512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
43 minutes until impact.
Up in the Shifting Sands, Marie stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and waiting for another opportunity to serve her two couch-bound ‘customers’; the pirates Jelani (currently enjoying an alcohol-induced slumber) and Gotmund (not particularly enjoying a weapon-induced unconsciousness).
“Marie? This is Chief Engineer Ms Arenson. Can you hear me?”
The voice coming through the ambient speakers was a little interference-laden, but it was clear enough.
“Yes, Ms Arenson.”
“Marie, please report to the Engine Room immediately. We need a Synthetic Human to help us talk to the Emergency Override Matrices, and you’re the only functional one aboard right now. If we can patch the EOMs into your primary auditory cortex, using you as our human-to-machine translator, we can repair the EOMs, reboot the Primary Navigation Modules, regain control of the ship, and stop it crashing and killing everyone on board.”
Marie’s usual cheerful, amused expression drained away from her face.
“I’m sorry, Ms Arenson – I’d like to help you, but I can’t.”
Down in Engineering, Ms Arenson and Mr Chamberlain exchanged an uneasy look.
“Excuse me?” Ms Arenson barked irritably.
“I belong here. I was made for this place, and I can’t leave it.”
“I was custom-built, programmed and equipped only to serve here in the Shifting Sands. Tending bar and telling jokes are the central tenets of my primary algorithm, they’re the truths on which all my software was built; I serve drinks, therefore I am. Stands to reason that I won’t be able to function anywhere else.”
Ms Arenson looked around her, agog. “Don’t be ridiculous, Marie. Do you understand what’s at stake? You get down here now.”
“Well, I suppose I can try,” she responded. “But I don’t see the point. I’ll just automatically shut down as soon as I leave here, and someone’ll have to come and collect me and bring me back inside.”
The next voice Marie heard over the speaker was that of Captain Singh; measured, polite, but unmistakably furious.
“You will report to the Engine Room NOW, Marie. That is an order!”
For the first time in her many years of service, Marie suddenly found herself unable to come up with a joke. Her vast databanks of jokes, riddles, puns, one liners, wisecracks and quips were all suddenly inaccessible; jammed by synthetic emotional interference…
She knew she that wouldn’t technically, actually “die” if she left; she’d just shut down. It’d only be blankness, a void… until someone brought her back inside and rebooted her. Marie had never felt this particular sensation before. Slowly, very slowly, Marie realised that she was frightened.
“Yes, Captain,” she said softly.
She trundled out from behind the bar and past the two prone figures on the couches.
“Sorry to leave your here on your ownsome, guys,” she called, in an exaggeratedly hardy tone. “Hopefully I shouldn’t be too long. Now, no sneaking behind the bar and helping yourselves…” she chided, waving a mocking index finger at them.
“ZZzzz” said Jelani.
“ZZZnphlphlphl, ZZZZZzzzzz,” added Gotmund.
“Righto,” said Marie nervously, as she rolled toward the door.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In the Engine Room, Captain Singh and Ms Aku’s work on the Primary Navigation Modules was proceeding, but frustratingly slowly; the Captain estimated that they’d only completed about 10% of it so far. She was about to ask Ms Arenson for assistance when she was interrupted by a new arrival.
“Begging your pardon, Captain. Chief Technology Officer Abara reporting for duty. May I be of assistance?”
All the Symphony crew members glowered at the defector and his pirate companion, but the Second Officer Ms Aku was the first to speak.
“Abara, you got a lot of guts coming here after what you pulled. You deserted us. You turned your back on this crew, so you could team up with this pirate scum, and now you suddenly just waltz in here offering your services, and expect us to act like nothing has happened? You’re a back stabber, a turncoat and a double crosser! You, sir, can go to hell!”
Mr Abara nodded thoughtfully. “Alright. So, Ms Aku, I’m actually sensing a lot of anger from you right now – ”
“DAMN RIGHT YOU’RE SENSING A LOT OF ANGER!” she yelled, as she turned incredulously to the two Deck Ratings. “Is this guy for real?”
Again, the Captain held up a quieting hand.
Mr Abara took his cue. “Captain, please. I can clear the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules. I can get it done in no time. I’m offering to help.”
Captain Singh stared at him, frowning. After a moment, she gave a very small nod. “Just so, Mr Abara. Please get to work.”
“Oh come on!” protested the Second Officer. “Captain, are you serious?”
“Ms Aku,” said Captain Singh. “Please! The clock is ticking. Just let him do the job. There’ll be time for recriminations later.”
