= CHAPTER 52 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:40 AM

Salazar was looking wistfully at the wallscreen, as it showed the vast rocky surface of the planet Liphigantu passing slowly beneath them. The charred and twisted remains of his beloved ship were scattered down there… somewhere. He sighed. For the past fourteen years, the Cheeky Albert had got him into – and then out of – more scrapes than he could remember. It had been his fortress, his refuge, his getaway ride… and his home. And now it was gone.

Well, physically gone, anyway. He turned to his crew’s self-appointed computer genius.

Lightfoot, please tell me you managed to transfer all of the Albert’s information and wealth across.”

Lightfoot smiled and nodded smugly. “Of course, Cap’n.”

He – and his crew – could at least take some solace in that. He’d also just had time to grab a small, jewel encrusted wooden box from his berth; just as AJ had saved his portrait, Lightfoot had saved her data drive and necklace and Jiang had saved her ring and her map. Salazar was glad he’d given each crew member that opportunity.

And, he reflected, they did still have the second pinnace; the Albert’s smaller, more maneuverable craft. Whenever they used that for future shore trips, reconnaissance missions or lightning raids, it would always remind them of their old vessel.

And they were alive, and they were together. That was what mattered right now.

Salazar suddenly realised that Lightfoot was staring at him expectantly.

Oh, yes. What was it you were trying to tell us before?”

Lightfoot took a deep breath and rubbed her hands together excitedly. “Well! Working together, the three of us…” she beckoned Ms Arenson and Mr Abara over, “have managed to clone the energy signature and the residual hyperflux footprint of the Symphony –

Mr Abara interrupted her, eagerly. “And transmit the duplicates across to the Albert –

and permanently designate them to the Albert’s plasma exhaust ports!” Ms Arenson announced jubilantly.

Lightfoot punched Mr Abara on the upper arm in rough congratulation.

But that’s not all!” the Chief Engineer continued excitedly. “At the same time, your girl Lightfoot here was also making a replica of the Albert’s posterior gravimetric pulse field, amplifying it, and assigning it to the Symphony’s quantum output vents, so that it overwrote all the ship’s original tachyon output data! Ha ha!”

The ensuing celebratory laughter from the three collaborators ended abruptly, as they saw that no one else had the faintest idea what they were talking about.

And so, as a result,” Lightfoot explained, “if there’s anyone observing us remotely – ”

Mr Abara interrupted her, excitedly. “That is, anyone not close enough to have direct visual contact -”

Mr Arenson interrupted him, excitedly. “They’ll identify each ship as…”

“… the other one!” they all declared triumphantly, in unison.

It was Captain Singh who finally broke the – still confused – silence. “So you’re saying that, to anyone ‘watching’ from a distance, it would have appeared that the Symphony was the ship that crashed into the planet?”

And it was the busted up little pirate ship that got away?” added Salazar.

Lightfoot, Ms Arenson and Mr Abara all nodded excitedly.

Exactly! That’s exactly how they would have seen it,” beamed Ms Arenson.

Captain Singh and Salazar exchanged a look, as they let this sink in.

But who’s ‘they’?” asked Jiang. “Who’d be watching us all the way out here?”

The FrontierLine Corporation,” snapped Mr Sinclair, condescendingly. “They’re always watching us.”

And so now, as far as they’re concerned,” Second Officer Ms Aku said, “their precious flagship has just been destroyed; it’s just crashed into that planet back there…”

“… and as far as they’re concerned,” Mr Sinclair nodded, as extreme distaste crept across his features, “we are the Cheeky Albert.”

Haha! Lightfoot…” yelled Salazar. “I love it! You’ve faked the Symphony’s death!”

Sure have!” Lightfoot beamed.

And now we’re the pirate ship,” Captain Singh muttered, shaking her head incredulously.

Yep! Haha! Don’t you just love the irony, Diana?”

She didn’t.

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The vessel that was currently closest to the Symphony of the Stars – a mere 208 kilometres behind it, in fact – wasn’t interested in observing it at all. That vessel was the Cheeky Albert’s other pinnace, whose three occupants were far too busy marveling at their newfound wealth to care about anything else.

They were the pirate deserters Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard, and they were now very rich indeed.

They’d been very rich indeed for the last three and a bit hours.

Between them, over the course of six daring spacewalks, they’d collected 258 of the 800 solid gold bricks that had been blasted out of the Symphony’s cargo hold. They now sat on the floor, panting, as they stared at the shiny, symmetrical pile before them. They were exhausted – gold bricks were heavy, and there’d also been the profound nervous tension inherent in every spacewalk – but they were all happy.

