= CHAPTER 38 =

498 years in the future.
A Sunday afternoon.

2:38 PM

Felicity DeRosier is a 46 year old woman emerging from an extremely bitter divorce. After months of painful and expensive legal wrangling, this week, she and her ex-husband finally reached a settlement… and now she is free. Free of that neglectful, absent, self-interested, odious bore. Free to live her best life and to kick up her heels. Free – finally – to have a little fun.
Dressed in a simple silk robe, she smiles as she stands at her bedroom’s floor-to-ceiling window, gazing out at the bustling spaceport below. Felicity’s apartment is luxurious; situated on the 87th floor of a tower soaring high above Muvaliv, the largest and busiest spaceport city on Thotiria II.

“Come back to bed,” says the 25 year old man, as he rolls over to face her.

She looks at the scars on his face. There are six of them, but he’s handsome enough – and still young enough – to make them appear interesting. And sexy.

“Come on, come back to bed,” Salazar repeats.

Smiling, she steps out of the robe and goes to him. He kisses her…

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Later, Felicity told Salazar about her ex-husband; about his infidelity, his irritating habits, his petty-mindedness, his relentless vindictiveness…
Salazar listened attentively, but was confused – why did she smile as she said all this?

“…But now,” she finished, triumphantly, “none of that is my problem! I’m free! Free, free, FREE!”

Ah. That’s why.

“What did he do?” Salazar asked.

“I just told you.”

“No, I mean for a job.”

“Oh. Well, he liked to call himself ‘an independent long haul interstellar consignment and shipment contractor for the FrontierLine Corporation’, but I liked to call him ‘a stinkin’ freighter jockey’.”

Salazar smiled.

“Hey,” Felicity continued. “I don’t s’pose you want to buy a beat-up old interworld cargo freighter? I got it as part of the settlement, on this weird condition that if I sell it, I give any profits to him.”

Salazar’s eyes lit up. A ship of his own? That would mean mobility, independence and increased earning power. It’d mean an end to schlepping around the galaxy on whatever ride he could talk his way onto. It’d mean a permanent roof over his head. If he had his own ship, everything would change for him.

If he had his own ship, Salazar would be free too.

But wait – what was he thinking? There’d be no way he could afford an actual ship. Even a beat-up old one. Oh well, it was a nice daydream, however fleeting.

“How much d’you want for it?” he asked resignedly.

“From you? One dollar.”

Salazar stared at her – was she serious? She smiled as she nodded.

“… And I’ll be absolutely sure to pass that entire dollar on to him!” she laughed.

“Really?” asked Salazar, incredulous and wide-eyed.

“Really.”

Salazar extended his hand and she shook it.

“Deal!” he said.

“Deal. This is your lucky day.”

“Oh, don’t I know it?” he growled, as he scooped her up in arms. She squealed happily, and they kissed again…

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Ten days later, on landing platform #8302 of the city’s vast spaceport, Salazar explored his new (although technically very old) ship, with the nine members of his crew.

“So, what do you think?” he asked, as they all congregated in the ship’s dingy communal area, for the very first time.

“It’s not much to look at,” sniffed Fullbrook.

Skarsgard nodded in agreement with his friend.

“I reckon I can do something about that…” the mechanic offered.

“Good, AJ – good!” Salazar enthused. “See, that’s what I like to hear. Positive suggestions!” Salazar turned his attention to the pilot. “Evans, can you fly it?”

Evans looked insulted. “With one arm tied behind my back, Cap’n. It’s a FrontierLine 3183 interworld freighter; they’re set-and-forget. Anyone could fly this thing; flying this thing is gonna be boring.”

“It could use a little souping up, that’s for sure,” offered Lightfoot. “I could make some improvements that’ll make it a bit more interesting for you, Evans.”

“Thank you!” said Salazar. “Constructive contributions – that’s what we need.”

“I got a constructive contribution, Cap’n.”

“Yes, Richards?”

“Ship’s got no weapons. I say we fit it out with plasma cannons – four should do it.”

“Good idea,” said Salazar.

“And three destroyer class energy mortars,” Richards continued. “On each side. Plus we’ve gotta have some SPR seeker missiles; three – no, four. On the port side, and then another four on the starboard side.”

“And we don’t need all that space in the cargo hold,” added her pal Gotmund. “We could convert some of it into a bomb bay.”

“Yeah!” said Richards. “And torpedo tubes. We need torpedo tubes as well. Four. No, five. No six! Six torpedo tubes! And we should also – ”

“Great, great,” said Salazar, holding up his hands to stop them. “Lots of good ideas there. Thank you.”

He looked happily around, as his First Mate Jiang stepped forward.

“So, although it seems structurally sound,” she said, “this ship is old, it’s dark, it’s dingy and dirty, and it desperately needs updating in pretty much every area.”

Salazar beamed. “Yeah! Perfect, isn’t it?”

“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice, coming from somewhere outside the ship.

“Aha! She’s here!” exclaimed Salazar, as he pulled two bottles of Betelgeusean Firewater from somewhere inside his overcoat. “Come on!”

His crew followed him, as he bounded down the gangplank, holding the two bottles aloft.

