512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
In the ship’s Engine Room, Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain had spotted something on one of its 416 monitors.
The Symphony of the Stars was, as you’d expect, comprehensively surveilled by motion-sensitive CCTV cameras in all areas (with the exception of the passengers’ cabins). For the past few minutes, the movements of the pirate Suarez had been recorded, since he’d wandered into the cellar of the Epicurus restaurant. These movements were not especially interesting, though; they consisted mostly of him sitting on the floor and swigging from a bottle… an activity only punctuated when he stood up, fetched another bottle, sat down with it, and did even more swigging.
As luck would have it, Mr Chamberlain had been looking at this screen, when it showed a second figure entering the cellar.
“Ms Arenson, Mr Martell – look!” he called.
The Chief Engineer and Cruise Director joined him just in time to witness the sudden, inhuman act; the taking of Suarez’s life.
But the cellar’s lighting was dim, and the killer faced away from the cameras, making it impossible to discern a face. The killer was completely silent, too, leaving no aural clues. The silhouette did show that they wore a Symphony uniform, but that was the only identifying clue. Ms Arenson had immediately reported all of this to Captain Singh on the bridge, and played her the footage.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Diana Singh stood at her console, eyes closed, silent.
On her ship.
Under her command.
The crew members here with her – First Officer Mr Sinclair, Second Officer Ms Aku, Deck Rating Ms LeGuin and Chief Steward Mr Lebedev – eyed her warily, as they anxiously waited for her to say something… Anything.
Eventually, she turned to them and regarded their four apprehensive faces coolly. There was an agonizing pause.
“Well, at least we know it’s not one of us!” blurted Mr Sinclair, smiling hopefully, and attempting a relieved chuckle.
“No, it’s not.” Captain Singh responded, frowning. “But it is… one of us.”
She spotted Mr Lebedev’s confusion.
“A member of our crew. The method used here was the same as in the previous murders, before the pirates arrived. And of course there’s the uniform, but that doesn’t gives us a lot of help.”
This was true; the Symphony’s standard uniforms were unisex, and loose-fitting, so the killer could have been a man or a woman.
Captain Singh called out to her Chief Engineer. “Ms Arenson?”
“Yes, Captain,” came the reply from the Engine Room.
“Which Symphony crew members are currently on B Deck?”
Glancing at yet another monitor, Ms Arenson answered. “Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara, Deck Rating Mr Ferrer, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Dr Zivai.”
Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain cut in here.
“Mr Abara was coming to Engineering with Mr Martell and I, Captain… but he took off to find one of the pirates… he reckons he’s fallen in love!”
“We couldn’t stop him, Captain.” Mr Martell added.
“And as you know, Captain,” Ms Arenson concluded, “Mr Martell and Mr Chamberlain have been here with me in Engineering.”
“So we’ve narrowed it down to four,” said Captain Singh. “My Chief Technology Officer, My Third Officer, one of the Deck Ratings, and the ship’s doctor.”
“But are they definitely the only options, Captain? Could it be one of the Synthetic Humans?” Mr Sinclair suggested. “One with fatigued or defective programming, maybe?”
Captain Singh regarded her First Officer. Might he have a point?
“Ms Arenson,” she called, “apart from Marie in the Shifting Sands, are any other Synthetic Humans currently activated?”
The Chief Engineer quickly checked a console in front of her. “No, Captain.”
The usually timid Chief Steward Mr Lebedev found he was getting interested in this discussion, and wanted to be a part of it. “What about rogue maitbots? Could it be rogue maitbots, do you think, Captain?” he inquired.
“I think that’s unlikely, Mr Lebedev,” said she. “Unless they’d stacked themselves six high, and managed to impeccably imitate the shape – and movements and gait – of a person, after expertly squeezing themselves into a Symphony crew uniform.”
The Chief Steward nodded sagely in response, as she thought ‘Lebedev, you’re an idiot.’
The ensuing moment of pensive silence on the bridge was broken by Second Officer Ms Aku advancing a different theory.
“How do we know it’s not one of the pirates? If they’ve found the ship’s laundry, down below F deck, they could have easily found uniforms to fit them. I don’t think we should rule that out…”
“I do,” said the captain, tersely. “With that murder method? A quick jab with a small syringe full of poison? No, Ms Aku. If the murderer was a pirate who wanted to kill somebody, why wouldn’t they just shoot them? And besides, we know the whereabouts of all the pirates are right now; we’ve locked them in the Shifting Sands. So I don’t see how -”
“Except for those three who left the ship, chasing off after the gold!” Ms LeGuin interrupted, brightly.
“Yes, except for those three. So I really don’t see how – ”
“And that other one, who’s just been murdered!” came her next cheerful correction.
“And that one as well, yes. Thank you Ms LeGuin. But I think we can safely assume that the pirate we all just saw being killed – by somebody else – isn’t the killer. I’m pretty confident we can rule him out as a suspect.”
“I agree with the Captain,” said Ms Aku. “We have accounted for all the pirates who’ve invaded the ship today….” She paused, shooting her crew mates a significant look. “… As far as we know.”
