512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
As AJ plummeted toward the cold hard floor of the pool, his survival instinct kicked in to full throttle. In one swift movement, he reached both hands into his tool harness, pulled out two exospatial magnoclamps, hitting the button on each one to extend its thin, strong metal cable. Flicking both wrists away from him, he whipped the clamps outward and away from the chute, hoping against hope that at least one of them would catch on something, get tangled up in something…
He fell through the ceiling of the room where the pool was, his feet speeding closer and ever closer to that concrete-hard, bone-breaking floor. Suddenly, the cable from the right magnoclamp caught on one of the metal struts supporting the water slide and wrapped around it. AJ dropped the left magnoclamp and grabbed the right one – the one that just might save him – with both hands. He felt ligaments and tendons in his shoulders tearing, but he held on, for all he was worth. The clamp at the end of the cable acted like a grappling hook, and stuck fast, yanking AJ with almighty force up and over the lip of the water slide. He kept holding on tight, as he was dumped roughly on the floor next to the empty pool; a drop of only about two metres. As he landed flat on his back, he felt all the air being pushed out of his lungs… and was that the sound of a rib cracking? He lay there for a moment, groaning in pain and struggling to catch his breath, before finally, slowly, gingerly releasing the tool from his vice-like grip. He looked down at his palms, where the imprints of the magnoclamp’s handle were starkly embedded, the pattern white against his brown skin.
‘Knew they’d come in handy one day,’ he thought.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Eight levels above AJ, on the ship’s top deck, Jiang and Lightfoot were awaiting their captain’s orders, as they struggled to breathe amongst the thick white smoke filling the corridor. Salazar’s smoke bomb had hidden the three of them from their pursuers, but it had also obscured their vision, and was burning their noses, eyes and throats.
Salazar slammed his fist into the access panel of the large red door next to him. It slid open immediately, and he shoved Jiang and Lightfoot inside.
“Come on! In you go – quickly! Before the smoke clears.”
Jiang and Lightfoot half stumbled, half fell inside. Salazar followed and closed the door behind them.
It was dark. But the sensor lights slowly came on, and as they gratefully inhaled the clean air and rubbed their eyes, Lightfoot and Jiang realised that they were now in one of the Symphony’s lifeboats. This low-ceilinged vessel had multiple rows of seats and storage lockers, and a couple of doors leading to kitchen and toilet facilities. And although it was designed as a purely functional escape craft, they spotted some extravagant touches – purple velvet seat cushions, gold plated clasps on the storage lockers, and deeply unnecessary golden tassels hanging from the door handles. This was the Symphony of the Stars, after all.
“So,” asked Lightfoot, “what are we supposed to – ”
“Ssh! Keep your voice down!” Salazar interrupted in a whisper. “If I timed that smoke bomb properly, those three who were chasing us will have no idea we’re in here; they’ll have assumed we kept on running towards the bridge…”
“… And that we just threw the smoke bomb to slow them up a little,” Jiang added, also in a whisper.
“Right,” nodded Lightfoot. “So how long do we stay in here?”
“Just til our path to the bridge is clear,” Salazar answered. “It’s on this level, just a couple of minutes in that direction.” He pointed forward. “So if you can monitor their communications…”
“… then as soon as we know they’ve passed, we can finally get to the ship’s bridge.”
He fixed Jiang and Lightfoot with a look that morphed from determined to obsessive in the space of a sentence;
“Where I’ll get Maggie back, and I’ll settle things with Captain Diana Singh. Once and for all.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Down in the Shifting Sands, Jelani had now virtually melted into the bar. She was slumped over in her stool, her chin in her hand, as she struggled to remain focussed on Marie, as she launched into her next joke;
“There’s this fella goes into the pub, you see, and he sees a mate of his, who’s sitting at a table drinking by himself. So he goes up to him and he says “Mate, you look terrible. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, my dad died back in June,” his mate says, “and left me $10,000.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he says.
“And then in July,” his mate says, his voice becoming more emotional, “my mum died, leaving me $20,000.”
“Oh no,” he says. “Both parents gone in two months? No wonder you’re depressed.”
“And then last month,” his mate goes on, fighting back the tears, “my aunty died as well, and she left me $30,000.”
“Whoa!” the other fella says. “You lost three family members in three months? That’s so sad.”
His mate nods sadly and looks into his beer.
“And then… this month… NUTHIN’!”
Jelani’s laugh this time was not so much an explosion as a long, exhaled syllable; “Hhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa….”
She still found the joke funny, it’s just that she was getting tired. So tired; she’d now been here for a bit more than two hours. And for a lot more than two drinks.
Just then, the lounge’s main door swooshed open, and Jelani looked agog as she watched her crew mate Gotmund floating into the room, flat on his back.
“Wha – ? Marie! Do you see that? Is he…”
Jelani’s voice trailed off as, somewhere amongst all her pickled thoughts, she remembered what she’d seen earlier in the morgue. He wasn’t actually floating after all – he was being carried by those funny l’il robots.
“Hullo ‘ullo ‘ullo!” Marie exclaimed, echoing her thoughts. “Look what the bots dragged in!”
Then a new thought hit Jelani hard, as she remembered why those robots carried people like that.
