= CHAPTER 27 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:03 AM

“Tell me another one, Marie!”

Over the past hour, the bartender had regaled Dr Jelani with 76 different jokes. But beneath her whimsical, carefree exterior, Marie’s myriad onboard algorithms had been constantly analysing, classifying and re-classifying Dr Jelani’s responses. Using a sophisticated, lightning fast extrapolation engine, they’d been continuously building a minutely detailed blueprint and working model of the doctor’s complex, eclectic sense of humor. As a result, Marie’s repertoire was becoming ever more sharply focussed on appealing to Dr Jelani’s unique tastes.

The upshot of this was that for Dr Jelani, Marie was getting more gut-bustingly hilarious by the minute.

“Another one! Another one! Please Marie!” She entreated.

“Oh, alright then,” Marie said, grinning. “It’s late at night, you see, and these two fellas walk in to a bar. Now, they’ve obviously had quite a bit to drink already, so when the bar tender sees them come in, she calls out “Sorry fellas, we’re closed!” The two guys frown at each other, confused.
“Closed?” one says to the other. “Then how the hell did we get in here?”

Dr Jelani laughed, slapped the bar, and fell loudly off her stool, disappearing from sight. The sound of her still-giggling voice wafted up from the floor; “I’m alright!”

“You sure, darl?” Marie was on more familiar terms with her number one customer by now.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No. Actually, come to think of it,” the voice said, “I am feeling a little bit dizzy. A little light-headed, if you will. I might just stay here for a while.”

Dr Jelani was happy with this executive decision of hers. As far as floors went, this one was unusually comfortable.

“You have been getting on the outside of rather a lot of rum, darl,” Marie reminded her.

“I know, Marie, I know. Do you think I don’t know that? Because I do. I do know it. But it never usually affects me like this. Not at all. No way. Interesting…”

Marie nodded indulgently, and moved down the bar, to see if any of her other customers needed a top-up.

She passed Salazar, who was standing, staring at the wallscreen where Captain Singh’s face had recently been.

“Diana!” he was calling. “Captain Singh!” There was no response. Nor had there been, for the best part of an hour. Salazar sank, defeated, back into his bar stool. He was panting from his exertions.

“What’s going on up there? What the hell are they doing to Maggie?” he asked Jiang, although he knew full well that both questions were rhetorical.

His First Mate could only shrug sympathetically.

“I don’t know,” she sighed, breathily. “Buy you another drink?”

“No,” said Salazar. “I have to get up to the bridge. Now. Devereux?”

“Aye Cap’n?”

“Come on, we need these doors opened.”

Devereux nodded, stood, and joined Salazar on the walk to the Shifting Sands’ main entrance, taking various devices from her pockets and belts on the way. When they reached the door, they found themselves surprised by how out of breath they were; it had only been a walk of ten metres or so….

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Up on the bridge, Captain Singh had chosen not to reopen communications with the pirates. She had nothing more to say to that scarred – and scared – ‘captain’ of theirs. She had continued to observe and listen to them all, however… more out of mild curiosity than for any tactical or strategic reasons.
And she saw that that they were now beginning to feel the effects of the rising carbon dioxide concentration in the room. She didn’t particularly need to see or hear what happened next. She was tired. Tired of it all. After a draining five year voyage, she’d finally solved the mystery of her ship’s resident serial killer, she’d eliminated the problem, and now she was swiftly and efficiently avenging the violation of her vessel by these bloodthirsty, avaricious degenerates.
Captain Singh looked forward to ending their sad little attempt at raiding the mighty Symphony of the Stars. It had cost Mr Torrence and Mr Ellis their lives – now its instigators would all pay the same price.

But she didn’t need to witness the specific details. She didn’t want to hear their desperate pleas, their frantic wails, their fearful wheezing, coughing, gagging and retching.
Nor did she want to see their frantically scrambling bodies – their terrified, convulsing figures – before they slowly, inevitably expired.
Captain Singh shut off all audio and video feeds from the bar.
In a matter of minutes, the crew of the Cheeky Albert would no longer be her problem.
They’d no longer be anybody’s problem.
She reflected that none of her crew had thanked her for any of this. Some of them even saw fit to directly disobey her orders and voice mutinous sentiments.
She was tired of them too.