“Yes. As we far as we know,” the captain nodded. Then a paranoid thought occurred to her; had they counted the number of pirates on board correctly?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
They had; she needn’t have worried.
Although that minuscule sliver of doubt Ms Aku had just planted in the back of the captain’s mind would continue to prove unsettling…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Captain Singh now pondered the fresh question raised by this latest murder. The earlier victims had both been Symphony crew members; this time, though, the killer had thrown that “rule” out the window. This time, an opportunity for murder had presented itself, and they’d taken it, straight away – Symphony crew member or not. This led her to a disturbing conclusion; a conclusion she would not be sharing with her crew. Whoever the killer was, it now seemed they weren’t necessarily following a plan. ‘Perhaps,’ she thought, shuddering at the idea, ‘they’re just killing for the thrill of it…’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Down on B Deck, the Symphony’s Third Officer Mr Serrano had grown tired of all this. The initial thrill of the fox hunt had evaporated quickly, and the absurdity of his current errand now just made him feel foolish. ‘What am I doing?’ he thought. It was dangerous out here, in this empty, dimly lit, pirate-infested ship, and yet here he was – traipsing all over B deck… hunting a fox. A stupid, mangy animal. A pirate’s pet, which, even if he did manage to catch it, would probably bite him, scratch him or infect him with whatever disgusting parasites it was bound to be carrying. He stopped walking.
‘Nup,’ he thought, ‘They’re not paying me enough for this. I’m going to the bridge’.
He made his way to the nearest elevator that would take him up to the Upper Deck, feeling relieved. He’d definitely made the right decision, and he was simply following the captain’s orders, after all.
Mr Serrano called the elevator. As he stood facing its closed doors, waiting for it to arrive, someone was approaching him, silently, from behind.
It was someone Mr Serrano knew – a crew mate of his.
The elevator was down on F Deck when it was summoned, and it was now making its way up to B Deck rather more slowly, it seemed to Mr Serrano, than usual.
The someone was two steps closer to him now. The someone still hadn’t made a sound.
The elevator ascended past E Deck, past D Deck….
The someone was directly behind Mr Serrano now, and had retrieved a small syringe from one of the pockets of their uniform.
The elevator rose past C Deck, and came to a halt at its destination.
The doors opened, and as Mr Serrano stepped in, he noticed his colleague in his peripheral vision, and turned, saying
“Oh, hello. I’m going back up to the bridge. I’ve had enough of this; we’re not gonna find that -”
The syringe was plunged so forcefully into his abdomen, just to the left of his navel, that he thought he’d been punched, rather than stabbed. As the wind escaped from him, the killer quickly depressed the syringe’s plunger, instantly delivering its entire fatal payload.
Mr Serrano dropped to his knees inside the elevator, while the killer calmly took a step back from its threshold.
Their eyes met, and locked, as Mr Serrano’s body began twitching and convulsing, confusion and fear flooding his eyes. The killer stood perfectly motionless, holding his victim’s gaze with eyes that showed nothing but cold, corrupt arousal.
“You?!” gasped Mr Serrano incredulously, through a mouth that had become a rictus of terror, of panic; “But I…I… don’t understand…”
He wheezed as a few final breaths escaped his body, and then collapsed to the floor. The killer remained almost entirely still. Only the eyelashes fluttered, as though they were struggling to restrain those eyes. Those eyes pierced with insanity, those eyes that were greedily devouring the victim’s horrific final moments, those eyes that took such depraved pleasure in this monstrousness.
The doors closed with an impassive metallic swoosh, and the elevator transported the late Mr Serrano to the Symphony’s Upper Deck, just as he’d asked.
The killer paused in front of the closed elevator doors with eyes shut, savouring the moment… before turning and walking briskly down the corridor, past eight maitbots scurrying in the opposite direction. The little crab-like droids moved quickly, efficiently, and in perfectly co-ordinated lockstep. Placed carefully on their flat, black backs was the corpse of the recently deceased pirate Suarez; they were swiftly conveying him to the morgue. The killer smirked as this grimly ludicrous little procession passed, thinking ‘Keeping you busy today, aren’t I?’
The murderer’s smugness was new, and it came from an overinflated sense of confidence, an increasing sense of invulnerability. ‘I’ve got away with it so far,’ went the thinking. ‘And right under the captain’s nose…’ But this smugness had brought its pal carelessness along for the ride, and for the first time since the sick spree began, the murderer had not covered their tracks.
During the quick, opportunistic assault on Mr Serrano, the elevator’s cameras had captured the murderer’s face clearly, and from two different angles. Anyone seeing the footage of that moment as it happened would have learned exactly which one of the three remaining suspects was the ship’s resident serial killer. The elevator was well-lit, the picture was clear, so the identity of the guilty Symphony crew member had just been clearly exposed, beyond all doubt. It was an open and shut case for anyone watching the screen that displayed the event; ship’s monitor #783465.
But at that moment, not a single Symphony crew member had eyes on that screen. Each and every one of them turned out to be otherwise occupied.
Which was a bit of a shame, really.
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.