searching, almost frightened expression. Where was Tim going with this?

He cleared his throat, as his face reddened further.

“Di, the day I met you two years ago… I fell. I fell in love with you, then and there, and I knew right away. It was simple. I knew you were The One. And every day since then, my love’s grown and grown. I love you so much, babe. Everything about you. And I know…” Tim’s voice was trembling now, heavy with emotion, as he pushed his floppy blonde hair out of his eyes. “I know that I always, always will. I just can’t imagine my life without you in it.”

Tim dropped to one knee and took both of Diana’s hands in his. There were hushed gasps from Diana’s family.

“Diana Singh-”

“Yes?” she laughed nervously, embarrassed that she’d interrupted him with her eagerness. “Sorry.”

Tim smiled, and took a deep breath.

“Diana Singh, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

“Aaargh!” Diana squealed delightedly again. “Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!” she exclaimed. And now she was embracing Tim again and now she was covering him with kisses, and now her family were clapping and cheering, all eyes wet with happy tears.

As the sun finally dipped behind the lush, dense rain forest canopy, Diana looked at her proud mother and father, at her grinning brother and smiling sister, and at her loving, handsome fiance. She’d never conceived that she could be as deliriously happy as this. She looked deep into Tim’s eyes as he moved in close to kiss her again, more slowly and passionately this time. As their lips met again, and they melted, lovingly, into each other, Diana wondered dreamily “What did I ever do, to be this lucky?”

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491 years in the future.
A Saturday night.

10:33 PM

Salazar Sharp’s eighteenth birthday, 25 years after that, was a rather different affair.

He was on the North Continent of Rigel VII.
He was in the NorCon’s capital city, Fort Spowertrisk.
He was in an alley in the city’s decaying, squalid west side.
And he was lying in the middle of that alley, face down. He’d just been thrown out of O’Malley’s – one of the dirtiest, roughest, most dangerous bars here. And this alley boasted quite a few dirty, rough dangerous bars. The locals didn’t call it “Godforsaken Miserable Sleazeball Lowlife Scumbag Boulevard” for nothing. A warm, chemical-infused drizzle was falling from the neon-lit sky, and foul fumes rose from the piles of unidentifiable rubbish strewn about. A couple of metres from where Salazar lay, the water that trickled haltingly along the gutter was choked with mysterious, alarming brown chunks.

Salazar lay there for a moment, taking stock of his new injuries. Both knees hurt, from when he had dropped to them during the fight inside. His left cheek was stinging from where the dagger had left its gash, and there was muscle soreness in both of his upper arms; probably from the punching and flailing he’d been doing in there. All of his knuckles were split, and his right side ached – possibly a broken rib? He slowly, painfully got to his feet, dragged himself to the footpath and sat down heavily on the remains of a broken crate there.

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The night had started off well enough; he’d come out to one of the district’s outlawed gambling parlours with his older friend Jensen, who made the first of that evening’s many toasts.
“Happy Birthday to you, MISTER Salazar Sharp!”
As he knocked back the first of that night’s many shots, Salazar thought about his name. It was the name he’d chosen for himself when he was a kid, and so far, it had stuck. He supposed that it would now be sticking for the rest of his adult life too. He’d thought it sounded cool when he came up with it all those years ago, but now that he’d turned eighteen, he wasn’t so sure.
Within an hour, Salazar and Jensen had won a tidy sum playing cards against two leery Rigelians. Feeling like the money was burning holes in their pockets, they’d then decided that a pub crawl would be a most excellent idea.

By the time they got to O’Malley’s, they’d worked their way through at least a dozen beers, two bottles of Betegeusean firewater, six grubby saloons, and approximately 90% of their windfall.

The details of what happened next were blurry.
Salazar remembered accidentally bumping a very tall, burly man with an enormous beard. The beard was at Salazar’s eye level, which gave him an all-too-intimate view of the small gobs of unidentifiable food stuck in it. He remembered the bearded man punching him in the nose. He remembered trying to fight back, and receiving another two, three – or was it four? – more blows for his trouble. He recalled that Jensen was trying to smooth things over when FoodBeard made an insulting remark about Salazar’s mother.
Try as he might, Salazar could not remember what had happened next.
In fact, FoodBeard’s comment had sent Salazar into a white hot rage, causing him to pull out his knife and slash furiously at the taller man.
FoodBeard had also pulled out a knife, but not before Salazar had already slashed him twice – once on each arm. Spurts of blood gushed left and right, instantly clearing a large space in the centre of the room. Tough though the O’Malley’s patrons were, they generally preferred not to get caught up in knife fights, as a rule.
As it turned out, Salazar’s first knife fight was over quickly. He was smaller, more agile and much quicker than FoodBeard, and he’d darted at him quickly, again and again, making shallow puncture wound after shallow puncture wound. FoodBeard managed to get one wide arcing slash across Salazar’s cheek as Salazar leapt forward and stabbed him again; this time, in the chest, with what would prove to be the fatal blow.
FoodBeard froze, looked down in disbelief at the stream of blood escaping his rib cage… and crashed loudly to the floor.

There was silence for a second. Then two.

Then the general murmur and hubbub of the bar returned, just as quickly as it had stopped. Disagreements settled by murder were not especially unusual at O’Malley’s.

Salazar’s ‘friend’ Jensen had run off at some stage during the fight, and Salazar now stood alone, staring, stunned, at the man he’d just killed.

“Not cool, man,” growled a low voice from behind him. It was an enormous, stern-looking Rigelian – almost as wide as he was tall – dressed completely in black. He was a member of the O’Malley’s security staff, and this had greatly inconvenienced him; he’d probably have to stay back after his shift to tidy all this mess up.

“You’re OUT.” The bouncer roughly dragged Salazar towards the back door, lifted him up off the floor, and hurled him out into the alleyway, like so much rubbish.

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The drizzle in the alleyway had grown heavier now, and fat, greasy polluted drops spattered Salazar’s aching head, shoulders, legs and back. Broke, broken, woozy and bruised, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, as Jensen’s words from earlier tonight echoed in his sore head; “Eighteen years old! Today, Salazar, you are a man.

“If this is being a man,’ Salazar thought bitterly, ‘I don’t especially like it.’

 

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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