512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
12 minutes until impact
“Mr Sinclair!” Captain Singh called.
“Yes Captain?” responded the disembodied voice of her First Officer on the bridge.
“Please initiate Evacuation Protocols,” the captain said dejectedly. “It’s time to abandon ship.”
‘Yes! Oh, thank you, thank you!’ was what Mr Sinclair thought. ‘The end of this nightmare is finally in sight. At last, at last! I can go home to my girls.’ All he said, though, was “Yes, Captain”, as he carried out the order, and the evacuation tone began sounding throughout the ship.
“All crew will need to leave on the pirate ship, though;” she reminded him. “Our lifeboats have all been locked down. Again.”
“Yes Captain,” he repeated. This wasn’t ideal, but as scared of the pirates as he was, Mr Sinclair was probably even more scared of smashing into a planet at hundreds of kilometres per hour, and being crushed, burned and entombed forever in 200,000 tons of torn, twisted metal. He trotted briskly off the bridge, and towards the Docking Bay.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I am assuming, Captain Sharp,” she said, turning back to her son, “that your offer still stands?”
“Yes Ma’am. It’ll be a little bit cosy, but we’ll all fit.”
“I don’t mind ‘cosy’!” said Ms LeGuin cheerfully.
“I trust that Your Captainship will be joining us?” Salazar asked, in a tone that sounded more hopeful than he’d intended it to.
“No, I will not,” was the impassive reply. “The captain always goes down with her ship.”
“But that’s stupid,” Salazar snapped, exasperated. “I’m offering to save you – I can get all of us out of here, safe and sound. This is life and death, Diana. It’s not time to be stubborn.”
She fixed him with a steely glare. “This is not stubbornness, Captain Sharp. This is Honour. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Well you got that right – I don’t,” he mumbled under his breath. “What if I were to force you to leave? What if I just stunned you and dragged you off the ship?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“If it saved your life, I believe I would.”
“NO, Albert!” she yelled, suddenly and ferociously.
The stunned silence was only broken a moment later, when some of the more immature pirates couldn’t help themselves;
“Whooo! Al-bert’s in trouble! Whoo!” they cooed, mockingly.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A couple of metres away, Ms LeGuin was enthusiastically congratulating Marie on her newfound freedom.
“Look at you!” she said, gripping Marie’s shoulders. “Out at last from behind the bar, and helping to save the day!”
“… Or not, as it turned out,” Marie said with a self-deprecating roll of her eyes.
“Well, yes, alright,” Ms LeGuin conceded. “BUT your connection to the ship’s computer – and all that translating that you did – was actually working.”
Marie regarded her sceptically.
“Until it wasn’t. But hey,” Ms LeGuin continued, “the good news is… you’re still here! And you didn’t go mad, or break down!”
“I know, I know!” Marie said gratefully, warming to the theme, “and I gotta say, it’s bloody wonderful to BE here! I’m happier than a kitten under a leaky cow.”
“You’re free, you can explore!” Ms LeGuin enthused, choosing to ignore Marie’s mystifying simile.
“And I can help; I can contribute.”
“Yes! And I’m sure that the next time you do, it’ll be even better.”
“It will, it will!” Marie assured her. “I can do so much more than I ever thought I could. I can travel so much further than I ever thought I could. My whole world has grown so much – there are so many options now. It makes me realise that until today, I was about as useful as a one-legged man in a bum-kicking contest.”
Ms LeGuin frowned; were there actually such things as bum-kicking contests?
“And you know what they say, Marie…” she offered, as she broke out of her reverie. “‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.”
“Yeah!” Marie agreed. “Although they don’t say that in the Trokinian system, where they have that non-fatal, muscle eating virus.”
“Oh yeah, I had forgotten about them. Yeah.”
Their conversation seemed to have come to a natural end, but Marie was still feeling energised, excited, and even chattier than usual. She turned to Salazar. “Hey, I really like the name of your ship,” she offered. “The Cheeky Albert. ‘Cheeky!’ I love it – it’s so saucy! Oo-er, Missus! ‘Know what I mean? Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!’” The oddness of this collection of words made everyone in the room stare at Marie in confusion.
Eventually, it was Salazar who spoke.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘I like the name of your ship’…”
“No, after that.”
“Erm, ‘very saucy’?”
“No, after that.”
