= CHAPTER 49 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:23 AM

3 minutes until impact

Salazar had completed the disengagement sequence, and was now easing the Cheeky Albert away from the Symphony’s Docking Bay, and awkwardly wheeling it around, to face the enormous liner’s bow.

He suddenly realised how rusty his piloting skills were. For years now, he’d been happy to leave the flying to someone else, and his ship’s pilot was one of the best he’d ever seen.

Damn it, Evans, where are you when I need you?” he muttered under his breath.

Not here.

Obviously.

Refocusing on the task at hand, Salazar gently nudged the main thrust controls, and the Albert slid forward, and along the cruise ship’s long, sleek, white side.

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Mr Lebedev and Mr Martell arrived in the Symphony’s Engine Room. They were both panting loudly, having run all the way from the Docking Bay, but Captain Singh, Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin didn’t even notice them. Nor did the two Engineers, Ms Arenson and Mr Chamberlain – they were both hunched over their respective consoles, closely following the Cheeky Albert’s progress.

Their only greeting came from the Synthetic Human bartender. “Hello gentlemen! Welcome to the Engine Room! Isn’t it GREAT?” Marie spread her arms wide and spun around, drinking in her surroundings. The novelty of being somewhere that wasn’t the Shifting Sands still hadn’t worn off.

Mr Sinclair had also made his way here, from the bridge, and was closely monitoring the ship’s flight path. “Two minutes until impact,” he announced to the room.

At this moment, the pirates Jiang, Lightfoot, AJ & Devereux entered; Devereux being followed closely, as usual, by Mr Abara. Lightfoot headed straight for a spare console and deftly hacked in to the nearest free memory dump location. Two minutes wasn’t a lot of time for her to transfer all of the Albert’s data and wealth over here, but she was confident she could do it.

First Mate Jiang spotted Maggie and bent down to pat her, but the little fox darted away from her and hid behind Captain Singh’s feet. It was a trivial rejection, but Jiang was surprised at the sting of it.

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The audiovisual link between the Symphony’s Engine Room and the Albert’s bridge was strong and clear, and Salazar and Diana could see and hear each other perfectly.

Salazar looked up from his instrumentation for a moment to address Diana.

It’s rotten timing, really, isn’t it? I am sorry, Diana. Please believe me. There’s so much I want to say to you. After all these years, after all that searching, I’ve finally found you. I’m finally with you, and now… all this. ”

She was not equipped to have this conversation with her son. Not here, not now. Masking her anguish, confusion and regret with her usual formality, she automatically spoke the only words that came to her; “Please state your name, cargo and destination.”

Salazar smiled ruefully. “Why, Diana! Are you telling me you don’t recognise the universally feared and dreaded pirate ship known as The Cheeky Albert?”

I do. I do indeed.” she said softly.

Name, cargo and destination, you say?” Salazar continued. “My name is Albert Singh! Soldier of Fortune, Plunderer of Riches, Fighter of Fights, Breaker of Hearts… and proud son of Diana Singh, the mighty Captain of the Symphony of the Stars. Cargo? No, no cargo on board. Hardly anything on board, in fact – my crew has completely cleared me out. Destination? Well, the ship’s primary destination is the starboard hull of the Symphony, amidships. This will be followed by its secondary – and final – destination; the surface of the planet Liphiganto… in roughly ninety seconds.” On saying this, he felt his heartbeat accelerate.

Captain,”he continued, “please advise all hands to brace for impact.”

Just so. You won’t fail in this, Captain Sharp,” she said reassuringly. “You will see to that.”

If you’d been observing this moment from outside, from a fixed point in space, what you’d have seen next was this:

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Roughly half way along the Symphony‘s expansive and elegant starboard side, a dirty, ramshackle, and comparatively tiny pirate ship was approaching. It approached slowly. Uncertainly. Squeamishly, even. But it was definitely approaching, and from a 90 degree angle – almost exactly perpendicular to the Symphony’s orientation. It seemed to slow as it neared the mighty liner, as though it feared bruising the larger vessel. But the Cheeky Albert kept advancing; slowly, hesitantly, delicately, until… finally, its snub-nosed bow made gentle contact with the Symphony’s side. The two ships were now touching.