“Great! You made it!” Salazar said, strutting across the landing platform and handing Felicity one of the bottles.

“Of course,” she smiled.

“Everyone, this is Felicity,” Salazar announced to his crew. “Felicity, this is… everyone.”

All parties nodded politely.

“Felicity will be doing the honors of christening our ship with its new name… ”

He paused for effect.

“… The Cheeky Albert!”

Each crew member shot an underwhelmed look at their captain, as they produced shot glasses from their pockets.

“‘Albert’? Why ‘Albert’?” asked First Mate Jiang.

“Don’t know, really – it just came to me in a dream,” Salazar said, opening his bottle and trying to recall if he’d ever known anyone called Albert. “It just somehow felt right.”

Felicity shrugged and walked toward the ship, as Salazar poured each crew member a shot of the potent liquor. Standing before the ship’s bow and brandishing her bottle above her head, Felicity proclaimed “I hereby name this ship… The Cheeky Albert!” She shut her eyes tightly, smashed the bottle on the hull, and laughed as booze and bits of broken bottle rained down upon her.

“The Cheeky Albert!” echoed the pirates in unison, downing their drinks.

“Ooh, that’s nice,” Fullbrook murmured appreciatively, savouring the drink’s burning aftertaste.

As the pirates started to lug all their bags on board, Salazar moved closer to Felicity.

“Hey, I just wanted to say…” his voice low, his tone intimate, “these last couple of weeks we’ve spent together have really meant a lot to me.”

Felicity smiled, unsure where he was going with this. She felt faintly embarrassed on the young man’s behalf.

“I have to go now; to round out my crew, there’s a couple more people I want to recruit…” Salazar continued. “but one day, I’ll return.” He looked earnestly into her eyes. “I promise.”

There was a polite pause.

“Why?”

“Sorry?”

“Why do you want to return?”

“Oh. Erm. I thought that you might want – ”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Oh. Right.”

Salazar was a little nonplussed.

“Well…” he said, now squinting over his shoulder at the ship, with an expression that he hoped looked tough and manly, “I’d better go. I won’t forget you, Felicity.”

She nodded. “And I won’t forget you, Salvador.”

“Salazar.”

“ – Salazar.”

“Good. Alright then…” and he gave her a hug that was more awkward than he’d expected it to be.

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

He hoped his crew hadn’t seen that. He bounded up the gangplank with a slightly overplayed air of raucous excitement, booming “So, Evans! Let’s see what the Cheeky Albert can do!”

 

498 years in the future.
A Sunday afternoon.

2:38 PM

Somewhere on Betelgeuse III, a platoon of ten Third Offworld Navy ground troops moved stealthily through a vast stagnant swamp. Up to their thighs in the water, they waded between the enormous grey gnarled tree trunks and sharp blades of long blue grass, absently swatting at the ubiquitous stinging insects. Their steps were measured, wary, as they tried to avoid the predatory fish and reptiles lurking on the everglade’s muddy bottom.

They were being led by Lieutenant Commander Singh and her two offsiders – Lieutenant Torrence and Midshipman Chamberlain – on their mission of “quelling an uprising” by a group of “insurgent” Betelgeuseans. So far today, none had been spotted.

“You know you don’t have to be here, Ma’am.”

“I’m leading a platoon of ground troops, Mr Torrence. Good women and men, each prepared to give their all for our cause. I will not ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. You know that.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

The stench of rotting vegetation and swamp gases assailed their nostrils, despite the multi-layered air filters built in to their psi helmets.

Psi helmets were essential equipment for fighting the telepathic Betelgeuseans, who could transmit devastating thought energy to any sentient being, telepathic or not. Evolving without the means for vocal communication, the Betelgueseans had mastered psionic attack techniques millennia ago, and it was a mode of combat that humans were particularly ill-equipped for. The first encounters between Betelgeuseans and their would-be colonists them were massacres, resulting in hundreds of thousands of human casualties. All the most sophisticated guns, bombs, grenades and missiles were useless against an instantaneous blast of concentrated mental energy. An angry Betelgeusean could penetrate and devastate any human psychic defences in a split second, reducing even the toughest soldier to an idiotic, brain-scrambled mess, whimpering and cowering on the floor. It had taken the boffins in the Third Offworld Navy over a century of trial and error to develop a helmet that masked and protected the vulnerabilities of the human mind, and these psi helmets were now standard issue for all ground troops. However, they weren’t 100% effective, and any campaign pitting humans against the Betelgueseans (or  ‘the psycho killers’, as the grunts called them) was still dreaded by any sensible soldier.

As such, any platoon going up against the Betelgeuseans was also automatically assigned a complement of solddroids. Today’s sortie was no exception, and six enormous and intimidating solddroids were accompanying this group, three taking point on each rear flank.

“Enemy alert!” Lieutenant Commander Singh hissed, as she spotted a dozen Betelgeuseans ahead, just beyond the largest gnarled tree trunk.

