THE NOVEL’S CHAPTERS

= CHAPTER 1 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:45 AM

In the Milky Way galaxy, somewhere in the Orion-Cygnus Arm, the endless vista of stars, stars, stars and more stars in every direction suddenly found itself interrupted.
An enormous, stately luxury liner cruised majestically through the vacuum, its spotless white hull contrasting violently with the inky blackness of its surrounds. This was the flagship of the FrontierLine Corporation’s fleet. This was The Symphony of the Stars. It was almost ludicrously grand. Everything about the Symphony’s appearance told you it was expensive. But it told you in that arrogant, bored way, that made you feel a bit guilty about bothering it in the first place. This was a ship that was designed, decorated and detailed to be seen, to elicit gasps of admiration from every passing onlooker. There were no passing onlookers right now, of course – the ship was traversing deep space. Any gasps generated here wouldn’t be from admiration; more from asphyxiation.

This is not to say, however, that the ship wasn’t currently being observed. And observed rather intently….

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On board the Symphony, in the sanctuary of her quarters, Captain Diana Singh was exhausted. She’d never allowed for anything like this, when she agreed to command one of the most luxurious cruise ships in space. She had slept fitfully last night, the recent events refusing to leave her alone, refusing to allow her to escape – however briefly – into blissfully ignorant slumber. She had been pacing her quarters for the past ten minutes, wrestling with the problem while drinking rather excellent coffee, courtesy of the replicator in her kitchen.

Now, as she sat on the edge of her bed, rubbing her eyes, the floor-to-ceiling viewscreen (although she still preferred to call it a porthole) behind her continued to display the glorious, infinite expanses of space, as they slowly slid past. Space had always enthralled her. Well, for the past fifty years, at least. Rather than a cold, lifeless vacuum, she’d always viewed space as a never-ending showground, to be endlessly explored – the ultimate collection of infinite possibilities, a profound and irresistible invitation. “This one’s a born star farer,” her mother had said, and she was right. A thousand years ago, back on earth, it was said that true seafarers were called by the North Star. Diana Singh wasn’t just called by one star – she was called by all of them.

But right now, her mind was on other matters. Right now, Captain Diana Singh was poring over her ship’s promotional brochure, wearily scanning it for clues. For anything that might spark a connection, an association, a memory. It was all she could think of. She had run out of other ideas, and was desperately trying to find anything that could get her closer, anything that would deliver some glimmer of understanding….

You’ve worked hard for your wealth, and you appreciate The Finer Things. So do we. Welcome to luxury space cruising at its most sophisticated and opulent.
Welcome aboard THE SYMPHONY OF THE STARS.

You’ve earned the elegant indulgence of a lavish, all inclusive Symphony of the Stars world-hopping experience. Design your own Symphony cruising adventure, by choosing from our 4-planet, 8-planet and 12-planet cruises.

There’s simply no better way to experience all the wonders of this solar system.

Our ‘shore leave’ planet-fall excursions are exciting, informative and fun, with the most knowledgeable guides in the industry. They’re all native to the planets you’ll be visiting, so you’ll visit all those exotic, out-of-the-way destinations that most tourists can only dream about!

On your Symphony of the Stars holiday, you can do as much – or as little – as you like.

“Pfft!” she failed to stifle a derisive snort. The glorification of indulgent laziness, that’s all this was. Although Diana Singh had been captain of this space-going monument to hedonism for five years now, she’d never truly made her peace with the role. Command of this ship was a cushy, repetitive, by-the-numbers affair; chugging along the same route at the same speed, with the same crew, year in and year out. The same destinations, the same empty entertainments, the same pointless fripperies – masked balls, cocktail receptions and dinners at the Captain’s table with the same arrogant, bloated, entitled, soft types, time and time again. She tolerated them… but only just.

Take in a live show in our 1,000 seat theatre!
Experience the very finest cuisine in our three award-winning restaurants, all featuring sumptuous, locally sourced delicacies from each of the worlds we visit.
Join our team of sommeliers for an indulgent wine-tasting from our extensive cellar, home to over 12,000 bottles of the finest and rarest and most exotic wines, spirits and liqueurs ever assembled in this – or any other – system.
Or simply relax with a drink in the elegant Shifting Sands lounge, and watch the worlds go by…

Her harsh, almost puritanical, disdain was a hangover from her days in the Third Offworld Navy.
Or her decades in the Third Offworld Navy, to be more accurate.
At first, as an aimless raw recruit in her early twenties, she found the rigid routine of naval life constraining and restrictive. But eight years after she joined, when her personal life all went to hell, that same structure proved to be her only comfort – the one thing she could depend upon. She clung to its hierarchies, its parameters, its protocols. She made them her own, and over the years, she rose through the ranks – the classic, steady upward arc of a textbook naval career.

