512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Five minutes had passed since Lifeboat #7 was launched, and it was already kilometres away from the Symphony, rocketing further and further into deep space. Its scanners had pinpointed the nearest location capable of sustaining life; a moon with a breathable atmosphere, but only half the gravity of earth. The lifeboat adjusted its course and began its journey. It would take eight days to get there.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot opened the door of Lifeboat #6 and stepped back out into the top deck corridor. It was empty.
“So those three have definitely gone?” Salazar asked.
“Yep, they’re somewhere up ahead, on their way to the bridge,” Lightfoot responded. “The senior one’s looking forward to being praised by their captain… for getting rid of us.”
Salazar and Jiang smiled at this. The three of them began the short walk to the bridge; they’d be there in a couple of minutes.
“I’m on my way, Maggie,” Salazar muttered under his breath. “I’m on my way. Coming to save you…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Maggie couldn’t hear him, of course. And even if she could, she wouldn’t have understood what he said. Despite all the humanizing affection that Salazar had constantly showered her with, she was still only a fox. She couldn’t understand commands, she couldn’t answer questions, offer opinions or make even the most basic small talk. And yet…
“Oh, you are a good girl, aren’t you?” Captain Diana Singh asked her. Maggie briefly looked up, while she repositioned herself on the captain’s lap.
“Yes you are!” Captain Singh answered on Maggie’s behalf.
“A very good girl,” she added, scratching the fox under her chin. “Such a good girl! A very, very good girl indeed! Aren’t you?”
Across the room, the Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair and its Chief Steward Mr Lebedev both rolled their eyes – in unison, as it turned out. Although they were concerned for their captain’s mental health, that concern was outweighed by their embarrassment at the way this animal had turned her into a gibbering, soft-headed twerp. What had happened to their steely, authoritarian, by-the-numbers, naval veteran leader?
“I think this morning’s events might be starting to take their toll on the captain…” Mr Lebedev whispered.
“You may have something there,” Mr Sinclair nodded. “Should I offer to relieve her of duty?”
“I – er – I don’t know! That’s not my department…” said Mr Lebedev, looking scared. But then, he’d been looking scared a lot this morning.
They glanced over at the captain again, and saw her holding Maggie’s two front legs, making them do a little dance.
“If you do,” Mr Lebedev reassured the First Officer. “I’ll support you….” He gulped. “But I gotta say, I’m glad it’s you and not me.”
Mr Lebedev was still rather frightened of Captain Singh. So was Mr Sinclair, in truth.
Just then, the door swooshed open, and Second Officer Aku strode onto the bridge, followed closely by Deck Ratings Ferrer and LeGuin.
“Second Officer Aku reporting to the bridge, Captain…” Ms Aku announced.
Captain Singh nodded her welcome.
“I’m also pleased to report the successful jettisoning,” Ms Aku continued rather smugly, “in Lifeboat #7, of two of the invading pirates and their captain, Captain.”
She blinked self-consciously. She probably should have rephrased the end of that sentence; “captain, Captain” did sound a bit odd, and she couldn’t help thinking it slightly dampened the impact of her triumph. Damn. Still, the damage was done now.
“Just so,” Captain Singh responded. “I did hear about that development, Ms Aku. Excellent work – quick thinking, decisive action. Nicely done.”
On receiving such high praise from her hero, Ms Aku swelled with pride. She mattered! She was a potent, vital, essential warrior for the cause, and her captain saw and acknowledged that! Ms Aku’s resulting joy was slightly dulled, though, by the fact that the captain had now returned her attention to the fox, and was kissing its paws.
“Yeah, they put up a hell of a fight,” Ms Aku offered, attempting to regain the captain’s interest. “Smoke bombs, stun grenades….”
Behind her, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer exchanged an incredulous look. “Stun grenades?” they mouthed to each other, silently. Ms Aku was laying it on a bit thick, wasn’t she?
“And of course,” Ms Aku continued, “all three of them kept blasting away at us – relentlessly – with goodness only knows what kind of weapons. Yeah, they outgunned us for sure, but we gave a good account of ourselves, Captain…”
“Mm,” Captain Singh said in acknowledgement. Although not quite enough acknowledgement to tear her gaze away from Maggie the fox, whose belly she was now affectionately scratching.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ms Aku was right; the Symphony crew definitely couldn’t compete with the crew of the Cheeky Albert, when it came to guns and ordnance.
The close-defence plasma rifles used by the Symphony’s crew were straightforward antipersonnel firearms, designed purely for their effect on humans. When aimed at a new target, these rifles measured its size, weight and body mass index, and delivered a ‘custom made’ energy bolt, its intensity meticulously calculated to provide the required effect. It was an efficient way to kill people; not a volt was wasted. On their ‘stun’ setting, however, they delivered a bolt that only rendered the target unconscious. The severity of the shock – and therefore the number of hours they’d be out cold – could naturally be dialled up or down by the rifle’s user. When they missed their intended target (as they so often did, when wielded by the Symphony’s crew), the damage these rifles did to the surrounds was moderate; they were designed to disrupt and destroy human tissue, not metal or machinery. They could still create significant and dangerous structural damage, to be sure – as had been the case in the Cargo Hold – but these rifles were nowhere near as good at annihilating electronics as some of the handheld EMP weapons available these days.