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Everyone in the Engine Room felt the Symphony begin to move, very gradually, in the direction of… well, sideways.

It was working. Cautiously optimistic looks were exchanged by all present.

Except Lightfoot; she was still hunched over her console, completing the transfer of all the Albert’s data.

There. Done,” she said to herself as completed the task. Then, as she was disconnecting the two ships’ data drives, she had an idea. It was an idea that could be good for all of them, if they survived this. She called Mr Abara over, and whispered the idea to him; she would definitely need his help to pull it off. Mr Abara smiled and nodded; he liked the idea very much.

Devereux saw this and came over to them. What’s she whispering to you about?” she asked Mr Abara suspiciously.

He smiled and said “I’ll tell you later.”

They were interrupted by an announcement from Mr Chamberlain. “I can confirm that our flight path is changing – we’ve now been pushed three degrees off our original course.”

Not enough,” Ms Arenson snapped. “Needs to be twelve!” Ms Arenson snapped at Salazar.

I know, I know!” came Salazar’s response, over the coms. “I’m doing all I can…”

First Officer Mr Sinclair was monitoring another crucial display. He thought everyone might like an update from him too. “60 seconds until impact,” he called.

28 eyes glared at him. They didn’t appreciate the update as much as he’d expected.

We’re now six degrees off our original course!” Mr Chamberlain announced.

Still not enough…” Ms Arenson said, as she eyed the screen anxiously. “That little ship just doesn’t have enough power for this.”

AJ happened to be standing directly behind her. “Oh yes it does.”

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On the bridge of the Cheeky Albert, Salazar heard AJ’s remark.

AJ’s right,’ he thought. ‘Of course he’s right – this is the most ludicrously souped up and overpowered Interworld freighter this side of Xalmarth VII! I can do this. The ship can do this.’

He nudged the ship’s thruster controls higher… higher… and higher still, until all displays were in the red zone; he was pushing all of the ship’s engines further than anyone had before. A display told him they were now operating at 109% of their capability.

Ignoring the unsustainability of this (not to mention the danger), Salazar pushed the Albert even harder.

Come on!” he grunted through gritted teeth. “Come on, come on, come on, come onnnnn!”

He glanced down at another screen, and saw that he’d now pushed the Symphony nine degrees off course…..

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45 seconds until impact!”

Thank you, Mr Sinclair,” said Captain Singh, insincerely.

Mr Chamberlain kept his running commentary coming too; “We’re now ten degrees off course… eleven degrees….”

Behind him, Jiang tensely whispered “Come on, Salazar…”

It suddenly occurred to the Symphony’s Chief Engineer Ms Arenson to ask Salazar a stupid question.

You’ve obviously deactivated all the pulse inhibitors on the SPR Booster Cells, haven’t you?”

Of course he has,” AJ snapped.

On the Albert’s bridge, Salazar only half-heard the question. “Hmm?” was his somewhat distracted response.

The SPR Booster Cells,” Ms Arenson repeated. “You have turned off all their pulse inhibitors?”

Salazar looked at a screen on the console in front of him. “Err…. No. Should I have?”

AJ slapped his forehead in exasperation.

Ms Arenson looked at AJ incredulously. “Are you kidding me?” she yelled at Salazar. “Of course you bloody should have! Do it! DO IT NOW!!!”

So Salazar did it.

If you’d been observing this moment from outside, from a fixed point in space, you’d have seen a sudden, spectacular eruption of blue-hot light from the little freighter’s rear engines, kicking it forward with an abruptness that was altogether unseemly. And since its bow was up against the enormous cruise ship’s, the larger vessel was strongly, suddenly, and rather rudely, nudged just off its current trajectory.

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Everyone in the Symphony’s Engine Room felt the floor shift beneath them. Maggie the fox stood up, looked around her, momentarily confused, then sat down again and started licking her tail.

