= CHAPTER 24 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

6:58 AM

THE SYMPHONY SPACEWALK
Do you dream of floating in zero gravity, outside the safe confines of a VR suite?
Do you share the bold, pioneering spirit of the earliest trailblazing astronauts?
Are your cravings for adventure only ever satisfied by the real thing?
Then this is for you. This is the Symphony Spacewalk.
You’ll climb into your very own Triple A-grade SLS spacesuit and venture outside the ship, and into the dark, silent reaches of space. You’ll leave the sanctuary of the Symphony far behind, with your only link to it being the umbilicom cord, a high-tensile cable no thicker than your little finger. As you glide out into the soundless, endless depths, you’ll experience solitude, distance… and danger… like never before. And the further you drift, the further you’ll go on your inner journey, too.
With the isolation and quiet absence of all distractions, you’ll soar to new plateaus of mindfulness and self-examination.
It’s confronting, it’s thrilling and it can even be life-changing.
It’s definitely not for everyone.
But you’re definitely not just anyone.
Like The Bard says… “You ask me if I know what Fear is. I’m afraid I don’t.”

– From the ship’s promotional brochure.

Captain Singh stood in her ready room, alone, watching the feed from the Symphony Spacewalk’s disembarkation platform. There was no one there. It was a stunning room – two of its walls, its floor and its ceiling were screens displaying the live video feeds from the wide angle cameras on the ship’s outer hull… to stand here was to feel that you were in a long glass tube, enveloped by the infinity of space. At the far end of this ‘tube’ was The Hatch; the airlock and portal through which the more intrepid Symphony passengers would boldly leave the safety of the ship, on their own astral odyssey.

She waited, a look of grim resolve slightly creasing her brow. Any minute now…

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Ten minutes earlier, after shooting and stunning Dr Zivai, Captain Singh had sent an almost equally stunned Ms Aku and Mr Ferrer back to the bridge, as she shut off the link to Engineering. Then, satisfied that she was alone with the unconscious form of Dr Zivai, she summoned six maitbots to her ready room, and set them to work.

Those six maitbots responded to the call instantly, extracting themselves from their storage brackets, climbing nimbly down to the floor and scurrying out of the maitbot enclosure with surprising speed. As they hastened towards the Upper Deck, they passed six more of their number, scooting past in the opposite direction, smoothly conveying the deceased Deck Rating Mr Serrano to the morgue.

The maitbots Captain Singh had summoned soon joined her in her ready room, gently picked up the unconscious Dr Zivai, and spirited her out. The captain watched them leave, as she absently toyed with something she’d found in Dr Zivai’s jacket…

A small, empty syringe.

Now, as she continued watching the Symphony Spacewalk disembarkation platform, they arrived; those same six maitbots, carrying the still-unconscious Dr Zivai on their flat, black backs. They’d performed another significant duty on their way there. In the Spacewalk’s prep area, they’d deftly removed Dr Zivai’s outer clothes, relieved her of all her personal possessions, and dressed her in one of the Triple A-grade SLS spacesuits allocated to the Spacewalk attraction. Now, one of the six small, crablike droids peeled off from its counterparts, opened a panel in the platform’s starboard wall, and unfurled the umbilicom cord. It attached the cord to Dr Zivai’s spacesuit, checked the connection, and scurried back to its five counterparts. All six maitbots now adroitly maneuvered Dr Zivai into a standing position, and then froze, awaiting the the next command from Captain Singh.

“Open The Hatch.”

One of the maitbots darted to The Hatch, and entered the ‘Unlock’ sequence, followed by the ‘Open’ sequence. The Hatch slowly slid open, and Dr Zivai gently floated above the floor, now freed from the bonds of gravity. The motionless maitbots – perfectly held in place by their magnetised limbs – released her and remained still, waiting for next order.

“Put her out.”

A gentle nudge from the maitbots was all it took. Dr Zivai slowly floated out of The Hatch and away from the ship, the umbilicom cord unspooling as she went. Ten metres. Twenty metres. Thirty metres…. forty metres. Dr Zivai had now floated fifty metres out from the ship.

“Stop there.”

