512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
The Symphony crew members on the bridge were still processing their captain’s most recent order, and its impending consequences….
First Officer Mr Sinclair was still stunned at Captain Singh’s heartlessness. Yes, he knew that her naval background had required her to make life and death decisions in the past, and yes he knew the pirates were violent trespassers… but for her to imprison them and asphyxiate them en masse… on a whim? ‘I don’t wanna be here anymore,’ he thought. ‘I never signed up for this. This is a cruise ship. I only ever wanted a nice, easy, well-paid life. I only ever wanted to be a good husband to Amira and a good dad to Marguerite… I don’t wanna be an accessory to mass murder! Oh, I hope I survive this, I hope I survive this! I have to make it back home, and see them again. Must keep humouring the captain. Mustn’t show her my fear.’
Second Officer Ms Aku’s overwhelming feeling, however, was professional admiration. ‘Now that was a tough response,’ she thought. ‘The captain’s so bold, so ruthless! I wish I was that tough. I should remember this, I should learn from it. There’s no place for sentimentality – or even mercy – at a time like this. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And what did those stupid pirates expect, anyway? If you mess with Diana Singh, you’ll live to regret it – or rather, you won’t live to regret it. You’ll, erm, die to regret it. Does that make sense? Hm. What was it that the bard said? Oh, that’s right – “If you’re trying to get honey by sticking your hand in a beehive… you’re a frickin’ idiot.”
In the corner behind her, sitting on the floor and hugging himself, was the Symphony’s wretched Chief Steward Mr Crispin Lebedev. ‘When will this all be over?’ he wondered desperately. ‘It’s a nightmare, a horrible nightmare! Last night, when I went to bed, I thought I’d have an easy day today – a sleep in, a leisurely breakfast, maybe some time in the VR suites… these skeleton crew runs are supposed to be easy. Now I’m in danger of being killed… not by the bloodthirsty pirates any more, but now by our callous, inhuman, homicidal Captain! She’s completely lost it. Oh, what did I do to deserve this? When will it all be over? I don’t want to be here anymore…’ and he began to sob, quietly.
Next to him stood Deck Rating Mr Ferrer, thoughtfully rubbing his left arm. ‘So if she’s just gonna suffocate all of the pirates at once, why did I even bother catching the fox? What was the point? Dead people tend not to care all that much about hostages, as a rule. So I climbed that water slide, fell all that way down into that freezing water, and staggered all the way back here, losing blood from my arm being clamped in the vice-like jaws of that flea-ridden, verminous little beast… all for nothing. That sucks.’
Standing next to him was Deck Rating LeGuin, who simply thought ‘That little fox is soooo cute!’
Of course, Captain Singh was completely oblivious to all of these thoughts, feelings, judgements and internal monologues. She was sitting in the captain’s chair, pensively sipping a cup of coffee and eating a slice of lemon sponge cake. She hadn’t had time for breakfast today, after all. And Maggie the fox, her hostage, seemed content enough, sitting on her lap. Captain Singh finished her slice of cake, slowly and deliberately wiped her mouth, checked the time, and opened a channel to the Engine Room.
“Ms Arenson, how are we for time? Will the pirates in the Shifting Sands have been neutralised by now? I’d like to be sure before we look in on them again; I don’t think any of us particularly need to witness their final moments.” She looked to her crew, who didn’t appear quite as grateful for this as she’d expected them to.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Down in the Engine Room, Chief Engineer Ms Arenson didn’t hear Captain Singh’s question at first.
She was thinking ‘They’re people. They may be invaders, thieves and… yes, even killers. But they’re people. And she’s just slaughtering them all in cold blood. What is wrong with her? This is not justice. This is not who we are. She’s not my captain any more. As soon as we get to drydock, I’m gone. I have to get away from… all of this. I am no mass murderer. Even if she is.’
Her second in command, Mr Chamberlain, had known Captain Singh for decades, and they were close friends. Over the years, he’d seen her in countless stressful, high pressure, life-and-death situations, but she’d never reacted like this before. ‘Something’s snapped,’ he thought. ‘Something’s snapped, and I’m worried for her. This is sociopathic, this is megalomaniacal. Wonder if she’s off her meds. I have to help her; this is so much worse than any of her previous mental health episodes.’
And it was.
Well, worse than any of the ones he knew about.
The third crew member in the Engine Room, the Cruise Director Mr Martell, was overwhelmed by the Captain’s extreme behaviour, too. ‘She’s never done anything even remotely like this before,’ he thought. ‘She’s always been a bit stitched up, a bit formal. She’s always been a strict stickler for the rules, but this?! I don’t even know how to begin…’
At this, his mind didn’t just wander off; it sprinted. ‘I wish I was running a shore excursion right now. Yes, a jaunty day trip to the Feather Jungles of Rigel III. Or organizing a passenger concert in the ship’s theatre. Or a games night on the Sunset Deck. Hell, I’d even rather be singing show tunes in the Brasserie’s Lido lounge than be stuck here in Engineering, waiting for our crazy captain’s murderous plan to come off. Then again, I’m sure it’s safer in here than it is wherever Kit’s got to….’