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When Devereux and Salazar reached the locked door of the Shifting Sands, she carefully laid all her tools, devices and gadgets on the floor, and scrutinised the door’s touch panel.
Salazar sat down on the floor beside her, wheezing, and addressed the room.

“Hey! Anyone else here feeling short of breath?”

Gotmund and Richards, nodded, frowning.

“Yep,” huffed A.J.

“Yes,” gulped Jiang.

“Uh-huh,” sighed Lightfoot.

From her position on the floor next to the bar, Jelani raised her hand. “I do, too” she said.

“Well, I feel fine,” offered Marie.

The pirates all glared at her.

“Yeah, but you’re a Shh,” Richards reminded her.

Marie ignored the slur.

“… but I also happen to be the only one who’s not drinking. Just sayin’.”

“But we’ve all got exactly the same symptoms,” said Jiang. “What if it isn’t the drink? Jelani!”


“We’ve all got exactly the same shortness of breath, dizziness. What’s your opinion?”

“My opinion,” the prostrate physician offered slowly, “is that I would like another glass of rum.”

“Your opinion about our symptoms,” said A.J. “Is it to do with the air in here?”

“Are they gassing us?” Gotmund asked.

Dr Jelani frowned.

“… Or have they cut off the oxygen?” suggested Richards.

“Ah, yes – that would be more likely, yes,” the drunken doctor nodded, as she folded her hands across her chest serenely. “And of course, the longer we breathe, the more carbon dioxide we produce. So, over time, if there’s no new oxygen getting in here, we’ll be breathing in mostly CO2. So in answer to your question, Gotmund, it’s not them who’s ‘gassing us’; we’re effectively gassing ourselves.”

“EEH! I TOLD YE TO LAY OFF THEM BAKED BEANS!” Marie screeched, in a comically high-pitched – yet indeterminate – accent.

“Not now, Marie,” said Jiang, quietly.

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In the corridor just outside the Shifting Sands, Mr Abara skidded to a halt. The Love Of His Life was just on the other side of this door, and he’d be damned if was going to let her be killed! Her life was as precious to him as his own – even more precious! For deep in his heart of hearts, Chief Technology Officer Kit Abara knew that he had, at long last, found The One. The only thing holding him back from a lifetime of happiness was this single door, and as soon as he opened it, she would rush joyfully into his arms and make him complete – he just knew it. His whole life had been leading up to this.
He slammed his hand on the door’s external touch panel, desperate to liberate his Soul Mate, eager for them to begin their blissful lifelong journey together.

Nothing happened.

‘Oh, the captain’s locked it from the outside, too,’ he realised.

Fighting off his melodramatic pangs of disappointment, he told himself ‘Come on, Kit – you’ll just have to open it from this side, that’s all.’ He looked up and down the corridor, checking for cameras. If Captain Singh caught him trying to set the pirates free, this would all be for nothing. Pulling a complicated tablet device from his uniform’s breast pocket, he’d soon accessed the video feed from the corridor’s cameras. It was the work of a few moments for him to duplicate the vision of the empty corridor from five minutes earlier and thread it back into the feed, on a continuous loop. He now turned his attention to the door’s lock. ‘This shouldn’t take too long,’ he reassured himself. ‘I am the ship’s Chief Technology Officer, after all.’

“Not long now, my love…” he said under his breath, as he worked. “Not long now….”

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“So how long do we have? In a room this size?” There was desperation in Richards’ voice.

“Well, let’s see,” began Jelani, looking dreamily at the ceiling. “There are eight people in here breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. The average person breathes 10 litres of air per minute, so that’s 80 litres of air being breathed every minute. Normal air contains about 20% oxygen, but I don’t know exactly what the deal is on this ship… but let’s assume it’s something like that. Now, when we breathe out, we breathe out 4% of CO2 in each breath. Would we say that this room is 15 metres by 30 metres?