At the panel on the starboard wall of the platform, one of the maitbots locked the umbilicom cord release mechanism. It would extend no further until it was unlocked again.

The maitbots were again motionless.

In her ready room, Diana Singh switched her wallscreen to the video feed from Dr Zivai’s helmet. She was now looking at an enormous close up of Dr Zivai’s unconscious, oblivious face; eyes closed, breathing steadily, totally unaware of what was to come.

“Wake up, Tara.”

Captain Singh had never used Dr Zivai’s given name before, but it seemed appropriate now. This was, after all, personal. The spacesuit’s AI introduced a small burst of extra oxygen and just enough low level noise to revive the doctor. Her eyes opened, and she gasped when she saw where she was. Her breathing quickened and her pulse raced, as her head darted around, struggling to comprehend her situation. To her left and above her, an endless star-filled void. To her right, a blue green planet and its light grey moon, before another endless starfield. Directly in front of her, albeit 50 metres away, the hulking, pristine white bow of the Symphony of the Stars; her only connection to it, a thin cable leading from the front of her spacesuit to The Hatch on A-Deck, just below the ship’s bridge.

“Why did you do it?”

“What? Wait! Bring – bring me back! Please!” Dr Zivai’s breathing quickened again, as terror and panic set in.

“Why did you do it, Tara?” repeated Captain Singh, her voice even and unmerciful.

“Bring me back in, Captain! Please! Just bring me back in, then I’ll tell you everything!” Dr Zivai was petrified, terror-stricken, and illogical as it sounded, she suddenly believed she might actually die of fear.

“You’ll tell me everything now, Tara. Why did you kill them?”

Dr Zivai looked around her. She didn’t exactly have the upper hand here.

“I’ve been a doctor for 22 years, Captain – the last 12 of those, on board this ship. I hate what I do here. Symphony passengers are all the same; rich, entitled, ignorant, elderly spoiled children. 12 years of healing them, of pandering to them, of prolonging their self-obsessed, entitled existences… and for what? So they can sputter on for a few more decades, consuming resources, contributing nothing, amassing more and more riches at the expense of the downtrodden? They disgust me, the bloated, entitled, idiotic slugs. On our last cruise, I wondered; what if one of them had a life-threatening situation… and I didn’t come to the rescue?”

“You mean that man who died on our last cruise was – ?”

“Devlin J Tucker the third,” Dr Zivai drawled contemptuously. “73 years old; loud, obese, vainglorious billionaire. No humility, no curiosity, no empathy, no dignity. Built his massive fortune over half a century of exploiting people, places, things and animals… and the irony was that he treated his own flabby, corrupted body and mind just as badly as he treated everyone else’s. Fake teeth, fake tan, and that ridiculous fake yellow hair – nobody really looks like that – like any of that! I hated him, to be sure, but I also hated what he represented… and so, when I was called to attend his heart attack, I thought the unthinkable. What if I solved the problem of Devlin J Tucker? What if I made sure that the heart attack would be fatal?

Dr Zivai, paused for a moment, a faraway look in her eye.

“It was only afterwards that I felt the fear. But it wasn’t fear of retribution, Captain, and I wasn’t scared of getting caught… what made did make me afraid… was how good I felt. The power, delicious power, Captain – the total control… all these years of prolonging life… when taking it away was so much quicker and easier. So much more final. Permanent. It made my head swim with excitement. And that excitement only grew greater over time, as I realised… I got away with it.

“I couldn’t wait to do it again. To…” and here, she gave a half smile, “… to solve the next problem. But before I could, the cruise was over, all the passengers and most of the crew had disembarked, and it was just the fourteen of us, taking the ship back to dry dock. Why didn’t I start sooner? Think how many more Devlin Tuckers I could have rid us of.”

Captain Singh recoiled at what she was hearing. She was glad she’d put Dr Zivai out there, well away from the nearest human – the nearest potential victim.

“And then you decided to start killing your crew mates,” she said disgustedly.

“No, Captain; it wasn’t really a decision, as such. Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck were just… there. In the right place at the right time.”

“I’m sure that’s not how they saw it.”

