512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
55 minutes until impact.
“Are you sure?” asked Ms Aku, desperately hoping there’d been some miscalculation.
“Deadly sure,” Ms Arenson responded grimly.
“What if we jettisoned some cargo, to lighten our load?” asked Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, panic rising in his voice. “Would that make a difference?”
Ms Aku’s response was swift; “All our cargo has been jettisoned, thanks to that gunfight in the Cargo Hold… remember?”
“Bloody pirates…” grumbled Mr Ferrer.
“That wouldn’t have made a difference, anyway,” Ms Arenson added, from her post down in Engineering. “Losing what was in there wouldn’t have changed the trajectory of a ship this size.”
“Ms Arenson, can we escape in the lifeboats?”
“I’m afraid not, Captain,” came the answer from Engineering. “They were all locked down, when the emergency override matrices went offline.”
“But I don’t understand,” said Second Officer Ms Aku. “isn’t this whole thing something that the maitbots could fix?”
“Well, yes they could…” Ms Arenson responded, “But since there’s only five of them left now, it’d probably take them three to four weeks.”
“And we have…?”
“Right now, Captain, we have 54 minutes. And 29 seconds.”
All the Symphony crew members on the bridge fell into a deflated silence.
“But the solution’s simple,” suggested Salazar. “Why don’t we all just escape in the Albert? I can take us all to safety.”
“I hardly think so,” growled First Officer Mr Sinclair. “You’re pirates; murderers! You think we haven’t noticed what you’ve been doing here for the past few hours?”
“You’ve killed two members of our crew!” agreed Mr Ferrer. “I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”
There was another frosty pause, as all eyes turned to Captain Singh.
“No, Captain Sharp,” she said. “Leaving aside the question of the enormous value of this ship to the FrontierLine Corporation… I happen to be its captain. The ultimate responsibility for this vessel, and for everyone aboard it, is mine. In cases of extreme emergency, I have vowed to save every person aboard this vessel – and the vessel itself – or die trying. My crew may choose to come with you, but I will not. That’s the vow that every captain in the Third Offworld Navy makes, and it’s a vow that I intend to keep today.”
Salazar’s indignation was punctured by a sudden stab of helplessness. This is not how he envisaged today unfolding. “But you’re not in the navy now…” he entreated.
“It is the vow made by any captain worth a damn. If this ship goes down, Captain Sharp, I will be going down with it. You may be sure of that.”
Salazar felt it all slipping through his fingers – all the work, all the planning, the long journey, the successful quest… the long lost mother he’d finally found again.
“Don’t do this,” he implored, feeling suddenly small. “You don’t have to do this. Come with me. Let me save you.”
“Please. We’ve only just found each other – ”
“Irrelevant,” she snapped. “My duties are to the Symphony and my crew; or what’s left of them both, after your catastrophic assaults this morning. You have all but destroyed my ship and brutally murdered two of my people! How dare you?!”
Unusually flustered, Salazar lashed out. “I’ve lost two of my people today too, you know – Suarez and Richards. Both killed by members of your crew.”
“And you think that makes us even?” Captain Singh snorted derisively, as she turned away from him, to face her crew.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Leave her be, Cap’n,” said Lightfoot into Salazar’s ear, impatiently. “If they want to stay here and get killed, I say we let them. Should I round up the rest of our crew and get ’em onto the Albert?”
Salazar thought for a moment.
“No. We’re staying.”
“Are you insane?” Jiang whispered urgently, as she spun him around to face her. “There’s nothing here for us but certain death.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say ‘certain death’; death’s never certain…” Salazar grinned. “And besides, we have plans to take this ship, remember? We can still do that. If there’s a chance we can help them save the Symphony, I say we should. Then once that’s done, we’ll take it from them. Look around you. This ship is such a magnificent prize, and we’ll never get this chance again…”
Jiang and Lightfoot regarded their captain doubtfully. “Are you sure about this?” Lightfoot asked.
“I don’t like it, Cap’n,” Jiang intoned. “I don’t like it at all.”
Salazar frowned at her, considering his options. “Well, how about this, then? We stay and “help them” for as long as it’s safe. But the moment – the very moment – that it isn’t, I’ll give the order to abandon ship, we sprint back to the Albert and get the hell out of here. Sound fair?”
