512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
The Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair had dutifully made his way down two levels from the bridge, was now heading through the curving corridors of B Deck to Engineering, where he’d soon be teaming up with Mr Chamberlain.
He was scared.
His mind wandered to his wife Amira, and their four year old daughter Marguerite.
‘I need to keep myself safe, for their sake’ he thought.
‘I never signed up for this. I only ever wanted a career working on cruise ships. And I’ve worked hard, I’ve climbed the ladder – I’ve made First Officer, and that’s not a position they just give away. I’ve supported my family, I’ve made them proud… but I never signed up to be a rifle-wielding vigilante, facing off against bloodthirsty pirates! I’m a pacifist! If I can just make it through this, if I can just survive and get back to dry dock… I want to go home. I want to kiss Amira, to pick Marguerite up and spin her around and around and around… She loves that.’
As he smiled fondly at the memory, he felt a lump in his throat, and tears welling in his eyes. Then, realising this was no time to succumb to mawkishness, he tried to snap himself out of it.
‘Come on, Sinclair – be a man!’ he thought. ‘The sooner I get to Engineering, the sooner I can team up with Mr Chamberlain, and not be wandering these creepy, dangerous, pirate-infested corridors all alone. Mr Chamberlain will look after me. He’s ex-Navy; he knows his way around a gun. I barely know which end the trigger’s at.’
He glanced down at his plasma rifle. Yes, he was pointing it in the right direction.
He knew that.
He continued nervously creeping along the corridor, towards the engine room.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Some twenty metres ahead of Mr Sinclair, around a couple more bends in the corridor, the pirates Richards, Gotmund, and Devereux – and their lovestruck new recruit, Mr Abara – were crouching behind a row of lush ornamental potted plants.
“Alright,” whispered Devereux, “Richards? Gotmund? Ready to take the Engine Room?”
“Yes M’am,” said Richards, smiling.
“You bet!” enthused Gotmund.
“Wait, wait,” said Mr Abara. “Are you absolutely sure that you need to – I mean, that we need to – do this?”
All three pirates frowned at him.
“Yes, we’re sure.” said Devereux. “It’s our Captain’s Orders… and besides, whoever controls the Engine Room has the rest of the ship in the palm of their hand. You, of all people, should know that, Mr ‘Chief Technology Officer’. Now, can you tell us exactly who’s in there?”
Mr Abara gave a worried nod. “Usually, it’s just the Chief Engineer Ms Arenson and the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain…. But listening in to the crew’s chatter, it seems the Cruise Director Mr Martell’s in there with them now, too.”
“Alright, so just the three of them – ” Richards began.
“Can we at least try to do it without anyone getting hurt?” blurted Mr Abara.
“Oh, of course we can!” Richards snorted derisively.
“Yeah, of course!” Gotmund echoed, attempting to copy Richards’ snort, but only succeeding in dribbling on himself.
“Why don’t you let me talk to them?” Mr Abara offered.
Richards and Gotmund shook their heads vigorously; they’d always preferred violent confrontation to negotiation. But Devereux rolled her eyes and nodded, reluctantly.
“Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell!” he shouted. “It’s Kit Abara. I’m here with three of the pirates. They want to come in to the Engine Room and… relieve you of duty. I’m very much hoping we can make that happen without anyone getting hurt.”
“Mr Abara! Are you alright?” came a voice from inside. It was the Chief Engineer. “Have they hurt you?”
“I’m fine, Ms Arenson,” he said, glancing at Devereux. “Actually, I’m better than fine.”
Inside the Engine Room, Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell exchanged puzzled looks.
Ms Arenson beckoned to Mr Martell and Mr Chamberlain, and they both leaned down, as she whispered “We have to fight them off. If my Engine Room falls into their hands, they’ve won.”
Mr Chamberlain nodded gravely, but Mr Martell said “Personally, I don’t have a problem with letting them come in here, if they’re really keen to. To be honest with you, I see myself as more of a lover than a fighter, and it was the part about ‘nobody getting hurt’ that really caught my – ”
But Mr Chamberlain’s booming voice cut him off.
“YOU’LL HAVE TO TAKE THIS STATION FROM US BY FORCE! WE’RE NOT AFRAID OF A FIGHT!”
‘Technically, I am,’ Mr Martell thought, sadly.
