512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
The luxury space liner the Symphony of the Stars featured three large swimming pools, each with a capacity of roughly 144,000 litres.
The first of these pools was on the upper deck, amidships, between the ship’s bridge at the forecastle and the ship’s largest restaurant – The Brasserie – astern.
The second swimming pool could be found two levels lower, on B Deck, in the ship’s bow, directly adjacent to the second restaurant – Epicurus.
And the third swimming pool was six levels lower than that, nestled in the bow of the ship’s keel. The area forward of this pool featured a delightful, tropically themed poolside bar, and the aft end of the pool shared a wall with the ship’s Cargo Hold.
That is to say, until this morning, it had shared a wall with the Cargo Hold. That wall had now been destroyed by a fierce gunfight between three Symphony crew members and three of the invading pirates. As a result, all the water in that pool had flooded out into the Cargo Hold, and then was sucked into space, through the fresh hull breach in the Cargo Hold, caused by the same fracas.
The Symphony of the Stars also boasted two water slides. The first was the famously terrifying Mad Maelstrom®, which dropped and curved and plunged and corkscrewed 150 metres, from the Upper Deck pool all the way down – through the middle of the ship and the central atrium – to the pool in the keel. The second water slide was called the Pleasant Plunge®. It started at the same level as the Mad Maelstrom®, but promised (according to the ship’s brochure):
a shorter, more leisurely descent past some of the ship’s most captivating views, as it elegantly snakes its way down two levels, before gently entrusting you to the pristine waters of the pool on B Deck.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Pleasant Plunge® did not currently have any water running down it.
It did, however, have a fox scrambling up it, pursued by a man crawling up it, not far behind.
It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Mr Ferrer was now clambering up the water slide, just above B Deck, trying and trying again to find any available foothold – and any available handhold – in the dry, glossy chute. The unfamiliar noise he’d followed here was the sound of Maggie’s claws scrabbling on its smooth, moulded surface.
Despite being completely dry, the water slide was still slippery. Its surface was seamless, and Maggie’s clawed feet made it extremely difficult for her to attain any grip, let alone purchase. Possessing, as he did, arms and legs that were considerably longer than hers, Mr Ferrer was gaining on her.
The fox looked behind her, panicked, and tried to increase her speed. This only made her slip more. As she reached the section of the slide curving around one of the rock climbing walls and past the library, she finally lost her footing altogether and slid quickly down towards her pursuer…
… and straight into Mr Ferrer’s chest. He instinctively clamped both arms around her, and she bit down on his left forearm with all her might. And that might was considerable, given that red foxes such as Maggie have surprisingly powerful jaw pressure for such a small animal. Add to that her considerable annoyance at being caught by Mr Ferrar, her unwillingness to let go of him, and her extremely sharp teeth, and young Mr Ferrar was left in no doubt that his day had very quickly gone from bad to worse.
He lost his grip on the slide.
“YAAAAAAAAAARRRRHHHHHHHH!!!” he screamed in agony, as he and the violently conjoined vixen tumbled and rolled and bounced and grazed their way down, down, and down, gaining ever more momentum, scratches and bruises along the way.
When he’d finally plummeted all the way to the slide’s end, Mr Ferrar wasn’t so much “gently entrusted to the pristine waters of the pool”, as he was roughly slammed into its icy cold depths, with a brutal, shocking force that knocked all the air out of his battered rib cage.
He surfaced, coughing, spluttering, cursing and wheezing, the blood from his arm staining the water around him. The impact had shocked the animal into releasing his left arm, and he quickly grabbed her tail with his right hand, holding her as far away from him as he could. The bedraggled, winded and wounded fox hung upside down, frantically flailing her legs, also coughing, also gasping for air. She furiously attempted to bite her captor again, but couldn’t quite reach.
Mr Ferrar slowly made his way to the edge of the pool, and painfully hauled himself up the ladder and onto its decking, still holding his furry orange prize at arm’s length. He scowled at her.
“You’d better be worth this…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Mr Abara was on B Deck, shuffling toward the Engine Room. Inside, Ms Arenson spotted him on one of the screens she was surveying, and opened the door to let him in.
“Ah, there he is – Lover Boy!” mocked Mr Martell, as Mr Abara shambled over the threshold, and the door quickly slid shut behind him. “Manage to locate the girl of your dreams?”
“No,” he moped. “Couldn’t find her anywhere.” He looked miserably to his three crew mates to see them fixing him with looks not of empathy, but of extreme suspicion.
“Exactly where were you looking?” enquired Mr Chamberlain.
“Oh, just around B Deck,” he sighed.
“Anywhere in the vicinity of the restaurant?”
“There she is!” Over Mr Chamberlain’s shoulder, Mr Abara had spotted the screen showing the interior of the Shifting Sands. He saw that the eight remaining pirates were indeed there… and, sitting next to that woman with all the guns, there she was! Mr Abara’s eyes grew wide, his despondency instantly replaced by hope.
“There she is, there she is, there she is!” he repeated dreamily.
Not daring to take his eyes from the screen, he pulled up a chair and sat down in front of it, drinking in the sight of his beloved.
“There she is…” he said once more, in a delighted, reverent whisper.