Look at that!” Evans marvelled. “Even after a three way split, it’s more than any of us could ever spend… even if we lived to be 200!”

Luxury! Palaces! Servants…” Skarsgard enthused. “And the finest wines available to humanity!”

There was a moment’s contented silence.

Yesss, there’s just one thing…” posited the diminutive Fullbrook, in his high-pitched voice.

What?” Evans said flatly.

I can’t help thinking…”

Yes?”

Well… Do we really wanna leave all the rest of that gold out there?”

What? Yes, of course we do,” Evans answered firmly. “We are done.”

Skarsgard nodded, frowning at his best friend. “Don’t get greedy, Fullbrook…”

You say ‘greedy’, I say ‘sensible’,” Fullbrook wheedled. “And besides, isn’t part of the Pirates’ Code to ‘never leave treasure behind’? ‘N.L.T.B.’?”

Evans and Skarsgard stared at Fullbrook.

What ‘Pirates’ Code’?” scoffed Evans. “You just made that up.”

No I didn’t.”

Yes you did.”

Skarsgard weighed in. “You did, didn’t you?”

There was a pause.

Oh alright, a bit,” Fullbrook conceded. But seriously, guys – I don’t think we should be leaving the money on the table. Anyone could just come along and take it.”

Out here?”scoffed Evans. “Unlikely”.

And so what if they did?” added Skarsgard.

Yeah – if they have to do what we had to do in order to get it, they’ll have earned it, and good luck to them.”

But we haven’t even picked up half of it yet…” whined Fullbrook.

We don’t need to!” Skarsgard gestured to the shimmering pyramid between them. “We’ve already got ten times more than we need!”

And I’m too old to do any more spacewalks,” added Evans. “That’s it. As far as I’m concerned, my retirement starts NOW. Your eyes are bigger than your stomach, Fullbrook.”

He scowled at her. “Are you making fun of my eyes?”

No. Well, yes – a little bit.”

To be fair, Fullbrook’s eyes were kind of boogly.

I’m just saying we have an incredible opportunity to be even richer,” he protested. “And we should take it while we can.”

And I’m just saying we take what we’ve got and get out of here,” Evans countered. “All the gold in the universe is no good to us if we don’t go somewhere we can spend it.”

And I’m just saying SHUT UP, THE PAIR OF YOU!” Skarsgard yelled.

And the pinnace stayed there, motionless in space, as the three of them bickered on…

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Another 35 kilometres behind them, the Symphony’s former Chief Medical Officer – and murderer – Dr Zivai still glided haplessly through the infinite reaches of space, in her oxygen-drained spacesuit.

She was still dead.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Oooh yes!” Salazar exclaimed, opening his arms wide, spinning around, as he realised that a 5-star luxury cruise liner was now his new home. “I could get used to this! And think of the business opportunities….”

Captain Singh frowned at him quizzically.

The Symphony of the Stars doesn’t officially exist anymore – we’re invisible! We can go wherever we want, and do whatever we want. And what a ship to do it in! The galaxy’s our oyster!”

Until it isn’t,” Captain Singh cautioned. The FrontierLine Corporation is not above revenge.”

Nah, they’re too big to bother wasting any resources chasing a shonky little rustbucket like the Cheeky Albert.

Until they do,” she continued. “You don’t know them like I do. Maybe they’ll decide that your ‘shonky little rustbucket’ was responsible for the loss of the flagship of their fleet – and the ten tonnes of gold it was carrying – and maybe they’ll come after it. At the very least, they’ll be sending a salvage expedition to that planet.”

By which time, we’ll be long gone. Relax! You worry too much. We’re here, we’re alive, we’re healthy – life’s good!”

So, Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang.

Yes?” Diana and Salazar answered in unison.

What do we do now?”

The question was for both of them, but neither of them had an immediate answer. Salazar shrugged and laughed. “Well, whatever it is, for the next little while at least… we’re gonna be doing it together!”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

“‘Together’ sounds good to me,” said Mr Abara, as he looked lovingly at Devereux.

She simply smiled at him in response. And then, Devereux – that amoral burglar, codebreaker, trespasser and larcenist; that tough, battle-scarred veteran of a thousand fatal skirmishes – reached out to Mr Abara… and held his hand.