“Yep, I guess,” said Jiang quickly.

“And the ceiling would be – what, 2.5 metres high?”

“Sure, alright,” said Richards impatiently.

“Then we just need to work out the volume of the room, in order to calculate the ratio between the oxygen being ingested and the CO2 being exhaled.”

“Marie, you’re a Synthetic Human, you’re smart!” Salazar appealed. “Can you do that?”

“Nah, sorry chief. I’m only programmed for hospitality, mixology, drollery and banter – when it comes to maths, I wouldn’t have a clue. Anyone for a top-up?”

They ignored her.

“Then,” Jelani continued obliviously, “if we knew exactly when the oxygen was stopped, we could find out how long it’ll take for the oxygen level to drop below 19%… which is generally when you’d start to feel exhausted.”

“But that’s now!” blurted Gotmund.

“Oh yeah, so it is,” Jelani replied nonchalantly. “Well, we don’t have long then.”

“But how long is ‘not long’?!” asked Salazar.

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe a few minutes?”

The pirates all gasped, then immediately cursed themselves for wasting the oxygen that gasping required.

Over at the door, Devereux hadn’t heard any of this – she was concentrating on decrypting its primary security algorithm, which was the first of what she suspected would probably be a 10-layer encryption.

Using one of her device’s more basic access code ripping protocols, she penetrated the first three layers of encryption fairly swiftly. The fourth one, she realised, would require some more sophisticated ciphershifting systems of her own design. She was momentarily distracted from opening them, however, by three loud thudding sounds in quick succession. A glance over her shoulder showed A.J, Richards and Lightfoot sprawled out on the floor, unconscious. Turning back to her work, and shaking her head in an effort to stay alert, Devereux began working on the door lock’s fourth encryption layer.

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Less than a metre away, on the other side of the same door, Mr Abara was working frantically at picking the lock, but so far, he’d made no progress at all.

“Come on, Kit! Come on, come on,” he chastised himself under his breath, “there’s no time to lose!”

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“Ha!” Devereux exclaimed, as the fourth encryption layer fell away before the labyrinthine complexities of her own brilliant code-busting creations.

Behind her, the formerly indomitable Gotmund gasped, wheezed, and crashed loudly to the ground, unconscious.

For encryption layers five and six, she expertly switched to yet another decryption program array she’d created, of a design even more byzantine, complex and intuitive than the last. Now she was beginning to struggle for breath, and found herself blinking furiously, trying to dispel all the tiny black spots that now danced before her eyes.

The numbers were crunched at astronomical speeds; the encryption layer was hacked, its code was copied, rewritten, re-purposed and returned. Layer five shut down. The device immediately repeated this process, and in the blink of an eye, layer six had also succumbed.

Behind her, Devereux heard the messy clatter of Jiang knocking over a barstool as she fell to the floor. Then Salazar wheezed “Keep going, Dev -” before he too ran out of air, and exhaled quietly, fainting in an untidy, breathless heap.

On her device’s screen, Devereux saw that the seventh layer had been busted open, but that the eighth required another different approach. Slowly, carefully, she called up yet another of her cryptokey analysis engines.

Though her thinking was becoming almost as blurry as her vision, Devereux still managed to spur herself on; ‘Come on, Ari! Come on, come on! If you can just crack these next three layers,’ she thought desperately, ‘the oxygen from the rest of the ship will flood in, and we’ll all be alright.’

Her fingers flew over the keyboard of her tablet, but her accuracy was waning. She bungled combinations and formulae, which she then had to delete and start again; each subsequent, more deliberate, attempt costing her valuable seconds.

The device made a reassuring ‘ding’ sound to tell her she’d successfully bypassed the eighth encryption level.

But Devereux did not hear it, as she finally, inevitably, collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

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Mere centimetres away, Mr Abara was fighting growing feelings of desolation.

Every attempt he’d made at opening the door from the outside had failed.


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


Text copyright (c) 2019 Stephen Hall

All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com

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