512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
There was something else that everyone on board the Symphony didn’t see, which actually turned out to be quite important.
Because just after the Cheeky Albert left their field of vision, two sections of its hull slid apart, to reveal a smaller spaceship inside. This was the Cheeky Albert’s second pinnace; its second four-person vessel, used for short trips and lightning raids.
And so no one in the Symphony’s Engine Room witnessed the pinnace blasting out of the pirate ship, seconds before the larger vessel was sucked into the planet’s gravitational pull. They didn’t see the pinnace shooting away from the Albert, and they didn’t see it perform an exuberant (and utterly unnecessary) loop-the-loop, before righting itself and setting course for the Symphony’s Docking Bay.
And they couldn’t hear the man in its pilot seat, either.
“WHOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOO!” he said.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Still no audio or visual contact with the Cheeky Albert, Mr Chamberlain?”
“No Captain,” was the sombre response.
“Just so,” the Captain responded forlornly.
The pirates Jiang, AJ, Devereux and Lightfoot looked mournfully at the floor. He was gone. Salazar Sharp, their captain, their friend… was gone. The four of them silently embraced, united in their devastation.
“Good riddance,” snarled Second Officer Ms Aku, as Mr Sinclair and Mr Ferrer nodded tentatively in agreement.
AJ pounced at her, his fists clenched. “How dare you?!” he spat. “He sacrificed his life to save your ship!”
“This ship wouldn’t have needed saving if you all hadn’t come blundering in here,” she countered, “hellbent on robbing and murdering us!”
AJ took a step back, unclenched his fists, and took a deep breath. “We’ve lost our captain,” he said in a small voice. “We’ve lost our home.”
“What do you want from us – sympathy?” First Officer Mr Sinclair snapped. “You’ve killed two of our crew members!”
“And look what else you’ve done!” Mr Chamberlain added, gesturing to one of the Engine Room’s wallscreens. It displayed a schematic of the entire ship, criss-crossed and pockmarked with red lines, spots and splotches from down in the keel of the ship all the way up to A Deck; the catastrophic legacy of the morning’s slew of gunfights.
“You even destroyed most of the maitbots, you lumbering, bloodthirsty idiots!” said Ms Aku. “And all for what? For our secret cargo? The ten tonnes of gold? You botched that as well. Thanks to your violent, amateurish bumbling, it all got sucked out into space, just seconds after you found it.”
“Along with poor Mr Ellis,” Ms LeGuin added quietly. Mr Ferrer nodded sadly.
“If that’s what this was all about, then it’s gone,” Ms Aku continued. “Your oh-so-precious treasure has gone; you don’t have it, we don’t have it – it’s GONE! This morning’s been nothing more than a long, violent, destructive exercise in futility. Are you proud of yourselves?”
“And that gold belonged to the FrontierLine Corporation,” said Mr Sinclair. “Do you have any idea how much trouble we’re all going to be in?”
The pirates did not know how much trouble the Symphony crew would be in. They guessed it would be quite a lot.
“All I know,” said First Mate Jiang hoarsely, “is that Salazar has just destroyed our home of 14 years, and he’s just destroyed… himself. He did it to save us, and he did it to save you – all of you. But especially you, Captain Singh. And your refusal to abandon ship – your stubbornness – has now cost us our home, and our captain’s life.” She blinked away the tears that she was determined not to cry. “Your son’s life. Are you happy now?”
The crestfallen captain softly stated the obvious; “No, I’m not happy now.”
The moment of sad silence that followed was, eventually, broken by Lightfoot.
“There may yet be a silver lining, everybody…” the pirate smirked, as she swapped knowing glances with the Symphony’s Chief Engineer and former Chief Technology Officer. “You see, between us, Ms Arenson, Mr Abara and I have just managed to – ”
“CAPTAIN!” Mr Chamberlain suddenly yelled, cutting her off. “I think you should see this.”
Captain Singh looked at the wallscreen he was pointing to. It showed the starscape just off the Symphony’s starboard side, the curved surface of the planet Liphigantu just bulging into the bottom of the frame. At first, she couldn’t see anything unusual. Then, after a moment, she spotted it – a tiny speck, slowly moving towards them. As it drew nearer, she saw that it was a ship. Well, maybe not a “ship”; it looked too small to be called that. But it was definitely a craft – a small space-faring vessel, gradually growing larger in her field of vision as it approached.
“The pinnace!” Jiang exclaimed as she recognised the Albert’s smaller auxiliary craft.