He was oblivious to the skeptical, wary glares of Mr Chamberlain, Ms Arenson and Mr Martell. As they continued to observe this most peculiar murder suspect, Mr Chamberlain commented under his breath “Well, at least we won’t have any trouble stopping him wandering off…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Dr Zivai was now making her way up towards the bridge. She’d decided that the fox hunt was a fool’s errand, and had summoned an elevator to take her up to the Upper Deck. She stood waiting for the elevator to arrive, lost in her thoughts. It seemed to be taking a long time.
Eventually, the lift arrived and its doors slid open in front of her.
It was empty. Dr Zivai stepped inside and specified her destination. The journey up those three levels was quick. The lift arrived on the Upper Deck, its doors slid open, and she exited and strode off in the direction of the ship’s bridge. Behind her, the doors of her elevator slid shut. The doors of the elevator beside it, however, were open.
That elevator still held its ill-fated occupant; the recently deceased Third Officer of the Symphony of the Stars, 25-year-old Ricky Serrano, slumped awkwardly on its floor.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano. The murder that was clearly captured by the cameras in the elevator. The resulting recording unequivocally revealed the identity of the Symphony’s serial killer, beyond the shadow of a doubt. But none of the crew members up on the bridge or down in Engineering had seen it. They’d all been otherwise engaged, closely watching the exchange between Captain Singh and Salazar Sharp that was unfolding in front of them…
“Mr Sinclair, please patch me through to the Shifting Sands,” Captain Singh had requested. The continuing distraction of – and disturbing thoughts about – the killer in their midst had almost made her forget the pirates.
“Yes Captain,” came the response from her First Officer.
“And make sure the feed’s audio and visual – I’m tired of not looking my adversary in the eye.”
The feed from the Shifting Sands appeared on the bridge’s main screen – it showed all eight pirates sitting at the bar, one of them all but slumped over it, teetering dangerously on her bar stool as she laughed at one of Marie’s jokes.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
At the same time, in the Shifting Sands, the implacable countenance of Captain Diana Singh appeared on one of the larger wallscreens.
“Captain Sharp!” she called.
Salazar left his conversation with Jiang and spun around on his stool to look at the screen.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
And so it was that Captain Diana Singh and Captain Salazar Sharp saw each other face-to-face for the first time.
And she couldn’t help gasping at the sight of him.
It wasn’t his clothes; all the layers of stained, torn shirts, waistcoats, jackets and outer coats that he wore. It wasn’t the various guns, knives and other – more unfamiliar – weapons strapped and tied about his torso, arms and legs. Or the myriad piercings of his ears, the mane of unruly orange hair and its long, feathery pony tail, or even the aggressively insolent look in his eye.
What made Captain Singh gasp was the sight of Salazar’s face. There were eyes – clearly visible, brown – there was a nose, and there was a mouth. But even in all her years in combat, she’d never seen so many scars. Salazar’s face was like the road map of an overcrowded metropolis… designed by engineers who were plastered. Ragged, angry scars bisected thinner gashes which, in turn, intersected old lacerations. Lacerations that were surrounded by nicks, furrows and scratches of various sizes. Pockmarks and craters fought for space with assorted pits, scrapes, slashes and dents. Maybe that fight was responsible for the adjacent notches, blotches and dimples. It seemed to Diana that even his scars had scars. His skin was so ravaged and discoloured by all of these ancient injuries, she couldn’t begin to guess at his original appearance, other than to suppose that under all that scar tissue, his skin had been dark? Maybe olive coloured? He’d obviously been in countless fights, but he’d obviously also had scant access to decent medical attention. And she understood now why his voice was so coarse, so gravelly – someone had once tried to cut his throat. No – from a closer look at his neck, probably more than once. His face told a hundred stories. All of them filthy.
Captain Singh’s face did not surprise Salazar in the slightest. It was a face he knew well, from a distance. The extensive research and detective work he’d done prior to this morning’s raid ensured that he knew much more about her than she realised. This was exactly how he’d expected her to look.
The olive skin, the lustrous black hair greying at the temples, swept back off her forehead and behind her ears, precisely cut to shoulder length. The ramrod straight posture, as it was in every picture he’d seen of her. ‘Thirty five years in the navy will do that,’ he thought. She was taller than average, and slim. Despite the relative looseness of her formal white uniform, Salazar could see that she was lean, muscular and extremely fit – the type of fitness that didn’t come from VR simulations or synthetic muscle and co-ordination enhancement technologies. Captain Singh’s peak physical condition was the type that could only come from regular strenuous, exercise. Another habit born in the military. He face was remarkably unlined for a woman in her mid-sixties. There were a few small wrinkles around her lips, and a couple of noticeable furrows on her brow, but none of the other crow’s feet, creases, or little folds common to women who’d lived for six and a half decades. As he looked upon her, Salazar suddenly realised why that was.
She had no laugh lines.
She was a woman for whom smiles were scarce.
He also now noticed something else the pictures and footage had never conveyed; the weariness in her dark eyes. She looked tired. Exhausted, in fact. Not just exhausted with recent events, but – it seemed to Salazar – exhausted with… everything.
For a moment, he almost felt sorry for her.
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.