Betelgeuseans are a metre tall, and bipedal. Their torsos are pear-shaped, and they have two bulbous eyes protruding from their neckless heads. They don’t possess mouths or noses; all the nutrients they require are ingested by two rows of fleshy slits between their eyes. Their feet are webbed, and they have four arms, each of which ends in a hand of three fingers and an opposable thumb. They are amphibious, and so move swiftly through the marshy shallows. Their soft, leathery skin is well camouflaged, ranging in colour from rusty brown through to verdant green.

The cohort of them up ahead looked to be a family group – they ranged in sizes, colours and ages – and did not appear to be on a battle footing. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Commander Singh, Mr Torrence and Mr Chamberlain immediately dropped to their knees, and motioned for the troops to do the same. The ten soldiers dropped, each putting a hand to their head as they did so – they needed their psi helmets to stay securely in place.

The solddroids, however, showed no such caution. Instantly roaring into attack mode, they spewed missiles, energy bolts and small grenades forth from their huge intimidating chassis, as they ran towards the unsuspecting creatures. ‘What are they doing?’ thought Lieutenant Commander Singh. ‘I didn’t order them to attack.’ As the solddroids barged through the platoon in their rash, reflex-action frenzy, they pushed her over, knocking her psi helmet off her head and into the murky water.

As Lieutenant Commander Singh desperately searched for it in the brackish shallows, the beleaguered Betelgeuseans began defending themselves, the only way they could.

Their broad scope psionic attack didn’t affect her comrades – all their helmets remained firmly in place – but for Diana Singh, this was an onslaught like no other. She fell, instinctively grabbing her skull as she felt her brain begin to burn. But it wasn’t just physical pain – not just the sensation of a thousand hot needles piercing her grey matter; there were intense, pin-sharp pangs of emotional pain, too. Blasts of long-buried despair, loss, anger and bitterness. Jolt after jolt of hatred, doubt, insecurity and self-loathing, all pinpointed, all amplified… and all directed back in.

It was, as always, an extremely effective form of attack. Just as an aikido master’s most effective weapon was their enemy’s physical strength, the Betelgeuseans’ most effective weapon was their enemy’s psychological weakness. Diana Singh screamed in agony, still clutching her skull, trembling, as the solddroids continued their merciless strafing of the aliens. As the sound of her scream was drowned out by gunfire and explosions, Diana Singh reached her limit. She toppled over, unconscious, into the stinking, murky swamp.

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Betelgeuseans don’t have mouths, but Diana Singh had vivid, fitful dreams of them screaming. Hundreds of them, thousands of them – a deafening, ceaseless caterwaul of distress, of agony, of misery.

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She jolted awake and upright, sweaty and panicked.

“Relax, Ma’am.” It was Mr Torrence. He was sitting at the side of her bed. “You’re back on board,” he explained. “You’re in the sick bay.”

She looked around her, blinking, adjusting, orienting herself. Wiping her brow, she asked “What time is it?”

“It’s eleven in the morning,” answered Mr Chamberlain. He was standing behind Mr Torrence. “On Tuesday. You’ve been out for nearly two days.”

Lieutenant Commander Singh was unsure how she felt about this. How should she have responded? She felt… blank. She wondered exactly how much damage the psionic attack had done not just to her synapses, but to her ability to feel emotions.

“Did we win?” she asked eventually.

“We did,” said Mr Torrence.

“How many casualties?”

“Twelve. All of them.”

“All of them?” she repeated. “The… young ones, too?” She couldn’t bring herself to use the word “children.”

“Them too.”

“You should know, Ma’am,” said Mr Chamberlain, “that if it wasn’t for Mr Torrence, you wouldn’t have made it. He was he one who dived into the water and found your helmet. Then he got it back on you, and carried you all the way back to the drop ship. At great personal risk. You’re lucky to be here.”

She regarded Mr Torrence, who nodded modestly in response.

“Lucky to be here…” Lieutenant Commander Singh repeated, thoughtfully.

Was she, though? She didn’t feel especially lucky. She tried to pinpoint exactly what she was feeling right now… Emptiness. Emptiness was as close as she got to defining her current state. Might things have been better if Mr Torrence hadn’t saved her? ‘After all,’ she thought. ‘What am I doing all this for? I have no children, I have no husband… we’ve just annihilated a dozen more Betelgeuseans, whose only crime was -’ she stopped herself.
What was their crime, anyway? She had no answer.

“All I have is this… career,” she said quietly, dejectedly.

Mr Chamberlain and Mr Torrence exchanged an uncomfortable look. Neither of them had ever suffered a psi attack; they had no idea what their superior was feeling, or even what to say, in an effort to cheer her up…

“Well, if you need a change, you could always go into civilian life,” Mr Chamberlain offered, uncertainly.

She looked at him, puzzled. She didn’t realise she’d vocalised her last thought.

“I’ve got a friend who works on a cruise ship – you could always go and be a captain on one of those!” he continued.

Mr Torrence nodded approvingly, hoping he was being helpful.

“Now that would be a cushy job,” he agreed.

Diana Singh stared at her two friends. Despite everything, the incongruity of their asinine suggestion did bring a sad half-smile to her face.

“Maybe,” she said bemusedly. “It couldn’t be worse than this.”

 

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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