Out in the corridor, Richards was quick to take the bait. “NEITHER ARE WE!” she yelled, slapping Gotmund on the shoulder. And with that, she and Gotmund both fired volleys of energy bolts at the door’s access panel, and the door to Engineering slid open.
It was on.
At that moment, nobody noticed Mr Sinclair arriving in the corridor some ten metres behind the pirates. Figuring discretion would be the better part of valour right now, he ducked behind a potted plant to watch proceedings unfold…
The ensuing gunfight between Richards, Gotmund and Devereux in the corridor and Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell in the Engine Room was as intense as it was chaotic. The three Symphony crew members missed more targets than they hit, and the wayward energy bolts from the pirates’ various terrifying weapons caused significant damage to a number of systems in the Engine Room; four critical pitch and roll control terminals and three secondary navigation modules were hit by intense blasts. Several ancillary guidance and stabilization backup systems were destroyed, and even some of the emergency override matrices were severely compromised.
Mr Sinclair watched it all, petrified behind his potted plant.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Up on the bridge, Captain Singh observed it too, but (having been deprived of the corridor’s visual feed) all she could do was listen to the audio…
“Mr Lebedev,” she asked her Chief Steward, “Who’s down there? I know Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell are in Engineering, but those other voices… two women and two men?”
“Yes Captain,” said the Chief Steward, who’d also been struggling to hear. “One of the men is Mr Abara, I think.”
“Ah yes, of course,” she responded, “So, my Chief Technology Officer has now joined the other side. Duly noted.”
Mr Lebedev gulped. Even when he wasn’t in trouble, Captain Singh made him feel like he was.
“But the other man?” she continued. “And those two women?”
“Don’t know, Captain. Sorry Captain,” Mr Lebedev answered. “Must be three of the pirates.”
“Just so,” she said, nodding grimly, and grimacing as the next barrage of explosions, gunshots, screaming, shouting, and sizzling damaged electrics came over the speaker. She was able to make out a few words among the cacophony…
“I NEED THAT DOOR CLOSED, MR CHAMBERLAIN!” Ms Arenson was yelling, between dozens of pulses of gunfire.
“Working on it!” came the gruff response.
“Now would be good!”
“Yaaaaaaah!!” Was that Mr Martel? Captain Singh guessed that her Cruise Director’s yelling was his way of forcing himself to fire his gun at the pirates.
She couldn’t make out anything the pirates were saying, but that wasn’t surprising; the sheer volume and frequency of gunshots – from both sides – drowned out all but the loudest voices. Then…
“AARGH!” A woman’s voice screamed, although the gunfire, static and shouting made it hard to tell which one.
Another voice broke through the static.
“She’s hit! Shrapnel!” it was Mr Abara. “Quick! Help her!”
There were sounds of shuffling, grunting and groaning. Then someone was panting – clearly working hard, trying to revive her? – and feverishly whispering “Come on! Come ON! Don’t do this – come on!”
Captain Singh looked at Mr Lebedev. Their ears were ringing, and they both wondered if the connection had been lost.
It hadn’t; a voice came through quite clearly. A female voice.
“It’s too late. She’s dead.”
Captain Singh looked to Mr Lebedev, to see if he recognised who’d said that; to see if he knew who’d just been killed.
He shrugged, timidly.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Gotmund and Devereux had both dropped their guns when the shrapnel hit Richards. They’d worked feverishly to revive her, but nothing could be done.
The three Symphony crew members in The Engine Room took advantage of this ceasefire, and managed to get the door closed again, and locked, with as many layers of encryption as possible.
Gotmund lifted his tear-streaked face from Richards’ body, and roared at the ceiling.
He staggered to his feet, blinking and frowning, his overwhelming, intense feelings of grief and anger making him spin around, as he ran his fingers through his hair. Half way through spinning, he saw something move behind a potted plant – it was a Symphony uniform.
Whoever was wearing it was one of them. They had killed her. They killed his best friend.
As the red mist of rage blossomed behind his eyes, Gotmund bolted towards the uniform, searing hot revenge burning through his confused mind…
Mr Sinclair stood frozen, peeping through the fronds, as this enormous, furious, musclebound berserk warrior thundered towards him.
“Um,” he stuttered.
“RAAAAAAAAAARRRRRR!!!!” came the response, as the enraged man-mountain bore down on him.