If it’s relaxation and serenity you’re craving, the Symphony is made just for you.
We have all the latest, most immersive VR therapeutic experiences, or for a more hands-on approach, pamper yourself in our indulgent and inviting wellness spa, where our team of the very best massage therapists will ensure that all your cares simply float away.
And don’t forget the Symphony’s Tranquillity Forest® on C Deck – home to over 10,000 trees, shrubs and plants, from Earth and elsewhere, expertly curated by our team of on-board horticulturists.
And you’ll love getting lost in the Grand Library, with its expertly curated collection of 20,000 books. Actual books, printed on paper!

And don’t think we’ve forgotten the thrill seekers!
There are dozens of VR suites and anti-grav playrooms, four rock climbing walls, three swimming pools, and the Mad Maelstrom® water-slide,
dropping you a heart-pounding 150 metres!
And if you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can even suit up, step out of the airlock and take your very own Symphony Spacewalk® OUTSIDE THE SHIP!

As she read the florid descriptions of the areas of the ship she knew so well, Diana Singh tried to ignore her own experience of them. She tried to see each of these places from a different perspective, to see them through a different pair of eyes. She tried to imagine walking these well-trodden paths while inside the mind of someone else…

If shopping’s your thing, the Symphony is home to 22 of the biggest names in fashion, jewellery and the most elegant gifts created by the finest artisans in the entire system.

Your on-board accommodation is simply second to none.
Choose from 8 levels of exclusive, spacious, luxuriously appointed staterooms, all featuring fully customizable floor-to-ceiling ViewWalls.
On the Symphony of the Stars, the splendour of the stars is all yours, all the time.

Your every whim is taken care of 24 hours a day, with award-winning personalised service from an army of discreet and caring butlers, maids, concierges and valets, all in your choice of human or Synthetic Human (latest models only).

You’re someone who has arrived. And yet, your journey is just beginning.
This is the Symphony of the Stars – sophisticated, elegant cruising, for the discerning traveler.

As The Bard says… “Rich people are just like you and me – only much, much happier”.

Here on The Symphony, that’s not just our belief, it’s our promise to you.

“Our promise to you.” She was surprised to hear herself saying the words aloud. She was on the verge of making a connection, of seeing a link she hadn’t seen before. It was so close, she could almost feel it. She squinted, thinking hard; something was about to fall into place…

Her coms call alert sounded, instantly shattering any semblance of concentration. “Argh!”, she grunted, exasperated. She was sure she’d been on the verge of something. The call alert sounded again.

“Yes?” she barked. Her First Officer’s voice came through the room’s ambient speakers.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you, Captain”.

‘You should be,’ she thought. “Mr Sinclair, you do know I’m not on duty for another 45 minutes?”

“Yes Captain, but this is important. You’re urgently required on the bridge.”

She sighed “Why?”

“Pirates.”

The word took a moment to register, as her mind shifted gear. Then –

“On my way”. She hurriedly dressed and dashed out of her quarters, down the corridor, and up three levels of stairs. She jogged the last 50 meters of corridor to the bridge, deftly hopping over a football-sized maitbot that was busily repairing a hole in the carpet.

Arriving on the bridge and nodding perfunctory greetings to Second Officer Aku and Third Officer Serrano, she addressed a general enquiry to the room.

“Any other crew up yet?”

Checking his console, the Third Officer replied. “No, Captain. All crew members currently in their quarters, all Synthetic Humans powered down”.

“Thank you, Mr Serrano. Let’s keep this to ourselves for the moment, shall we? No need to alarm anyone else – they’re jittery enough already.”

Fastening the top button of her uniform – she had dressed in unusual haste – Captain Singh strode towards her right hand man, her First Officer. He wasn’t much of a right hand man, admittedly – his various weaknesses would never have passed muster in the navy – but she was stuck with him.

“Mr Sinclair, what can you tell me?”

 

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

= CHAPTER 2 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:35 AM

Just beyond the range of the Symphony’s scanners, another ship was following it, matching its speed and course exactly. Long range scanners would probably classify it as a beat-up old freighter; something built to haul mundane, heavy cargo on short interworld trips. But closer inspection revealed its many blast marks, its hastily replaced panels, lights and parts… and its weaponry. This was no ordinary cargo barge. This ship looked as though its many battle scars had taught it a lesson, and it was damn sure it was going to win the next fight. Four plasma cannons – angled North, South, East and West – jutted out from its keel. Three Destroyer-class energy mortars were mounted on its port side, matched by three on its starboard side. They in turn were flanked by two arrays of four SPR seeker missiles. A large section of the ship’s cargo hold had been converted into a bomb bay, which also housed six torpedo tubes. To add to the general air of menace, someone had welded dozens of sharp, knife-like metal protrusions onto the ship’s hull, and finished it with a paint job that suggested spattered blood. A lot of spattered blood.
This terrifying spectacle, this waking nightmare, this harbinger of violent death from the stars was the infamous pirate ship known as The Cheeky Albert.

