512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
“Follow me…” said the Symphony’s Second Officer Ms Aku, as she led the two Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin cautiously sternward along A Deck, “and stay sharp…”
The corridor they crept along was one of the ship’s main thoroughfares, and it ran the entire length of the vessel – from the Symphony Spacewalk attraction at the bow, all the way to the Shifting Sands lounge in the stern. It was, unsurprisingly, extravagantly decorated – from the dense, plush navy blue carpet underfoot, to the rare and exotic potted plants at regular intervals along the wall, to the spectacular ceiling. A ceiling that had been painstakingly hand painted by a team of artists, over several months, to show a panorama of the night sky, as seen from earth. The fact that any passenger could see a night sky a thousand times more intricate, interesting, real and immediate – simply by looking at any one of the ship’s thousands of wallscreens was a fact that had entirely escaped the lead artist. Until exactly twenty nine minutes after the painting was finished.
That realisation had made him cry.
A Deck’s other most noticeable feature for anyone who looked up was the stretch of water slide snaking through it, two and a half metres above the floor. When the ship was full of passengers, this open-topped section of the Mad Maelstrom often rang with the sound of whooping bathers, as they sped noisily and joyously down through all its watery twists and turns. Anyone walking along this corridor was liable to be splashed, sprayed or spattered by the bucketloads of water sloshing over the slide’s edges, displaced by the (usually obese) thrill seekers hurtling through it, above their heads.
The water slide overhead was dry now, of course, and the usually obese thrillseeking passengers had disembarked weeks ago. Right now, the only people in this stretch of darkened corridor were this rather gung-ho ship’s Second Officer (Ms Aku), and two of her subordinates; the recently fox-bitten Mr Ferrer (who’d had quite enough of water slides for the time being, thank you very much), and the eternally chirpy Ms LeGuin.
“I think it’s actually quite nice in here,” Ms LeGuin observed aloud, to no one in particular.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
50 metres further along the corridor, and around a couple of corners, Salazar, Jiang, Lightfoot and AJ stalked along, rifles drawn. They were heading forward, making for the elevator that would take them up one level, to the ship’s bridge. As AJ scouted ahead of them, Salazar and Jiang were listening to Lightfoot, as she held forth on her favourite subject: money.
“I’m telling you Cap’n, even though the gold’s gone, we can all still get rich here…” she enthused. “Filthy rich.”
Salazar looked sceptically at the crew’s self-appointed “computer genius and investment expert.” She’d always been driven, there was no doubt about that. And her stocky, athletic frame belied a mind as masterfully encyclopedic and practical as it was dexterous. But he was focussed on rescuing the ship’s mascot – his beloved Maggie – and wasn’t currently interested in ineffectual tilts at grand larceny.
“We’re not following Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard out there,” he said dismissively, gesturing to the starscape drifting by, on the panoramic wallscreen they were passing.
“The cap’n’s right” said Jiang. “Right now, we don’t have time to go flying around, trying to pluck random gold bricks out of deep space.”
“No, no, no,” Lightfoot grinned. “Nothing as drastic as that. You’re not thinking laterally. You really think the ‘secret cargo’ was the only wealth aboard this ship? I’m talking about all the little, ‘inconsequential’, amounts virtually secreted all over the ship. The money that passengers hide in their in-room safes, the money in the registers in the six bars, in the tills in the three restaurants; the takings from the Wellness Centre, from the VR suites, from the theatre’s bar, from the gaming machines – anywhere those bloated, loaded sightseers could be fleeced for additional extras. When you consider how much money must change hands on this ship during an average cruise -”
“But the ship’s empty,” Jiang interrupted. “Its last cruise ended weeks ago. There are no passengers here – just a skeleton crew, remember? And all the takings from that last cruise would have been transferred back to FrontierLine Corporation headquarters, the moment it ended.”
“Probably,” Lightfoot conceded. “But what if I could track down all those transfers, reverse them, and get all those amounts back on board?”
“Surely that’s not possible,” said Jiang.
“No, no it’s not…” she answered.
Jiang, Salazar and AJ looked at her, irritated.
“… Unless you’re me!” She smiled.