Well?” Ms Arenson snapped at Mr Chamberlain.

He consulted the console in front of him.

Confirming that the Symphony has now deviated from its previous course by 12.5 degrees,” he answered, a broad smile spreading slowly across his face.

And so….?” Mr Lebedev prompted. He thought he knew what this meant, but he wanted to be 100% sure.

And so we will now pass harmlessly past the planet Liphigantu,” Mr Chamberlain responded.

The ecstatic, spontaneous cheer that blasted through the Engine Room startled Maggie.

Ms LeGuin joyously wrapped her arms around Ms Aku and Mr Ferrer, and Mr Sinclair put both his hands to his forehead as the portly Mr Lebedev swooned into Mr Martell’s arms, knocking him off balance.

All the pirates tumbled into a rough group hug, and began jumping up and down.

All the pirates, that is, except for Devereux; awash with joy and relief, she turned to her left and impulsively hugged Mr Abara. After a moment, their eyes met, and they both drew away, suddenly feeling bashful. But they were also feeling a little bit warm, a little bit curious and more than a little bit exhilarated. And it wasn’t just from the good news.

Naturally, they both looked at the floor and frowned.

As Mr Lebedev came to his senses, and started weeping with gratitude and relief, Ms LeGuin turned to her colleagues.

I always knew it would work out!” she said, beaming.

Mr Ferrer shot her a sarcastic look that seemed to say “Based on what?”

Marie the synthetic human bartender stood up, stretched and loudly proclaimed “So it’s not over for this ship, after all… Hey, I guess that means we’re on an Unfinished Symphony! Eh? Eh?”

This provoked a loud burst of laughter. But it did come from Marie…

Captain Diana Singh stood alone, apart from the raucous jubilation, looking pensively at the wallscreens, her brow furrowed.

And what about the other ship?”

Her question brought the cheering to an abrupt halt. Ms Abara and Mr Chamberlain looked at her blankly, as she moved to the nearest coms console. “Captain Sharp? Captain Sharp? Please acknowledge!”

The screen that was their window into the Albert’s bridge now offered nothing but visual static, and there was no audio link at all. It was snow and silence, just snow and silence.

And this was where the occupants of the Symphony lost sight of the Cheeky Albert.

I’m sorry, captain,” Mr Chamberlain reported. “But all the ship’s coms are down – I can’t get any connection at all. I’m guessing all its systems have been pushed past their limits, and so they’ve just – ”

“And its current course?”

He checked the console again. “The ship’s been pulled into the planet’s gravity well,” he said gravely. “It won’t be able to achieve escape velocity now.”

Captain Diana Singh nodded gravely. “Thank you, Mr Chamberlain.”

Slowly, instinctively, everyone in the Engine Room turned and moved closer to the main wallscreen; the one that showed the exterior view from the ship’s starboard side.

But the little pirate ship was now out of their visual range.

So they couldn’t see the Cheeky Albert skimming jerkily across the surface of the planet’s atmosphere, its hull glowing a bright orange, as the friction drove the metal’s temperature higher and higher…

Or one of the ship’s four plasma cannons shuddering and warping, before suddenly snapping clean off its keel and careening off into space, in the doomed vessel’s wake. Or a second plasma cannon being wrenched from the chassis, and a third; Salazar’s ship was disintegrating as it breached the planet’s exosphere, and tumbled chaotically down into its thermosphere.

They didn’t witness the last stages of its screaming, fiery, convulsive descent.

They didn’t see the Albert crazily plummeting through the mesosphere, its exterior panels being blown away like rose petals in a hurricane. They didn’t see it violently nose-diving down through the stratosphere, being pummelled and battered by the tremendous forces that were already tearing it apart.

And they missed seeing Salazar Sharp’s pride and joy – the Cheeky Albert – plunge into the planet’s troposphere before smashing into its rocky surface and exploding in a massive, spectacular fireball that reduced the ship – and everything in it – to a blast wave of tiny, jagged, dirty pieces of shrapnel.

 

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

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