= CHAPTER 35 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:15 AM

The third swimming pool on the Symphony of The Stars, low in the ship’s forward keel, was completely empty. It had been empty for over two hours now, since a gigantic ragged hole had been blasted in its side by Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis during the gunfight in the Cargo Hold. This pool was the final destination of anyone who rode the Mad Maelstrom water slide, and usually, it would reward the slide’s thrill seekers with a bracing plunge into its two metre depths; an exhilarating culmination of their screamingly speedy 150 metre descent. This morning, however, anybody unfortunate enough to be dumped into it at the usual breakneck speed would…

Well, they’d break their neck.

As the Cheeky Albert’s resident mechanic AJ continued hurtling down the slide toward the pool, he had no idea that it was empty. Since he’d leapt in to the slide up on A deck, it had already plummeted him through the centre of the Tranquility Forest, dropped him into (and then rapidly out of) the library, skidded him down past the VR suites and sent him tumbling behind the Wellness Centre and spa….

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In the cabin on B deck, Mr Abara was staring at the beefy pirate Gotmund, who lay insensible on the deep carpet.

Should we put him on the bed?” he asked.

No way – the bed is for ME!”, Devereux enthused, as she took a flying leap onto it. “He wouldn’t appreciate it anyway – he’s unconscious.”

Mr Abara nodded, admiring her pragmatism.

Oh yeeeeah,” she added, as she sank into the bed’s cozy, enveloping softness.

He looked at her fondly, admiring how easily she could forget the siege, the skirmishes and the shooting just outside the door… and surrender to the here and now, and let herself be totally present, in the moment.

Now that they were alone together, and she was talking to him, and she was on that enormous bed, looking at him, he felt himself blushing. He cleared his throat.

Um. Well, we should be safe for now, anyway. I’ve locked and encrypted the door, so no one but the maitbots can get in. I’ve deleted my tech signature, we can monitor all the Symphony crew’s communications, and of course I’ve killed all the cameras out there.”

You’re pretty handy with all that stuff,” Devereux said, drawing herself up to lean on an elbow.

Well I am the Symphony’s Chief Technology Officer,” he responded, and then instantly felt embarrassed by this boast. “That is, I was the Symphony’s chief technology officer.”

Mm. Hey, you never told us why you decided to switch sides…”

Mr Abara looked at her.

What he thought was;

Because I’ve fallen madly and passionately in love with you and I want to be near you every minute of every day, because you excite me and you fascinate me and you captivate me and you make me feel scared and excited and bold and strong and lighter than air – all at the same time – and when I’m with you, I feel that my life has finally, finally BEGUN! I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.’

What he said was;

Our captain’s a megalomaniac. She’s lost control, completely gone off the rails. She tried to lock you all in the bar and asphyxiate you! That’s not ‘defending your territory’ – that’s cold blooded mass murder. I want nothing to do with her, or this crew, or my old life. And anyway, I was getting bored in my job,” he added, vainly trying to sound nonchalant. “I was ready for a change. What you do seems much more exciting!”

Exciting?” Devereux drawled. “I suppose that’s one word for it…”

There was a pause.

Um, So. Anyway,” Mr Abara said, crossing to the cabin’s stylish kitchen, “would you like a cup of tea?”

No I would not like a cup of tea. I would like a shot of rum,” Devereux answered.

Rum? It’s a quarter past eight.”

Is it? Oh. Champagne, then.”

Mr Abara shrugged and smiled. “Why not? Mind if I join you?”

Be my guest,” Devereux said grandly, with a magnanimous weep of her arm.

From the floor, Gotmund produced a faint snoring sound.