He had noticed that Mr Abara had slipped out of the room just after Captain Singh gave the fatal order. Mr Martell hadn’t tried to stop him, nor had the others. They’d all assumed he was off to the Shifting Sands in an attempt to rescue that pirate he was infatuated with. “I’ve got half a mind to join him,” Mr Chamberlain had said….
“Ms Arenson?” Captain Singh repeated, rousing the Chief Engineer from her reverie.
“Sorry Captain. Yes, captain?”
“You haven’t answered my question. The pirates – has enough time passed for us to be rid of them?”
Ms Arenson checked the nearest chronometer. “Yes captain,” she answered, barely disguising her disdain. “Yes, by now you will, most definitely, have asphyxiated them all.”
“Just so. In that case, please re-establish all AV links to the Shifting Sands.”
Ms Arenson patched the feed from the Shifting Sands through to the wall screens in Engineering and up on the bridge, hardly daring to look at the collection of corpses that would inevitably be strewn all over its floor. But when the screens flickered back to life, all they revealed was a liquored-up Jelani, slouching on her barstool as she leaned unsteadily on the bar, listening to the joke Marie was telling.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Now there’s this young newlywed, you see, and it’s been three weeks since her wedding day, when she calls the vicar who married them, and she’s all upset and agitated.
‘Oh vicar,’ she wails, ‘what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? John and I have had a terrible fight!’
‘Calm down now,’ he says. ‘Calm down; I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that. After all, every marriage has to have its first fight.’
‘Oh, I suppose you’re right, vicar…’ she sighs. ‘But what am I going to do with the body?’”
Jelani exploded in a throaty guffaw that launched her off her barstool yet again.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
… while from the bridge, Captain Singh watched, wide-eyed.
“Wha – Where are they all? I mean, where’s the rest of them?” she demanded, of no one, and of everyone.
“It looks like they’ve gone, Captain,” volunteered her First Officer.
“Thank you Mr Sinclair, I can see that… but WHERE?!” The last word was yelled – she hadn’t been able to contain her anger. “Ms Arenson,” she continued, “All eyes, please. Let’s find them.”
“Yes Captain,” the Chief Engineer responded, her voice awash with relief. They hadn’t ruthlessly annihilated the pirates after all.
But when she attempted to call up all the AV feeds on A Deck…
“I’m sorry Captain, all the cameras on A Deck seem to have been deactivated.”
“Then reactivate them, Ms Arenson.”
“Of course, Captain.”
But this was easier said than done.
“I’m sorry Captain, but their shutdown has been heavily encrypted. I can get them back – it’ll just take time, that’s all.”
“Time is currently in short supply, Ms Arenson.”
“Yes Captain.” Then she noticed… “And I’m afraid there’s more bad news – all cameras on Decks B to F have been shut down as well.”
“All of them?”
“All of them. Also heavily encrypted.”
Captain Singh exhaled in frustration, scratching Maggie’s right ear a little more vigorously than the fox would have liked.
“Just so. Well, it appears we’ll be flying blind for the time being. Ladies, gentlemen, I want you to get out there now and neutralise these loathsome invaders. I will stay here with their precious mascot; I’m sure Captain Sharp will be up here any time now, keen to rescue her from my ‘evil clutches’. Won’t he, Maggie? Yes he will….”
She cooed to the fox, as she stroked the top of its head. It blinked at her suspiciously.
“Mr Sinclair, make your way down to Engineering, team up with Mr Chamberlain, and from there, the pair of you can start sweeping B Deck.” She suspected that her callow First Officer could use the experience and hard-headedness of Mr Chamberlain, if he was to stand any chance of success. Or any chance of survival, come to think of it. Mr Sinclair and Mr Chamberlain both nodded their assent.
“Ms Aku, please take Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin with you, and patrol A Deck, please – I suspect they’re making their way up here now, so let’s see if we can ambush them.”
The Second Officer and the two Deck Ratings all uttered their “Yes, Captain”s, and ensured that their rifles were primed.
“Ms Arenson, I need you to stay at your post in Engineering, and Mr Martell, please remain there with her and provide support.”
The Chief Engineer and Cruise Director nodded.
“And finally, Mr Lebedev,” she glanced over at her Chief Steward, trembling fearfully in the corner of the room, desperately trying not be noticed. “You’ll stay here on the bridge with me, because…”
He heaved a sigh of relief so big it made his shoulders drop.
“Well, just because. Now ladies, gentlemen; I have grown heartily weary of these reckless marauders riding roughshod over MY ship – of their violation of MY home. We will end this absurd, futile operation of theirs, and we will end it now. Are there any questions?”
“Just one, captain,” said Second Officer Ms Aku as she moved toward the door, “Are we shooting to kill or to stun?”
Gently stroking the fur on the fox’s back, Captain Singh replied “Surprise me.”
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.