= CHAPTER 39 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:25 AM

Hello Diana,” Salazar repeated.

He was standing on the bridge of the Symphony of the Stars, finally face to face with its captain.

There was silence.

The Symphony crew members here – Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Mr Lebedev, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer – hardly dared to breathe, as they awaited their leader’s response to the shabby, scarred invader.

Behind Salazar, the pirates Jiang and Lightfoot also waited nervously, their hands hovering above their holsters.

Captain Sharp,” Captain Singh responded eventually. “We meet at last!”

Salazar’s glare was cold as he corrected her. “We meet again”.

Captain Singh scrutinised his face, but showed no sign of recognising him. “I’m afraid you might have the advantage of me there. I don’t seem to recall our paths crossing before, and I’m usually pretty good at remembering faces. Perhaps if you didn’t have quite so many scars, then I – ”

I’m your son.”

Quiet gasps emanated from several Symphony crew members.

Behind Salazar, Lightfoot looked at Jiang in amazement. Jiang nodded; she was the only person on the bridge – apart from Salazar – who’d known this.

There was heavy silence, as a stunned Captain Diana Singh stared deep into Salazar’s eyes. For two seconds. Then five seconds, then ten… And that’s when she saw him. That’s when she saw her boy.

Suddenly, Diana’s knees felt weak, and her breathing was shallow and laboured. She staggered to her chair and sat down heavily, just missing Maggie, who leapt off when she saw her coming. As the fox ran over to Salazar, Diana continued to stare at him.

At this defiant, disheveled, disfigured pirate.

At her son.

Happily reunited with her owner, Maggie the fox rubbed herself against Salazar’s legs… but he didn’t acknowledge her. All his attention was focussed on the 64 year old woman in the captain’s chair. Eventually she spoke, making a concerted effort to keep her voice calm.

Is that what all this is about?”

Salazar gave a small nod. “That’s what all this is about.”

Diana nodded in return. She glanced at her assembled crew, anxious to avoid any further erosion of her authority, acutely aware of her agitation, and painfully aware that she was… beginning to blush?

In that case, Captain Sharp,” she offered, “perhaps you and I should adjourn to my Ready Room.”

No!” Salazar snapped. “Anything you have to say to me you can say in front of my crew. They’re my family.”

Just so,” she said, reverting to her usual disciplined demeanor. “What can I do for you?”

What can you do for me?” Salazar snorted derisively. “You can tell me why you left. You can tell me why you decided to abandon me and my father when I was three years old.

Behind Captain Singh, her First and Second Officers exchanged an uncertain glance. They knew almost nothing of their captain’s personal history; could this be true?

Diana stared at her son, weighing up her options, pondering her next move. 

I did not abandon you,” she said. “You were taken from me. Taken without my consent, and without my knowledge. If your father told you otherwise, I am sorry. But there’s not much I can do about that.”

Salazar was astonished. Despite rehearsing this day of reckoning a hundred times, he’d never considered this possibility. His first thought was that she was lying; she had to be. ‘But then’, he thought, ‘what would she gain by that?’

As he struggled to process this revelation, he heard himself feebly asking “I was taken from you? Why?”

Diana’s brow furrowed, and she sighed deeply. “I was unable to look after you properly. I was…” she searched for a word to convey the crippling, leaden weight of her depression back then, of the anguish of her bereavement, of the bitter shame of her shortcomings.

“… I was unwell.”

Unwell?!” Salazar spat incredulously.

Your father did the right thing,” Diana continued, her voice cracking. “But in time, I did recover, and I tried to get you back. I searched for you and searched for you. You’ll never know how far and wide I looked… but your father didn’t want to be found. He didn’t want you to be found.”

But your precious Third Offworld Navy did find us, didn’t they?” Salazar asked sourly.

Diana nodded, sad yet slightly confused.

The day I received the report that you’d both been killed was…” her energy drained away as she relived that moment, and she slumped in her chair, unable to finish the sentence.

“You shouldn’t believe everything you read.” Salazar said. “Turns out your almighty navy is fallible, after all; that report was only half right. I was only injured…” his voice trailed off, as the few memories he had of his father began to impinge upon his thoughts.

But you were four years old,” Captain Singh said incredulously. “Where did you go? What did you do?”

Whatever it took. I ran and hid. I fought, I stole, I grew tough. I survived in those blasted, broken streets; the streets your beloved navy had destroyed. I lived off my wits, scavenging, always running, always hiding… until a young couple found me. They showed me kindness. They adopted me. He was my new father. She was my mother…” he spat, his defiance returning. “… Until they were also killed by the Third Offworld Navy. This time, I was nine years old.”

Diana opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.

How do you sleep, Captain Singh? All those lives lost under your command. All the innocence destroyed. The countless defenceless souls just… extinguished. Including the man you loved, the father of your son. And for what? What was it all for?

Diana was holding her head in her hands. The only response she could muster was small and unconvincing.

We kept the peace, we maintained order, we preserved freedom.”

Don’t spout your slogans at me. This navy of yours was nothing more than an enormous, industrialised slaughterer of the innocent. You were OPPRESSORS! You were murderers. And you, Diana Singh, will have blood on your hands for the rest of your days.”

All the Symphony crew members on the bridge looked to their captain. 

She stood slowly, taking a deep breath and drawing herself up to her full height. Standing tall, almost standing to attention, she fixed Salazar with a look that was weary, yet compassionate and earnest. 

