512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
27 minutes until impact
For the next few minutes, Ms Arenson stood at Marie’s side, clearly issuing instructions into her left ear. There was a split-second pause after each one, while Marie’s circuits translated it and sent it to the ship’s computer, before she acknowledged that it had been received and carried out, in that bland, distant monotone.
“Looks like it’s working…” Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain whispered to Lightfoot, as they watched anxiously.
“Of course!” the pirate response smugly. “I told you it would.”
“But will she come out of it in one piece?”
Lightfoot shrugged, as uncertainty flickered across her face.
‘Not so cocky now, are you?’ thought Mr Chamberlain.
His crew mates Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin observed the procedure attentively from across the room; breathing shallowly, silently… desperate not to distract Ms Arenson, or Marie.
A couple of metres away from them, the Symphony’s former Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara craned his neck, trying to get a better view of the Synthetic Human / Ship’s Computer interface, while the pirate Devereux stood between him and her captain. She was a little less interested in proceedings.
Captains Singh and Sharp, however, were so transfixed by this vital operation, they didn’t notice how close they were to each other.
Behind them, the Albert’s First Mate Jiang checked the time and bit her nails, fighting her urge to start pacing the room.
Only Maggie the fox was oblivious to all the tension. She was too busy licking her left front paw, trying to remove something that was stuck to it.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Directly below them, down on C Deck, AJ the mechanic was making his way past the Symphony’s 1000-seat theatre. The theatre was, unsurprisingly, state of the art. The countless advancements in replication and Virtual Reality over the past five centuries had ensured that Theatre could now be every bit as immersive as real life.
Sometimes even more so.
That development had initially proven rather disconcerting to the more traditional theatregoers, particularly when the play was violent. Or sexy. Or both… But they soon got used to it. And this viscerally immersive aspect soon became just another ingredient in this timeless, complex art form. Theatre was thriving now for the same reasons Theatre had always thrived, and people kept attending for the same reasons they always had; to escape, to be entertained, to be educated while invigorated, to be transported to any one of a million different times or places – to witness, share and absorb the eternal, timeless struggles faced by all of us. To gain a thrillingly deeper and richer understanding of what it truly means to be human.
Or Ongaran, Nelmotese or Sendruphi.
You get the idea.
AJ glanced into the theatre’s foyer, at the poster for its most recent show. His ribs still ached, his shoulders throbbed, and his legs were growing ever more stiff and sore. He smiled ruefully at the poster and tried to remember the last play he’d seen.
‘It was something by The Bard. A lot of it went over my head; it was one of her more highbrow works. What was it called, though?
Oh, that’s right…. Not In MY Pants!’
He plodded on, as his mind wearily returned to the task at hand.
‘I’m nearly there. Nearly at Engineering…’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Three decks below AJ, the Cheeky Albert was still adjoined to the far end of the Symphony’s Docking Bay. And there, inside the gunmetal walls of the pirate ship’s dingy, cluttered communal area, two men sat – impatiently – on a couple of beat-up old metal crates.
“25 minutes until impact,” moaned the Symphony’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev.
“I know,” responded its Cruise Director, Mr Martell.
“When are they going to come to their senses?” said Mr Lebedev, as he stood, and started pacing the room.
“Surely they see that they won’t be able to fix all those problems – they just don’t have enough time. They’ve got to abandon ship; they’ve got to come down here, fire this bucket up, and get us all out of here! What’s taking them so long?”
He looked at Mr Martell, who had assumed the question was rhetorical. He shrugged.
“I mean, it’s the only possible course of action, isn’t it?” Mr Lebedev continued, his desperation growing. “If they’re quick, they can all cram in here, their pilot can fly us out of here, and we can escape. It’s our only chance!”
His looked to Mr Martell for affirmation, who only offered a noncommittal “Maybe”.
“What do you mean, ‘maybe’?!
Mr Martell shrugged again.
“Wait – are you saying that you and I might be able to fly this ship? That we can just commandeer it, hightail it out of here, and save ourselves?”
“Well, no – I certainly hadn’t thought – ”
But Mr Lebedev was already running to the Albert’s bridge.
Mr Martell trudged after him reluctantly. On the bridge, they found it difficult to identify – let alone even locate – the ship’s central command console. When they finally did, the original (foolproof) 3183 Interworld Freighter control panel was virtually unrecognisable. It had been submerged under so many byzantine modifications, so many improvised additions, so much re-purposing, so much souping up… that Mr Lebedev and Mr Martell were exhausted by just looking at it.
“Ugh! You’d need a degree in astronavigation just to get the thing started…” groaned Mr Lebedev, as he dropped heavily into the seat at another console.
“Yeah,” said Mr Martell, dumping himself into the next seat. “A degree from the making-it-up-as-we-go-along faculty of Pirate King’s College in the Institute of Dangerously Improvised Technology.”
Mr Lebedev looked at him and blinked.