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Inside, The Cheeky Albert’s crew had assembled in the ship’s communal area, summoned by their leader. Salazar Sharp was your typical flamboyant, amoral, charismatic, revenge-obsessed space pirate captain. He was well-versed in combat, kidnapping, piloting and various forms of weaponry. He was greedy, amoral and an Adrenalin junkie. The many years he’d spent pillaging, kidnapping, fighting, pursuing and being pursued had taken their toll on his body – a broken bone here, a scar there. Another scar there. And there, there… oh, and also there. In fact, his face had been so badly cut up in a knife fight 12 years ago, that he’d had extensive facial cosmetic surgery. This occasionally came in handy, when he’d prefer not to be recognised by associates from the old days. He possessed a certain rebellious charm, which made it easy for him to recruit new crew members, and hard for them to leave. But despite the many desperate, hair-raising, life-threatening adventures and misadventures that he and his crew had been through over the years, Salazar Sharp did not regard them as friends. Any sentimental feelings that may have dwelt in his breast were all reserved for Maggie. Maggie was five years old now, and she went everywhere with Salazar. She was playful, inquisitive, had twitchy, triangular ears and her favorite food was dragonflies. Maggie was Salazar’s pet fox, and the mascot of his ship.

Maggie was sitting contentedly at Sharp’s feet, and the ship’s first mate – a young woman named Jiang, who often acted as the captain’s conscience and the voice of reason – stood to his right, as he addressed his bleary-eyed crew.

“Look alive, everybody!” he yelled. “Today is the day. If all goes according to plan, two hours from now, every person on board this ship will be very, very rich. Evans? Can you hear me back there?”

“Aye Cap’n!” came a woman’s voice from the bridge. Evans was the Albert’s pilot, and she needed to stay at her post on the ship’s bridge, to ensure that their tracking of the Symphony stayed on course, stayed at the right velocity, and stayed undetected… until Sharp gave the word.

“Good.” Sharp continued. “As you all know, the Symphony of the Stars has been of special interest to me for a very long time now. Jiang and I have done a lot of homework on this ship, on its captain, and on its so-called ‘secret’ cargo. Now, we all know exactly what its cargo is….”

Smiles broke out on each of the eleven faces watching their captain. They were definitely waking up now.

“We all know exactly what its cargo is worth…”

Excitement rippled throughout the crew. Some of them giggled excitedly, nudging each other, and shifting on their feet, as greed bubbled through their bodies.

“And today, ladies, gentlemen…” Sharp continued, “WE WILL RELIEVE THE SYMPHONY OF THAT CARGO!”

A spontaneous, avaricious cheer burst from the crew. Its suddenness startled Maggie, and she ducked behind Sharp’s legs, as he waited for the hubbub to die down.

“But hear this… I want this raid to be as peaceful as possible. This is a cruise ship. It’s a soft target. Its crew are essentially waiters and maids. A couple of them may have weapons, but they won’t have the knowhow – or the guts – to use them. So on this incursion, you are to avoid any casualties.”

From Sharp’s side, First Mate Jiang chipped in; “Gotmund? Did you get that?”

Gotmund – a brawny, blond mountain of a man at the back of the room – nodded seriously. He was disappointed to hear this, but he accepted it. Gotmund was the muscles of the crew, and loved employing his considerable brute strength in fighting. He always won, and that made him feel good. A simple pleasure, but Gotmund was a simple man. He sighed, and contented himself with the knowledge that he’d be able to put his strength to good use in shifting the cargo.

“Yes,” Gotmund said.

“Say it back to me,” Jiang said.

“Avoid any casualties,” Gotmund said forlornly.

“Good, Gotmund,” said Jiang. “Captain?”

Sharp continued the briefing. “So, you all know what will happen next; I will contact the captain of the Symphony, inform her that we will be docking with her ship, that we will be entering their cargo hold, that we will be taking their cargo and that we will be leaving with it. She will protest, and attempt to take evasive action. They will not be able to outrun us, due to our superior speed, our superior manoeuvrability and the most excellent piloting work of Evans…”

“Thank you!” chirped Evans’s voice from around the corner.

“… and we will have them. If she chooses to voice any troublesome objections at this point, a warning shot or two should clarify her thinking. What sort of ordnance do you suggest?”

The question was addressed to Richards, a wiry, tense young woman sporting two pistols in hip holsters and a rifle slung over her back. Although her official role in the Albert’s crew was ‘weapons expert’, a more accurate description would be ‘weapons fanatic.’ She was a woman who loved her work.
“I’d say a couple of rounds from the plasma cannons across the bow, then I’d follow that with four little proton disruptor stingers glancing off the port side aft, four off the starboard side and two more just grazing their bridge. That’ll show ‘em we mean business.”