“Haha! No, probably not. It’s a bit hard to explain. It’s an addiction, I suppose. Once you’ve had that rush, that matchless, incomparable thrill… you can’t just stop at one. Oh, but the power, Captain – the delicious power. You have no idea.”

Then a thought occurred to Dr Zivai.

“… Or perhaps you do. In all your years in the navy, you must have taken lives…”

“Yes.”

“So you’d know exactly -”

“But never for fun, Dr Zivai. Never for fun.”

“Oh well, each to their own,” the doctor said. Surprisingly smugly, given the precariousness of her current position.

“And that brings us to this morning, Tara. Two more; that pirate in the cellar and Mr Serrano. Within just a few minutes of each other.”

“And what makes you so sure they were mine, too? It could have been somebody else, copying my style.”

The use of the word “style” in this context made Captain Singh wince.

“With the pirate, you told me. In the recording of his murder, we saw him clearly. And although he was sitting on the floor, half drunk, it was clear that he was very fat. When I told you about his murder, I called him ‘scrawny’ and ‘frightened’. You hesitated before accepting that description. Why?”

Dr Zivai made no answer.

“If you’d never seen the pirate in question, you’d have accepted my description at face value. As it was, though, you hesitated – because he wasn’t scrawny or frightened, was he? Were you about to correct me?”

Dr Zivai gave an irritated nod.

“And that was all I had. But I had a hunch it was enough.”

“And on the basis of that, you shot me?”

“On the basis of that I shot you,” Captain Singh nodded. “The gun was set to stun, though.”

“I do realise that, yes. Thank you. And Mr Serrano? How did you know about him?”

“You got even sloppier, Tara. A few minutes ago, when Mr Serrano didn’t respond to our calls, we checked back through the ship’s records, and… we saw the video from the elevator. You were so busy seizing the opportunity,” she spat these words contemptuously, “that you didn’t hide your face.”

“Damn! You’re right,” Her tone was one of simple annoyance, rather than regret or repentance.

Dr Zivai looked down, and seemed to suddenly remember that she was isolated in the vacuum of space, precariously dangling 50 metres from safety, with her only lifeline a cable no thicker than her little finger.

“Erm… So what happens now, Captain? You reel me back in, throw me in the ship’s brig, and turn me over to the authorities when all this is over?”

“Not exactly.” Captain Singh replied. Then, addressing the maitbots standing by on the disembarkation platform, “recommence unspooling.”

The maitbot nearest the platform’s control panel unlocked the umbilicom cord release mechanism, and Dr Zivai began to drift even further away from the ship.

“Captain! No! What are you doing?” Dr Zivai’s yelling grew more and more panicked.

“Sever umbilicom cord.”

“No! No, Captain! You can’t! Please! You can’t just -”

Captain Singh killed the audio and changed the video feed to her ready room’s wallscreen; she didn’t particularly want to hear Dr Zivai, or have a close up view of her face, for what came next.

There was a series of fail-safes for an operation as significant as severing the cord of an occupied spacesuit. Captain Singh entered all the necessary codes as they progressed up the levels of security clearance, finally entering the password she’d chosen for the Captain’s Final Override Protocol: A-N-T-H-E-A.

The cord was cut.

The captain regarded her wallscreen. It now showed the view from the bow of the ship, which showed the hapless, drifting figure of Dr Zivai as very small – almost invisible – against the background of stars, of moons, and of endless, endless space. Willing herself to witness Dr Zivai’s final journey, yet not quite able to, Captain Singh picked out a small corner of the heavens, and concentrated her gaze there. She focussed in on a nearby constellation, trying to remember its name, as, in her peripheral vision, the small speck that was Dr Zivai silently drifted further away from the ship.

Down and to the right, further and further away, smaller and smaller in the captain’s peripheral vision. Again, she willed herself to look at the speck, but still could not. She found that she was concentrating harder on the constellation – what was its name?

The speck grew smaller and smaller and smaller until… it disappeared amongst the stars.

The Monoceros Constellation. Captain Singh realised that she had been looking at the Monoceros Constellation.
She turned on her heel and strode back on to the bridge.

 

 

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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