“Yes, Captain,” grumbled Ms Aku.
“Thank you Captain,” said Mr Abara. “And it’ll be even quicker with the help of my friend,” he said gesturing to Devereux.
Captain Singh turned her head very slowly to the pirate, and scowled at her. It was the kind of scowl that made Devereux feel examined, scrutinised… even violated. It was as though Captain Singh was peering into her very soul…. and not liking what she saw.
Desperate to move on from this, Devereux said “I’m Devereux… erm… M’am.”
Captain Singh continued staring at her.
“Erm…” added Devereux. “… Pleased to… meet you?”
After what seemed like a frosty, withering eternity, Mr Abara rescued the hapless pirate.
“Well, let’s get to work, shall we?”
She nodded, and they both took up position at the eviscerated PNM console. Mr Abara opened his toolkit, and neatly laid its contents on the floor. Devereux did the same with hers.
Peering in to the mass of wires, circuit boards and info modules, Mr Abara said “Now, let’s see…. What have we got? Hmm… I see. Right!”
He clapped his hands and rubbed them together.
“Devereux, would you pass me my gravitic uncouplers, please?”
“Thank you… and hey, would you have a vanadium laserdrill?”
“I have…” she said, looking over his shoulder, “but don’t you think a thorium nucelolathe might work better there?”
“Yes! Actually, I think you’re right.”
She passed it to him, adding “Particularly if you use it in conjunction with an axionic particle splitter.”
“Brilliant!” He used the two instruments together, and handed them back to her. “Now, would you have a pyrocyclic isostapler?”
“Yes, it’s in here somewhere…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Salazar stood next to Captain Singh, as they watched Mr Abara and Devereux work. “This is good,” he said quietly. “This is gonna work, you’ll see; her specialty is codebreaking.”
“Codebreaking? That’s the opposite of coding” Captain Singh returned flatly.
“Well… it’s a similar principle.”
“No it isn’t.”
Salazar opened his mouth to protest, but Captain Singh cut him off before he had a chance.
They silently watched the two technology experts working for another moment.
“They do seem to be working well together,” Salazar offered.
Captain Singh only grunted in response.
“Maybe our two crews aren’t so different after all,” Salazar went on. “Maybe we can work together. Maybe we can even learn from each other.”
“Oh shut up.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“… Because I’m thinking,” Mr Abara continued, “if I use that with a parabolic torsion vice, then I can magnosever the optronic nadion microfilaments, which would enable the three-phase singularity probe to thermopolarise the bi-axial nanostabilisers.”
“Right, right.” Devereux said, nodding. “Then you’d do a simple tertiary warp dilation on the chronopolar hypertorque buffers with a pair of microspatial resonance clamps…”
“… which would mean I could then use a subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette to quantum-flux harmonise the randomised infiniwave relays -”
“Wait a minute – did you say ‘subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette’?” Devereux asked. “You mean a subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette, don’t you?”
“Ha ha! Of course! You’re right! Imagine using a subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette to quantum-flux harmonise a randomised infiniwave relay! Madness!”
They both laughed for a moment, as the other nine people in the room stared at them blankly. Maggie the fox did too.
Devereux handed Mr Abara an instrument from her toolkit, still giggling. “So here’s your subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette.”
“Not my subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette, then?” he asked playfully.
“No, not your subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette! Hardly!!” She laughed again.
“Oh dear,” he said, wiping a tear of laughter from his eye, as he continued working. “Aaaand…. We…. Are…. Done!”
He stood up triumphantly.
“Captain, Ms Arenson, I’m pleased to report that the overload on the Primary Navigation Module has now been cleared and it’s ready for rebooting.”
The whole exercise had taken a grand total of two minutes.
“Just so,” said Captain Singh. “Thank you, Mr Abara.”
“Yes, thank you,” echoed Ms Arenson.
“Well,” Mr Abara responded. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it that quickly without Devereux here.”
“Or without your subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette!!!” she added.
Mr Abara erupted into another fit of laughter. “Ha ha ha! No, you’re right! The good old subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette!”
And as he smiled into her eyes, he thought ‘Wow! She’s so funny, as well as everything else! I love her so much!’ He longed to take her in his arms and smother her with a million joyous kisses…. But right now, he could only bring himself to make an awkward, yet affectionate light punch on her upper arm.
This was met with looks of bemusement from all the assembled crew members, save the ever-smiling Deck Rating Ms LeGuin.
“Aww, that’s nice, isn’t it?” she 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.