“Did you just make that up?”
Mr Matrell nodded, grinning weakly.
Mr Lebedev’s head lolled forward, dejected.
“We’re doomed…” he whined.
Mr Martell looked at his poor crew mate.
“Hey, I know what will lift our spirits!” he said suddenly. “How about a singalong? Do you know I Hooked Up With This Chick From Babbiogantu VIII?”
“No,” Mr Lebedev returned. “But if you hum it…”
“I’ll kick you in the shins.”
Half a minute passed.
They both looked at the time.
24 minutes until impact.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ms Arenson rubbed her eyes wearily. Searching the vast amounts of data in the EOMs for what could be just one tiny glitch was proving to be a dispiriting task…
“Run tertiary macrodiagnostic on matrix 78,” she said to Marie, thickly.
A moment passed before Marie said “875,362 files scanned. Fatal error found in file 459541.”
“Aha!” Ms Arenson, said, looking at Mr Chamberlain and Lightfoot excitedly. Then; “Isolate and quarantine file 459541”.
“File 459541 isolated and quarantined,” Marie replied.
“Full diagnosis of file 459541, please. Detail level: Alpha.”
“Acknowledged,” Marie responded dully.
‘This should let us know what we’re up against,’ Ms Arenson thought hopefully, but her face remained impassive. They weren’t out of the woods yet.
All the other crew members in Engineering watched on, impotently. Salazar’s frustration, in particular, was tangible.
“I just want to get in there and help.”
“Leave them,” said Captain Singh. “They know what they’re doing. You’d only get in the way.”
The two captains were still standing next to each other. A mother and her son, reunited. Their elbows ten centimetres away from each other, their souls worlds apart. After a couple of minutes, their sombre silence was broken.
“Did they love you?” Diana whispered.
Salazar wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly.
“Did they love you?” she repeated, quietly, her voice sounding as though it was arriving from far away. “Your adoptive parents?”
Salazar turned to look at her, and was surprised by the mournfulness of her expression.
“That couple who found you on the streets when you were little, and took you in…”
She didn’t need to elaborate; he knew who she meant.
“Please – please tell me they loved you…” she sighed, her voice softened by the twin burdens of loss and regret.
“Yes. They loved me,” Salazar answered, as a faint, sad smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “For the five years I was with them. They loved me. Until they were killed by – ”
“I know, I know,” Diana said quickly. “They were killed by the Navy.”
Another long pause. They both stared straight ahead, but they weren’t watching the repairs. They were avoiding looking at each other.
“I am sorry.”
Salazar heard her apology. Of course he understood the words, but he wrestled with the layers of their meaning, with the implications of her saying them, with what they might mean for the future… He turned to her.
She gave a small, ashamed nod.
“And what am I supposed to do with that, Diana?”
She opened her mouth to speak –
“Emergency Override Matrices reboot sequence commencing.” Despite the importance of this announcement, Marie’s voice remained a dull monotone. “Disconnect auxiliary Janus Sapience Interface from external Principal Convergence Panel.”
Ms Arenson took a deep breath as she uncoupled one end of the bulky, tangled cord from the console, and disconnected the other end of it from Marie.
All crew members looked to Marie for the next status update. Had the disconnection compromised all the repair work done so far? And if it hadn’t, was the reboot sequence proceeding? And if it was, how long would that take?
No information was forthcoming. Marie sat on her stool, her empty eyes staring straight ahead.
Without warning, the Engine Room filled with a low, warm hum. Ms Arenson checked the monitor on the console housing the EOMs. “It worked! It bloody worked! The Emergency Override Matrices are back online! We’re nearly there!”
Salazar, Jiang, and Devereux all cheered loudly as they slapped Lightfoot roughly on the back. The Symphony crew members were more reserved in their exultation, content to nod approvingly in the direction of Mr Arenson and Mr Chamberlain, and to scowl at those rough, undignified pirates.
Marie, however, showed no such signs of animation. She was staring ahead. Blankly. Silently. Lifelessly.
Captain Singh looked at Marie, concerned. Then, to Ms Arenson; “Is she…”
Dead? She wanted to say “Dead”, but that wasn’t quite the right word.
“Is she… still functional?”
“I don’t know,” Ms Arenson muttered, examining Marie closely.
“Poor thing,” said Deck Rating Ms LeGuin, sympathetically. “And she’d only just had her first taste of the wider world. After all these years…”
There was no response.
“Marie?” Ms Arenson repeated. “Marie, can you hear me?”
Slowly, very slowly, Marie’s head turned to face Ms Arenson. Her Synthetic Human eyes were open, but inert. There was no spark, no sign of sentience, no sign of intelligence, no sign of… anything.
“Marie?!” Ms Arenson said again, sadness rising in her voice.
Twenty seconds went by.
Marie did not move.
Then thirty seconds, then forty…
The Symphony crew members all bowed their heads, disconsolate.
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