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The five remaining functional maitbots were currently in an elevator, with Richards’s corpse, patiently waiting as they were all delivered down past C deck, D deck, E deck and F Deck, to the stern of the ship, where the morgue was located. The little droids stood completely motionless, expertly holding the prone corpse exactly 30 centimeters above the floor. Although there were currently no passengers on board, gentle, saccharine instrumental music was still being piped in to the elevator. Technically, the maitbots were not able to actually “enjoy” this sort of music, but then again, neither were at least 90% of the passengers. The five maitbots regarded their payload; the recently deceased Richards. She was the one who’d gone on a frenzied and catastrophic destructive shooting spree in the Maitbot Control Centre, just five minutes ago. She – along with that lumbering sidekick of hers – was responsible for the destruction of 68 of the maitbots there, and for the serious damage to another 23. The five maitbots now conveying her remains to the morgue were the only entirely intact survivors of her berserk rampage. As such, they had every right to hold a grudge against her.

No one would have blamed them if they’d just left her where she fell.

People probably would have looked the other way if they’d decided to “bury” her up a tall tree in the Tranquility Forest.

And surely no one would have batted an eyelid if the maitbots just left her in the Wellness Centre – on a massage table, covered with a towel – as a surprise for the next unwitting masseur…

But they didn’t. The maitbots were programmed to perform a multitude of tasks, but holding grudges was never one of them. Although Mr Vickers, their programmer, did have a fondness for practical jokes, they were never vengeful.

Boorish? Sure, like the time he made 58 maitbots play thrash metal air guitar at the ship’s formal launching ceremony.

Tasteless? Perhaps, like that other time, when 46 maitbots synchronized to form an enormous, perfectly proportioned pair of buttocks beside the captain’s table, just as the chocolate mousse was being served.

It really was quite the assembly (or in this case, ass-embly) from the maitbots (or in this case, bot-bots).

But for all that, the bots’ practical jokes were never mean-spirited or nasty. The late Mr Vickers did have some standards, after all.

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Meanwhile, up on the top deck, the Cheeky Albert’s captain Salazar Sharp, its first mate Jiang and its computer expert Lightfoot were running from the Symphony’s First Officer Ms Aku and Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin. They’d evaded them a couple of times by ducking and weaving down obscure passageways, and moving up one level, but the three Symphony crew members were still hot on their heels.

As Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot reached the half way point of a long corridor that ran the entire length of the ship, Jiang looked over her shoulder behind them.

They’re gaining on us, Cap’n…” she panted.

I know, Jiang – I know…”

Salazar was out in front, frantically scanning the corridor for escape options as he ran, when he suddenly remembered one of the items he was carrying. Of course! How could he have forgotten about that? He pulled it out of a breast pocket and showed it to Jiang and Lightfoot.

I’m gonna use a smoke bomb.”

Jiang and Lightfoot nodded.

When I throw it, we all stop running, alright? I’ve got an idea.”

They nodded again.

Salazar looked ahead down the corridor, to five large numbered doors along its outer wall. As soon as they reached the first one, Salazar stopped, turned and lobbed the smoke bomb in the direction of their pursuers.

The smoke bomb hit the floor and exploded, instantly releasing an enormous cloud of thick, white opaque smoke that filled the corridor from floor to ceiling.

Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin rounded the corner and ran straight into the smoke, stopping instantly as they inadvertently breathed in gobfuls of it.

Can you see them?” Ms Aku wheezed to her crewmates, between wracking coughs.

No,” coughed Mr Ferrer.

No,” hissed Ms LeGuin.

Ms Aku cursed, and, covering her hand with her mouth, strode forward into the smoke, squinting in an attempt to spot the pirates, or indeed any trace of them.

Further along the corridor, Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot were coughing and wheezing too, but their smokescreen had at least bought them a few valuable seconds. And Salazar knew when he spotted those large numbered doors that they had at least a couple of options….