“Aye Cap’n,” Jiang agreed cautiously, unsure exactly how much she could trust her old friend, given his current emotional state…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Gentlemen, ladies of the Symphony – both here on the bridge and down in Engineering,” Captain Singh announced, pointedly ignoring the three pirates behind her. “You’re all aware of the peril of our current situation, and of my intended course of action. I do not have the right to ask any of you to stay, and so I won’t. I do, however, wish to know your intentions at this time. If you choose to evacuate, to go with Captain Sharp in his ship, while the going is good, I will not think any less of you…”
Mr Sinclair was the first to respond. “I will stay, Captain. I am First Officer of this vessel, and I will do my duty.” (‘And,’ he thought but did not say, ‘if I deserted my post now, I could never face my family again.’)
“Just so,” Captain Singh responded. “Thank you, Mr Sinclair.”
She turned to her Second Officer, and the two Deck Ratings, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer. “I will stay too,” Second Officer Ms Aku volunteered. “I am – and always will be – at your service, Captain Singh. Always.”
“Thank you, Ms Aku.”
“I’m staying,” Mr Ferrer said. He found himself feeling excited about this adventure, although deep down he knew that probably wasn’t the smartest way to look at it. Next to him, Ms LeGuin was also enthusiastic “I’m staying too, Captain – I’m quite keen to see what happens next!”
“Just so. Thank you. And Mr Lebedev? What say you?”
“Well Captain, I’d certainly like to thank you for giving us all the option…” said the sweaty Chief Steward, wringing his hands together. “And I’m off.” Without another word, he sprinted out of the room, as fast as his fat little legs would carry him, and down to the Docking Bay.
There was a moment, while all eyes on the bridge watched Mr Lebedev’s speedy retreat, before Ms LeGuin piped up again.
“Oh well, Captain – you can’t win them all.”
“And all hands in the Engine Room,” Captain Singh continued, raising her voice slightly. “What say you?”
The Second Engineer, Mr Chamberlain, was the first to answer; “Captain, you and I have known each other a long time. I never deserted you before, and I’m much too old to start now.”
A fond half smile briefly played across Captain Singh’s features.
Cruise Director Mr Martell’s response was next; “I’m sorry Captain, but I’m just not cut out for this. I’m with Mr Lebedev.”
Mr Chamberlain watched Mr Martell disapprovingly as he slunk out of the Engine Room, and headed for the Docking Bay.
“Hopeless,” Chief Engineer Ms Arenson mumbled, as she too watched him leave. “I’m staying, Captain,” she continued. “I’ll be damned if I abandon my ship in its most desperate hour. But can I remind everyone that we all need to actually DO SOMETHING if we want to avoid being killed? And while you were all busy up there making touching pledges of allegiance, I think I might’ve worked out a way we can get the ship to change course. But I’m gonna need as many hands down here as possible. And I’ll need them here NOW, if not sooner.”
“Just so. Thank you, Ms Arenson. You heard the Chief Engineer,” Captain Singh declared. “All hands, please report to Engineering. Now, if you please. Mr Sinclair, the bridge is yours.”
“Yes Captain,” said the First Officer, and made his way to the captain’s chair as the remaining Symphony crew members jogged off.
“Wait!” Salazar said, blocking Captain Singh’s path. “Captain, I’ve decided we’re going to stay here and help you and your crew, in any way we can.”
“No thanks, we don’t want you – you’re bloody pirates!” Mr Ferrer yelled angrily, before Captain Singh had a chance to respond.
“I know, I know. But I’m calling a truce,” Salazar continued. “Effective immediately. We’re all in this together now. No one will attack you; you have my word.”
“Your word… Pah!” Ms Aku spat.
Again, Captain Singh raised a hand. Ms Aku looked mildly chagrined, as Captain Singh scrutinised Salazar’s face, trying to decipher his true intentions….
“I will be staying here on the Symphony, and so will my crew,” he said. “We’ll do all we can to assist you, and if the Symphony can’t be saved, then any of you who wish to escape with us on the Cheeky Albert are welcome. Of course, whether you choose to accept our help is entirely up to you… but you’d be pretty silly not to, wouldn’t you?”
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.