The arsenal of the Cheeky Albert’s crew was, predictably enough, more of a mixed bag. Guns were the tools of their trade, and so they were well-stocked with all the deadliest ones. There were augmented photon pistols and thermal rifles, antimatter pulse blasters, refined gravity fusion muskets, PPPs (Plasma pulse pistols), chaos-class proton disruptors, and even a couple of reforged hadron flux mini mortars. They also carried various grenades, bombs and portable booby traps, and most of the pirates had various throwing and stabbing knives – and brass knuckles too – secreted about themselves, for when things got a bit more ‘up close and personal’.
Of all the members of the Cheeky Albert’s crew, though, the big bruiser Gotmund and the recently deceased weapons expert Richards were the most well armed and destructive. These two violent berserkers loved hunting, shooting and wholesale destruction more than anything else, and they only ever used the very deadliest firearms. Accordingly. just one hit from any of their less-than-perfectly-aimed shots would do three times the damage of any stray shot from a plasma rifle. On this raid, they’d both chosen chaos class proton disruptors as their pistolet du jour, and because of this, the ship’s supply of maitbots had now been decimated, the maitbot control centre had been demolished… and Ms Arenson still hadn’t ascertained exactly how severe all the damage to the Engine Room was.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Oh, look at this! Look at this!” She wailed miserably, as she moved through all the burned and blackened consoles and instrument panels in Engineering. Although the gunfight was brief, and Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell had escaped unscathed, dozens of the Engine Room’s major systems hadn’t been quite so lucky.
“They’ve blasted the voyage planning AI mainframes,” a tearful Ms Arenson said. “They’ve completely fried the bow thrusters and the ion turbocharger arrays… and I haven’t even got to the navigation and PYR systems yet. What a disaster, what a disaster!”
She slumped to the floor and held her head in her hands.
“But it can all be fixed, right?” asked Mr Martell.
“Oh, it can all be fixed… eventually,” she responded.
“Eventually?” Mr Martell repeated.
“We’re running a skeleton crew, remember? I don’t have my full engineering staff of 16; right now, it’s just him,” she jerked a thumb toward Mr Chamberlain, “and me.”
“But you’ve got the maitbots to help you…” Mr Martell suggested.
“What maitbots?” said Mr Chamberlain. “As far as I can work out, there’s only five left that haven’t been damaged, disabled or blasted into smithereens. And the few of them that are left are going to be run off their spindly little feet trying to repair everything -”
“And trying to repair each other,” Ms Arenson added.
“Well, at least we’re all still in one piece,” Mr Martell offered. Despite everything, the Cruise Director was still feeling cheerful, flushed with the heady exuberance of a man who’s just escaped certain death.
“You know what, Mr Martell? You’re right,” said Mr Chamberlain. “We held our ground. Let’s not forget that. We fought bravely – we fought them all off! Haha! And you even killed one of them!”
He’d said this to Ms Arenson in a spirit of congratulation, but she did not receive it that way.
“I killed one of them, yes,” Ms Arenson whispered, suddenly pensive. “I never killed anyone before, Mr Chamberlain. I’m just an engineer.”
Feeling for his friend, he lost his triumphant tone immediately. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Sad,” she said. “Tired. And very, very old.”
Mr Chamberlain nodded, and looked at the floor, as he struggled to come up with some words of comfort.
“You’ll get used to it.”
Ms Arenson slowly raised her head and regarded Mr Chamberlain with something approaching disgust. “I don’t want to get used to it.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the ship’s bridge, Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Mr Lebedev, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer all eyed the captain’s chair, expectantly, and a little incredulously. Captain Diana Singh seemed almost unaware of their presence, as she continued to tickle and play with Maggie the fox, who was currently rolling around on her lap. Mr Sinclair and Ms Aku exchanged a glance.
Ms Aku cleared her throat.
Captain Singh did not look up.
“Captain?” The First Officer’s voice managed to lift her out of her reverie.
“Ah. Yes, Mr Sinclair?”
“We await your orders, Captain.”
“Ah yes, of course. Orders.” She stood up, carefully lifting the fox off her lap and depositing her in the captain’s chair. “Well, I think our job from here on is fairly straightforward. Considering that only two pirates remain at large on the ship -”
She was interrupted by three pirates striding on to the bridge. Salazar walked up to Captain Singh, and stood eye to eye with her, as Jiang and Lightfoot came up behind him.
“Hello, Diana,” he said.
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.