Once again, Mr Abara’s spirits soared as his breath caught in his throat, his pulse quickened, and his heart skipped a beat. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘being this much in love isn’t just a cluster of cliches… it’s also quite the cardio workout.’

And they kissed.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Together, yes…” Captain Singh repeated, as she scrutinized Salazar. Her piercing her gaze began to make him uncomfortable.

He cleared his throat self-consciously. “… what?”

Her reply was measured, her eyes betraying only the tiniest hint of emotion.

My only son returned to me today, after 36 years.”

Yeees, Salazar knew that; why was she talking to him as though he wasn’t there? He bent down to pat Maggie, who was nuzzling his shins, grateful for the opportunity to avoid eye contact with his mother.

I spent so long searching,” Diana continued. “And so much longer grieving…”

Her voice trailed off. She also bent down to pat the fox, before continuing sheepishly. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t quite know what to do with you, now that you’re here… erm… Albert.”

Mother and son both focussed on stroking the appreciative animal now, being careful not to look at each other, being careful not to accidentally touch hands.

Oh, and you think I automatically know the way forward? I’ve never had a mother before, you know,” he said, concentrating on tickling Maggie behind the ear now. “We’re both in the same boat.”

BWAAHAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHHAHH!” Marie the bartender had overheard them. “In the same boat! I get it! Oh, that’s brilliant! ‘In the same boat’!!! Hahaha!”

Then she realised everyone was staring at her, a little nonplussed.

“…. Because we’re…” she began to explain, “… Because all of us actually, physically, are… ”

But their scrutiny was – aptly enough – taking the wind out of her sails.

Oh, that’s… that’s a classic,” she finished, lamely.

Diana stood up briskly, cleared her throat and looked Salazar in the eye again, all business.

Well. There’s certainly no lack of ingenuity or problem-solving skills between us, Captain Sharp. Given that we have been forced into close contact – for the immediate future at least – I’m certain that, working together, we will be able to agree upon a mutually acceptable way of moving forward.”

Yes ma’am!” said Salazar in a mock formal tone.

Diana winced. “Don’t call me ma’am.”

Yes… Mum?” he said uncertainly.

Ooh. Don’t call me that either.”

Right. Sure. Sorry.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

In the Milky Way galaxy, somewhere in the Orion-Cygnus Arm, the gargantuan cruise liner The Symphony of the Stars sailed steadfastly on.

Its sleek white hull no longer shone with a proud, pristine elegance. It had lost its brilliance.

Its innocence.

It was blasted and pockmarked where the Cheeky Albert’s over-eager “warning shots” had hit it. It was burnt and blackened around the hole in the Docking Bay, where the pirates had cut their way in. And it had a huge, ragged furrow in its hull where the Cheeky Albert’s bow had rammed into it, to shove it off course and out of its planetfall death dive. Each of these wounds was now being patiently tended by a tiny, lonely maitbot – insect-like and efficient, as it diligently carried out its repair duties.

And down below on the ship’s keel, twelve of the little droids clustered around the largest hull breach, busily welding, soldering, drilling and joining. This enormous, gaping gash had been ripped open wide enough for 144,000 litres – the contents of an entire swimming pool – to blast through it, along with the ship’s cargo, including the 10 tonnes of gold, and the poor unfortunate Mr Ellis.

He was just one of this morning’s six casualties. The Symphony had seen more death and destruction in the past four hours than it had in its entire service history. There had been deaths, there had been injuries, there had been crimes and revelations.

The magnificent spaceliner had suffered many assaults… but it endured. Although it was battle-scarred, ravaged and weary, it was still strong. It was resilient, and it was repairing itself as best it could. This mighty, elegant ship had been bruised, but not been broken. It was battered, but not beaten.

The ship sailed on, its dignity diluted by its injuries, and by the buccaneers’ tiny pinnace clinging to its docking bay portal; a parasitic lamprey leeching on to a graceful white whale.

And so the Symphony of the Stars, with its crew of “waiters and maids” and pirates, ventured gamely on. On through the unending universe – home to millions of stars, and billions of worlds,

to trillions of terrors, and trillions of triumphs…

and

infinite

wondrous

possibilities.

THE END.

 

 

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.

Author’s other note: Thank you so much for sticking with me all the way through this. I’ll be back for one final Symphony-related video diary entry / reminiscence on May 17th, 2020. If you’d like a reminder about that, please consider subscribing to the mailing list at author@thestephenhall.com.

Cheers and thanks again,

Stephen

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