With trembling hands, Mr Sinclair raised his rifle, anxiously pointed it at this rapidly moving target (which, to be fair, was getting bigger and easier to hit by the second) and squeezed the trigger. Gotmund jolted as the bolt hit him, and instantly crashed loudly to the ground. Mr Sinclair looked dazedly at Gotmund, lying there on the floor. Mr Sinclair made sure the brute was breathing – yes, his back was rising and falling, he’d only been stunned – before promptly, and very skilfully, running away.
Devereux and Mr Abara saw Mr Sinclair retreat, but neither of them were inclined to chase him. They stood near the scorch marks in the still-smoking wall, looking down at the bloodied corpse of Richards and the enormous, unconscious form of Gotmund.
“You could have told us your Chief Engineer was a little person,” Devereux said.
“Your Chief Engineer; she got the drop on us. We didn’t see her at first. We were looking at the other two, and that gave her the element of surprise. That shrapnel was from one of her shots. And now Richards is dead.”
“Sorry,” said Mr Abara, lamely. “I just… forgot.”
“Your forgetfulness just cost Richards her life.”
“Sorry,” Mr Abara said again, softly, mortified at the prospect of displeasing Devereux. There was a pregnant pause of half a minute before Devereux spoke again.
“That’s alright, I didn’t like her much anyway.”
They looked over at the Engine Room’s door. It was pock marked and blast scorched, but it was still in one piece, it was closed, and it was locked.
“So, do we still want to ‘take’ Engineering?” Mr Abara asked.
“No,” Devereux sighed, sitting down on the slumbering Gotmund’s back. “Not now.”
Mr Abara sat next to her, on Gotmund’s bottom, and they both looked pensively at Richards’s corpse. As they did, the ship’s five remaining functional maitbots scurried into the corridor and toward them. Devereux jumped up and aimed her gun at them. But the little black droids paid her no attention, as they deftly surrounded Richards, smoothly lifted her up off the floor and carried her down the corridor and out of sight. Devereux looked to Mr Abara, puzzled.
“They’re taking her to the morgue,” he explained.
“Oh,” said Devereux, lowering her weapon and regarding the insensible Gotmund again.
“And what are we going to do with him?” Mr Abara asked.
“Maybe we should just get him back to the Shifting Sands,” she offered. “He’d be safe enough there for the time being. You could lock him in, with Jelani and that bar tender, Marie.”
“Brilliant! You’re brilliant… as well as everything else,” he said adoringly. “I’ll get the maitbots to take him there, as soon as they’ve taken Richards to the morgue.” He made a few entries on his personal tablet, putting that plan into effect.
“But right now,” said Devereux, looking around her, “we should get out of this corridor. It’s a bit too public for my liking.”
“This way,” Mr Abara nodded, grabbing Gotmund’s feet and beginning to drag him to a discreet alcove that led to another hallway, lined with numbered doors.
Using his tablet again, he opened one of them, and laboriously dragged Gotmund inside, motioning for Devereux to follow. She did, he closed and locked the door behind them, and turned on the lights.
Devereux gasped at the opulence, luxury and indulgence all around her. The plush, deep carpets, the enormous soft bed, the elegant and inviting furniture, the jacuzzi, the fully stocked bar… even the sweet, floral aroma that greeted her here; it was all First Class. And she marvelled at the floor to ceiling screens that showed the boundless starfield outside the ship serenely gliding past – after her years of travelling in the grimy, dingy cramped berths of the Cheeky Albert, this room was nothing short of a revelation.
Mr Abara noted her reaction and smiled.“ And this is just the basic, entry level cabin,” he said. “You should see some of the suites up on A Deck.”
Magnificent though the room was, Devereux couldn’t relax yet.
“But won’t they find us in here?” She asked. “Can’t they track you, through your communicator’s signal?”
“Oh, no,” Mr Abara smiled. “I deactivated that, the moment I decided I wanted to join your crew.”
She grinned. She was warming to him. He was obviously very smart, he was sort of good looking (in an underconfident, nerdy way), and he also seemed quite… what was it? Devereux struggled to pinpoint the attribute; due spending the last couple of decades as a pirate, she hadn’t encountered it very often. After a while, it came to her.
Mr Abara was kind.
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.