“And,” Lightfoot continued, “let’s not forget all the cash that’s behind the scenes on a vessel like this: the ship’s onboard bank, the crew’s payroll, all their tips and gratuities, any cash that’s in lost property… and the contents of the ship’s safe, up on the bridge. That’s where they always keep a decent pile, specifically to pay off any pirates they run into!” She clapped her hands, and rubbed them together, laughing. “Loving the irony of that one! Cap’n, it all adds up. If I transferred all those totals across from the Symphony’s drives to the drives over on the Albert, we’d be on the receiving end of a pretty tidy sum.”
Salazar, Jiang and AJ exchanged glances.
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” asked Salazar.
“You have been pretty quiet until now…” AJ nodded, as all three of them looked at Lightfoot.
“I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, could I?”
“You think you can actually do it?” asked Jiang. “You think you can access and transfer all these various… stockpiles?”
“No,” Lightfoot replied. “I don’t think I can.”
“I KNOW I can!”
Salazar stopped walking and looked to Jiang. She nodded.
“Sounds good, Lightfoot,” the captain said. “What do you need?”
“Well first of all, I’ll need to get – ”
BLAM! She was cut off by a loud explosion, as an energy bolt slammed into the wall just above her head, sending sparks and chunks of hot metal raining down upon her.
“Take cover!” yelled AJ, half a second too late, as Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot looked up to see three Symphony crew members pointing close defence plasma rifles in their direction. Instinctively, Salazar and Jiang dived right and into a doorway, while Lightfoot plunged to the left, seeking cover behind an ornamental potted plant, as another bolt hit the floor where she’d been standing, filling the corridor with a hot yellow flash and a plume of grey smoke.
AJ returned fire at their assailants – two women and a man – but missed all three of them, as they all ducked into a doorway that he hadn’t noticed before.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Ms LeGuin? Mr Ferrer? You alright?”
Both Deck Ratings nodded.
“Good,” said Ms Aku, “that was close.”
Ms Aku felt her adrenaline surge as she took aim at the pirates again. ‘Now this is more like it!’ she thought.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Cap’n, you should retreat – I’ll draw their fire!” AJ yelled over his shoulder, as he frantically scanned his surroundings. Lightfoot and Jiang both looked to their captain. This was an uncommonly selfless offer from their ship’s mechanic; surely one that Captain Sharp would refuse, in order to stand by his loyal crew member and support him, outnumbered as he was, in this deadly firefight.
“Okay!” yelled Salazar. “Thanks, AJ!”
Salazar darted down an adjoining corridor, beckoning for a bewildered Jiang and Lightfoot to follow him. They did.
AJ fired off a few more loose shots at the Symphony crew members – he wasn’t aiming at them, he just wanted to pin them down in their bolt-hole, while he furiously examined his options.
Then he saw it. Just above his head, snaking through the corridor, just below its ceiling, and back out into the ship’s central atrium. A section of the Mad Maelstrom water slide. If he could somehow hoist himself up and into the open-topped chute, he might be able to escape… maybe if he stood on that broken plant pot, and used one of the longer tools in his tool harness to reach up and grip on to the lip of the chute, then he might be able to –
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Three explosions on the floor in front of his feet turbocharged AJ’s decision-making. In one fluid movement, he leapt up onto the pot, as he pulled the catalytic isolacerator from his tool harness and deftly extended its telescopic shaft. Before the smoke from the shots had cleared, he’d used it to swing himself up, and into the water slide. But the moment he landed flat on his stomach in the dry chute, gravity took over, pushing him slowly sliding down the opaque duraplastic shaft, as it stretched down and beyond the walls of the corridor. He’d evaded his attackers, but AJ now found himself sliding down the uppermost section of 150 metres of sharply descending, twisting, turning half pipe.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer peered down the corridor, through the smoke.
“Where did he go?” asked Ms LeGuin, “The one at the front, the one with all the tools?”
“Dunno,” said Mr Ferrer, as he spotted Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot bolting off down an adjoining corridor, “but the others are getting away!”
“After them!” barked Ms Aku, and the three of them sprinted after the retreating pirates.
Well!” said Ms LeGuin as they ran, “This is good exercise, isn’t it?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
AJ tumbled faster and faster down the empty slide, helpless to stop gravity’s cumulative effects, he took a little comfort when he thought ‘Well, at least I’ll have a soft landing’.
He kept rolling, bouncing, bumping, tumbling – faster, faster…. Faster and faster again.
What he didn’t know was that the pool down on F Deck – the pool that would be receiving him when he shot out the end of the slide – did not have a drop of water in it.
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.