I’m sorry, Albert”.

Behind Salazar, an incredulous whisper came from Jiang; “Erm – Albert?”

That’s his name – Albert Singh,” the captain explained quietly. “Tim and I named him after Tim’s grandfather.”

Her lower lip began to tremble, but she sniffed, frowned and regained her composure.

Salazar broke eye contact with Diana, and gazed somewhere far away. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, pensive… and distant.

I remember… I remember now. Albert Singh. That’s who I was, before I named myself. I was only little; I loved the name ‘Salazar Sharp’ back then. I thought it sounded cool, dashing, adventurous…”

A faintly embarrassed half smile played across Salazar’s lips. Behind him, Jiang and Lightfoot stared at their captain, suddenly imagining him as a three year old boy called Albert. At length, Lightfoot piped up; “So you still kept the five letters in your surname, then.”

All eyes looked at her. 

“… and it also starts with ‘S’, like your original surname did, so…”

Lightfoot had thought these were both points worth making, until she became aware of the seven puzzled faces squinting at her. Maybe they weren’t as fascinated by this as she was.

“… that’s, um, kind of… interesting, isn’t it?”, she finished lamely.

Salazar hadn’t heard her. “So,” he whispered, mystified, “I named my ship after myself?”

Diana Singh nodded, surprised to find tears burning her eyes. “Looks like it. Somehow, deep down, you’ve remembered the name we gave you. Such a happy little boy.”

But I was three years old when you left,” Salazar countered. “How could I remember that?”

Smiling sadly, Captain Diana Singh shrugged. Should she offer to embrace him? She hadn’t embraced anybody – anybody real – in years.

She tentatively took one step closer to him, as she started to raise both her arms. ‘Am I doing this?’ she thought, an unfamiliar sensation coursing through her veins. ‘Am I actually going to hug him?’

Diana took another step closer to her son, raising her arms slightly higher.

Don’t you dare!” he growled, his eyes flashing with a mix of anger and confusion.

Right, fair enough,” she said quickly, dropping her arms to her sides.

The two captains eyeballed each other. What were they supposed to do now?

Their awkward silence was broken by the Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair.

What I don’t understand, Captain… erm… Sharp,” he said as he stepped forward, “is that if all this is true – ”

It is true,” Salazar and Diana snapped in unison.

Mr Sinclair continued; “… then why are you only doing this now? Why haven’t you tracked Captain Singh down before today? Surely you’ve had plenty of opportunities.”

There are two reasons for that,” Salazar answered. “Firstly, until now, I’ve never -”

I’m sorry to interrupt, Captain, but this is extremely urgent.”

Due to the static on the audio feed, it took Captain Singh a moment to recognise the voice as that of her Chief Engineer.

Yes Ms Arenson, go ahead.”

The damage to the ship from the pirate attack is far more extensive than I anticipated.”

Go on…” Captain Singh muttered, fixing Salazar with an angry glare.

Well, apart from the ten small hull ruptures from their initial attack, and the enormous breach caused by the gunfight in the Cargo Hold, there’s also that big chunk that they cut out of the Docking Bay when they boarded.”

But those events happened a while ago,” said Mr Sinclair, coming up alongside Captain Singh. “Surely the maitbots would have their repairs well in hand.”

The maitbots are gone!” Ms Arenson snapped. “Or as good as gone. From our original cohort of 96, there are now only five left, thanks to those lumbering, brain dead, trigger-happy buffoons using them for target practice!”

She means Gotmund and Richards,” whispered Lightfoot.

Shh,” said Jiang.

And they shot up the maitbot control centre pretty good too,” Ms Arenson added.

The First Officer was determined to put an optimistic spin on things; “Alright, so repairs will take longer if we all have to chip in help, but I’m sure that we can still – ”

I haven’t finished, Mr Sinclair.” Ms Arenson cautioned. “Quite apart from the fact that the person who can best co-ordinate those repairs – our Chief Technology Officer – is now one of them, the damage to the Engine Room from our last little skirmish is far worse than it originally appeared.”

Get to the point please, Ms Arenson,” Captain Singh commanded.

All secondary navigational modules have been destroyed; this has overloaded the primary modules, and now they’ve all crashed. The ship’s command pitch and roll terminals have been fried, and the ancillary guidance and stabilisation backup systems were also blasted to bits. That wouldn’t matter if the emergency override matrices were working, but as luck would have it, they’ve overridden themselves and gone into emergency shutdown; I’m not sure why.”

On the bridge, Chief Steward Mr Lebedev and the Deck Ratings Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer looked confused. They weren’t following any of this.

All of which means,” she concluded, “that we’re now on a different course, and I haven’t been able to pull the ship out of it, or even slow us down. We’re headed for the nearest planet – Liphigantu. Our ETA is 57 minutes from now.”

Alright, so a slight change of course? That doesn’t sound so bad!” offered Ms LeGuin.

The thing is, though,” said Ms Arenson. “when we reach the planet’s atmosphere, we won’t stop. We’ll just continue along the straight line we’re currently travelling in. Right up until the moment we crash into the planet’s surface.”

“We… crash into the planet’s surface?” Mr Sinclair repeated, dumbly.

In 57 minutes?” Captain Singh asked.

Ms Arenson checked the time.

Actually 56, now.”


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


Text copyright (c) 2020 Stephen Hall

All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com

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