“Oh, I said ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!’ It’s a reference to – ”
“Nudge nudge,” Salazar repeated, suddenly thoughtful. “Nudge nudge…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On one of the couches up in the Shifting Sands, somewhere in the depths of her drunken slumber, Jelani decided she was uncomfortable.
She rolled over onto her right side…
and continued sleeping.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Salazar bounded over to the Chief Engineer, eyes shining, excited by the idea he’d just had… “Ms Arenson, how much would the ship’s current trajectory need to be altered, for it to bypass the planet?”
Ms Arenson quickly did the calculations. “Well, 12 degrees, but… so what? I don’t have navigational control; there’s no way I can alter the ship’s trajectory.”
“No… But maybe I can,” Salazar countered. “What if I used the Cheeky Albert to nudge the Symphony off its current course?”
Ms Arenson blinked at him, dumbly.
“If I could detach the Albert from your Docking Bay, fly it out and around, and then gently bring it into contact with the Symphony’s hull….”
“And then if you could give it a burst of acceleration…” continued First Mate Jiang, boarding her captain’s train of thought. “You might be able to push the Symphony out of its current flight path…”
“… and into a new one!” Salazar concluded triumphantly. “So that it missed the planet altogether! Could that work?”
Ms Arenson looked thoughtful. “Well, theoretically, I suppose so… but a ship that small wouldn’t have enough power to shift a cruise liner of this size and mass.”
“You’d be surprised by how much muscle the Albert has,” offered AJ. “I’ve made a few modifications in that department….”
“Who’s he?” asked Mr Chamberlain, as he noticed the Albert’s bedraggled mechanic for the first time. “When did he get here?”
Ms Arenson ignored her second-in-command as she hurriedly finished some more calculations. “Well, maybe if your ship does have enough power to nudge us off course…” She frowned again. “But by the time you get to the Docking Bay, disengage your ship, fly it out and up against the Symphony’s hull to start pushing….”
“But is it possible?” Salazar interrupted.
“Pushing it that far off course will chew up precious time…” Ms Arenson warned. “AND if you did somehow manage to nudge the Symphony out of its collision course, that little freighter of yours would just take its place. By that late stage, there’s no way the Albert would be able to escape the planet’s gravity well. It’ll be pulled straight down to the surface… with you in it.”
She paused and looked Salazar in the eye.
“So, in answer to your question, yes. It is possible – ”
“Excellent!” Salazar exclaimed, clapping his hands and rubbing them together.
“ – But it’s also suicidal.”
Salazar’s eyes sparkled, as a smile began to creep across his dark, scarred face.
“I’m gonna do it. If it means saving the Symphony,” he said, glancing at Captain Singh, “and everyone on it, then I reckon it’s worth a try.”
“But you could save us all anyway,” said Devereux, frowning and looking around the room for support “if we all just left in the Albert right now.”
Mr Abara nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Not quite all of you. ” He turned to Captain Singh. “You’re absolutely sure you won’t leave?”
“I will not desert my post” was her frosty response.
“Then you leave me no choice. You all stay here, I’m going to the Albert. I’m gonna save the Symphony and everyone on it. I promise.”
The crews of both ships registered the implications of this, in grave, thoughtful silence.
“Oh you’re welcome, don’t mention it,” Salazar drawled.
“But Cap’n, are you sure?” asked First Mate Jiang. “You’re putting yourself in an awful lot of danger.”
“I promised you we’d take the Symphony, didn’t I?” Salazar whispered out of the corner of his mouth, before raising his voice again. “Oh, this ship is well worth saving, Jiang. Particularly if Captain Singh has vowed not to leave it.”
Jiang closed her eyes and shook her head imploringly. “Let me do it, Cap’n – I’m a better pilot than you.”
Salazar smiled at her, but said nothing.
“Or at least let me help you,” she continued, desperation creeping into her voice. “Let me co-pilot. Please.”
“Thank you, Jiang, but no. I’m the captain – it’s my responsibility. In fact,” he glanced at Captain Singh. “It’ll be my honour.”
Captain Singh gave him the tiniest approving nod.
“But you’ll lose the ship; your ship,” Jiang reminded him.
“Eh, that ship only cost me a dollar.” he said with a wink.
“And we could also lose you,” she added, too quietly for him to hear.
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.