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The Symphony of the Stars was equipped with 20 lifeboats, as pointed out in the ship’s manual that was issued to each crew member:

LIFEBOATS

The Symphony of the Stars is equipped with 20 lifeboats

See?

each of which has a capacity of up to 150 persons. There are 10 lifeboats located on the port side of the ship; 5 amidships on the top deck, and 5 amidships in the stern. Another 10 can be found in the corresponding locations on the starboard side of the vessel. Each lifeboat has been assigned a designated safety officer, who is responsible for the efficient embarkation and subsequent welfare of passengers and crew. After passengers and crew members are safely aboard the lifeboats, they may be jettisoned remotely (from inside the ship), or manually (via the controls of the lifeboat itself). Once jettisoned, the lifeboat’s emergency distress beacon will be engaged, as it begins to scan for the nearest ship, station or outpost.

If none are found within viable travel time parameters, it will then commence a sweep for the nearest habitable planet or moon, and once found, lay in a course.

Each lifeboat is equipped with SPR, and so has a theoretically infinite range. The lifeboat’s onboard computer features scaled down versions of the Symphony’s navigation, communication and entertainment systems, with additional survival information.

The lifeboat features 10 water synthesizers and four toilets. Seven days of A-rations are supplied for each person on board, to be utilised after the 10 replicators have been depleted.

Other equipment includes:One C-level SLS spacesuit for each person on board, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, blankets, multipurpose tool kits and additional distress beacons, and of course, towels.

For further information, see Chapter 16 of this manual: ‘No, You’re Not Going To Die; It’ll Probably All Be Fine’.

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Devereux and Mr Abara were sitting side by side on the cabin’s gigantic luxurious couch, looking at the floor to ceiling wallscreen that showed the infinite starscape gliding majestically by. Their shoeless feet rested on Gotmund’s back, as it gently rose and fell.

War is hell,” Devereux declared, draining her second glass.

Hear, hear,” agreed Mr Abara. “Bloody awful. More champagne?”

She held out her empty glass. “Oh, just to the top thanks, darl.”

You’re funny,” he said, as he poured the refill.

She smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time someone paid her that compliment.

She stretched comfortably and took a sip.

Mr Abara wanted to tell her how he felt. He needed to tell her how he felt. He took a swig of champagne and put his glass down.

Ariane, there’s something – ”

Call me Devereux,” she interrupted.

But Ariane’s your name, isn’t it? And it’s a beautiful name.”

Only one person calls me Ariane,” she said quickly.

Oh. Alright then. Devereux…”

But he was interrupted this time by the cabin’s door swishing open. The five maitbots scurried into the room and directly across to where they were sitting. They both hurriedly lifted their feet off Gotmund, as the maitbots swiftly maneuvered into place around him.

Oh good, the maitbots are here,” Mr Abara said in a deflated tone.

The little droids deftly raised the sleeping pirate from the floor, took a moment to steady themselves beneath his enormous bulk, and started slowly marching toward the door, on their mission to deliver him to the Shifting Sands.

Devereux stood up, clapped her hands and said in a loud, decisive voice “Right! Now that they’re gone, we can get back to what we were doing!”

She started to put her shoes back on. “Oh, and thanks for the drink,” she added.

You’re welcome,” Mr Abara responded quietly.

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Meanwhile, AJ continued rolling, crashing and slipping through all the Mad Maelstrom’s twists, loops and hairpin bends – faster and still faster, bumping roughly around in the open-topped chute as it hurled him down through the Shopping Promenade, down through and past D Deck, down through and past E Deck, before it straightened out for its final dramatic drop through F deck and into the the waiting pool below. AJ happened to be scudding along on his back for this last straight stretch, and he glanced between his feet, looking for the pristine chlorinated water that would bring a welcome end to this excruciatingly painful, bone-rattling, high velocity ordeal.

Instead, all he saw was the dry white tiles of the pool’s floor. No water.

There was no water in the pool. As he sped down the chute toward it, accelerating all the time, a single thought flashed across his mind; ‘I’m gonna die.’

Now the slide dramatically fell away from underneath AJ, for the ride’s ‘big finish’, and he began to fall – free fall – toward the pool’s cold, hard concrete floor.

 

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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