“Haha! He got out!” AJ cheered. “The Cap’n got out!”
Jiang, Lightfoot, Devereux and AJ spontaneously rushed into a group hug, and began jumping up and down. “He got out! He actually got out! Haha!”
“Mr Chamberlain, can you open a channel? Can we talk to him?” First Mate Jiang asked.
The Symphony’s Second Engineer tried, but was only met with audiovisual static.
“No,” he reported. “Looks like all its communications systems are down.”
“Oh yeah,” said AJ absently. “I’d been meaning to fix those….”
Slowly, the Symphony crew members all drifted, mesmerized, toward the screen, joining the four smiling pirates who were staring at it.
The pinnace drew closer and closer to the enormous cruise liner’s Docking Bay.
“He got out,” Captain Singh repeated quietly, as a small smile played across her face.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Elsewhere on D deck, a hundred or so metres away from the Engine Room, the Maitbot Control Centre was a hive of activity.
The five functioning maitbots scuttled among the scorched wreckage of the room, diligently mending, fixing, patching and rebooting their damaged comrades, or harvesting parts from those unfortunate droids that were beyond repair.
Each revived maitbot then immediately joined the reconstruction efforts, until the room was filled with the whirring and clicking of spindly metallic arms and legs probing, soldering, connecting, rebuilding and reviving their colleagues. The number of functioning maitbots continued to grow.
To an uninformed observer, their tireless revival efforts may have looked loyal and compassionate – almost tender.
It was true that they were selfless; but then they were robots, and robots are, by definition, selfless. The services they performed now, and the duty that drove them, were not choices. Service and Duty had been hardwired into them, as central tenets of their core programming. They were just machines. Just little black, crablike robots, designed and programmed for very specific purposes. They’re not people, you know.
Apart from the 68 of them that were blasted to bits, the majority of these silent automaton workers would soon be back on deck, and as good as new.
Or almost as good as new.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, HEY!” Salazar was yelling triumphantly as he ran along B Deck, on his way to the Symphony’s Engine room. ‘They are gonna get the shock of their lives!’ he’d thought upon disembarking the pinnace, after safely docking it two levels below.
He reached Engineering, opened its door, and leapt into the room, his arms outstretched.
“HEY, HEY, HEY! GUESS WHO?!” he bellowed triumphantly.
“It’s you. We know,” Mr Sinclair deadpanned. “We’ve been watching your approach.”
Salazar’s enthusiasm only waned for a split second.
“Oh, right,” he nodded. “Still… pretty impressive, eh?”
“YEEESS!!!” shouted Jiang, AJ, Devereux and Lightfoot, as they all rushed over to embrace him. Maggie the fox joined them, rubbing herself affectionately against Salazar’s shins.
“You did it, Cap’n,” Jiang marvelled. “You bloody did it!”
“I KNOW!” Salazar yelled exuberantly. “I’m a legend! I’ve saved the day! Haha!”
Salazar’s crew couldn’t help grinning at his loud, shameless self-congratulation. It was good to have him back. Laughing, Salazar broke free of his crew’s embrace, turned and looked Mr Lebedev in the eye.
Then he turned to Mr Martell. “You’re welcome too.”
Then Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer. “And you’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome and you’re welcome!” Ms LeGuin was the only one to smile.
Then he rounded on Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Abara. “And you, you and you – you’re all welcome too.”
Ms Arenson rolled her eyes.
“What about me?” asked Marie in an exaggerated plaintive tone. “Don’t forget me!”
“Of course I wouldn’t, Marie! You are most very welcome indeed,” He said, bowing to her flamboyantly, before turning, at last, to face Captain Singh.
If she was awash with relief that her son had survived and returned to her – if she was, in fact, overjoyed to see him – she certainly didn’t show it. In fact, she almost seemed to be standing to attention, as she stared at him. There was a long pause. “Well done, Captain Sharp,” she said at last, stiffly.
Overwhelmed by the various emotions battling inside him, Salazar decided that for now, he should stick to discussing practicalities.
“Well!” he said loudly, clapping and rubbing his hands together. “It looks like you’re stuck with us for the time being, Diana. You wouldn’t have a few spare berths you could put us up in for a while, would you?”
“A few spare berths?” Captain Singh responded, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve got about 2000.”
Her First Officer felt compelled to correct her. “2,106 actually, Captain.”
“Thank you, Mr Sinclair,” said Captain Singh.
By which she meant “Shut up, Mr Sinclair.”
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.