“Marie! He’s not… he’s not dead, is he?”
“No, no, no, gawd luv ya!” the bartender chided reassuringly. “He’s just out cold. Still breathing, see? Look at his chest going up and down.”
Jelani squinted until she could see it.
“Oh yeah,” she said, watching the maitbots gently lay the sleeping giant to rest on one of the lounge’s many comfortable couches.
‘Aha! Now THAT is a really good idea,’ Jelani thought, and she staggered over to one of the unoccupied couches and slowly and deliberately lowered herself onto it. Within a minute, she was fast asleep.
“Phew!” observed Marie. “You dropped off quicker than a toupee in a tornado. Eh? Eh?”
“Zzzzzzzzzz,” Gotmund snored.
“Zzzzzzzzzz,” agreed Jelani.
Marie looked around and tweaked her collar. “Sheesh, tough room…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Just outside the lifeboat, in the top deck’s smoke-filled corridor, Second Officer Ms Aku walked slowly; searching, squinting, straining for any sign of the pirates, through the choking white cloud.
“See anything?” she asked Deck Ratings LeGuin and Ferrer, who were walking either side of her.
“No. I reckon they’ve probably just -”
“There!” Ms Aku interrupted Mr Ferrer. “Just there! See that swirl in the smoke? They’ve just closed one of the lifeboat doors! Ha!”
She tapped her insignia badge, opening a channel to Engineering. “Ms Arenson, this is Ms Aku up on the top deck – please lock the door to lifeboat #7 and jettison it now!”
But static was plaguing the connection; an unusual occurrence.
“Ms Aku? Say again please,” came the crackly response from Ms Arenson. “Repeat, say again.”
“Please lock and launch lifeboat #7 NOW!”
“Lifeboat #7, did you say? But what for? And I should tell you that there’s actually been quite a bit of damage to quite a few of the systems down here, so I’m not sure if – ”
“No time to argue, Ms Arenson! There are three pirates in that boat – lock and launch! Do it now! That is an ORDER, Ms Arenson.”
“Yes, Ms Aku.”
Ms Arenson moved to the console, disengaged the relevant safety protocols, and activated the lock and launch sequence for lifeboat #7.
In the top deck corridor, Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer heard the lifeboat’s alarm siren, followed by the metallic clank of its release and the short burst of a propulsion blast. They turned to one of the wallscreens to see it jetting out and away from the ship. As the smoke slowly cleared around them, they watched the lifeboat hurtling into open space, growing smaller and smaller as it sped off on its pre-programmed trajectory, further and further away from the Symphony, never to return.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the bridge, Captain Singh, who’d been monitoring events through various audio feeds, was pleased with this latest development. It gave her three fewer pirates to worry about. And one of them happened to be their captain. Things were finally starting to go her way.
At that moment, First Officer Mr Sinclair arrived back on the bridge, breathless after his run-in outside Engineering with Richards, Gotmund, Devereux and Abara.
“First Officer reporting to the bridge, Captain,” he panted.
“Another pirate has been killed, captain,” he reported. “Richards, I think her name was. And I managed to stun the big one they call Gotmund.”
“Just so. Thank you Mr Sinclair,” Captain Singh replied. “Ms Arenson tells me that the maitbots have taken that stunned one to the Shifting Sands; Mr Abara’s idea, I think. He’ll be harmless enough there. Excellent work, Mr Sinclair. Rest easy now – you’ve earned a break.”
“Thank you Captain.” Mr Sinclair looked around the bridge and saw the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, still sitting on the floor in the corner. He walked over and sat down next to him.
Now, as she thought out loud, Captain Singh addressed Maggie the fox, still curled up on her lap; “Now then Maggie, let’s you and I see if we can work this out. Six of the pirates are now off the ship, and drifting around somewhere out in space. And that includes their so-called captain Salazar Sharp, just now. And he’s your owner, isn’t he? That was naughty of him to leave you, wasn’t it? Yes it was. So you’ll just have to stay here with me now, Maggie, won’t you? Hm?”
Mr Sinclair had never seen the captain this clucky before. He looked at Mr Lebedev, who only shrugged.
“… and we know that two pirates are in the Shifting Sands; one of them dead to the world and the other one dead drunk. And there were two more of them who are just actually, technically dead. So that means there’s only… two of them left on the ship for us to worry about!”
“And shouldn’t we also count Mr Abara?” asked Mr Lebedev, who’d been listening from across the room. “Hasn’t he defected to their side?”
The captain nodded curtly. “Yes, yes. And Mr Abara, yes – but honestly, how much damage can a lovestruck systems analyst do?”
She raised her head and looked staunchly into the middle distance…
“Taking my ship back from those sorry dregs will be child’s play.”
… before returning her attention to the fox.
“Won’t it, Maggie? Hm? Oh yes it will. Yes, yes, yes. Aren’t you a good girl?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Lifeboat #7 flew away from the ship at an impressive, perfectly constant, velocity. Before five minutes had passed, it was already more than four kilometres away, with long range sensors engaged and sweeping the area for the nearest ship, station or outpost. Not including the Symphony, of course; since the lifeboats were generally only deployed if the main ship was doomed, that was, quite literally, the last place in the universe they’d go.
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.