Raising his eyebrows, Sharp replied “Thank you, Richards. We will of course halve those numbers. This measure will ensure that Captain Singh is of a reasonable frame of mind, and she will then allow us to dock with them, via the cargo access hatch in the hull, aft -”

Jiang interrupted “Sorry Cap’n, just to check…” then, raising her voice, “Evans, do you foresee any problems with the docking procedure?”
“Nope!” came the cheerful reply from around the corner. Sharp nodded, and continued the briefing.

Two crew members at the back of the group were not paying attention. The taller, muscular man – Skarsgard – was listening to his diminutive best friend Fullbrook, as he outlined his plans for his share of the loot.
“Well, not so much a mansion… more a palace, really,” Fullbrook enthused. “They’ve got all these beautiful grand palaces built into cliffs overlooking the sea, from 500 years ago or something. On the Northern continent. I can’t believe you don’t know the waterworld Fontora. It’s even one of the Symphony’s destinations!”
“Sorry,” said Skarsgard.
“I forgive you, mate – I’ll even let you come and visit! Hey, why don’t you buy a palace there too? We can be neighbours!”
“In a beautiful grand palace next door to your beautiful grand palace?” asked Skarsgard.
“In a beautiful grand palace next door to my beautiful grand palace!”
Skarsgard laughed. He had always found Fullbrook’s enthusiasm contagious, ever since they were at school together.
“It’s a thought, I suppose,” he said.
“More than a thought, buddy,” Fullbrook countered. “It’s a certainty! Mate, when we make this haul… you and I will be able to buy anything we want. Any. Thing. The only limit is your imagination! Think big, Skarsgard!”
Skarsgard nodded, and said “To quote the Bard, ‘My favourite amount of anything is’…”
Fullbrook joined him in completing the quote “…‘TOO MUCH’!”
Skarsgard looked around the room at his crewmates – at Suarez, Jelani, Devereux, Lightfoot and A.J. By the end of the day, they’d all be filthy rich. Each of them would have more loot than they could spend in five lifetimes.

First Mate Jiang took over the briefing, running final individual pre-raid checks with all crew members.

“Richards,” she called, “do all crew members have fully charged weapons, all set to ‘stun’, and spare ordnance?”

“Aye.”

“Devereux, do you have all the codes needed to access the Symphony’s docking bay, its cargo hold, and all doors in between?”

“Aye.”

“Jelani! As the captain said, we’re not expecting significant trouble, but you do have your full field medikit, all instruments and medical supplies, just in case?”

“Aye.”

“AJ? Lightfoot? You good to go?”

“Good to go,” barked A.J.

“Good to go,” barked Lightfoot.

First Mate Jiang turned her attention to the ship’s cook – a portly, sweating man in his late thirties. “And finally, Suarez! This is a big day, and we all have a lot of work to do – do all crew members have full bellies?”
“They do indeed!” Suarez boomed merrily.

Salazar had picked up Maggie the fox, and was now holding and stroking her as he came to the end of his briefing. “One more thing. Once we’re on board the Symphony, do you all know where to meet, if I need to call a three-fourteen?”

General affirmative noises from the crew.

“Good. Any questions? Yes, Gotmund?”

“Cap’n, I know you said no casualties… but how do you feel about injuries?”

Salazar gave a non-committal shrug.

Gotmund smirked, as Fullbrook’s hand shot up.

“Yes, Fullbrook?”

“How will you be spending your share, Cap’n?”

Various crew members smirked, and looked at Sharp curiously.

“I’ll think about that once we’ve got it back here. Now, unless there are any other questions…?”

There weren’t.

“Good luck, everyone…” He looked each of his crew members quickly in the eye, as he milked the pause… “Now let’s GET RICH!”

Another covetous cheer went up from the crew, as Salazar strode from the communal area to the bridge.

The crew dispersed. Some checked their weapons again, some challenged others to a game to pass the time, while others returned to their quarters, hoping to get a little rest before the raid.

Salazar and Jiang arrived on the bridge, where the pilot Evans was closely monitoring the console in front of her.

“Evans, it’s time. Let them see us.”

Evans nudged the controls, and The Cheeky Albert accelerated slightly, smoothly surging forward and into the range of the Symphony’s scanners.
Salazar and Jiang exchanged looks. The Symphony of The Stars would be able to detect them now, and would surely be hailing them in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Salazar took a deep breath, considering all the planning he’d done to bring them to this point. Still cradling Maggie in his arms, he absently scratched her head, tickling her behind the ears. They waited.

A minute passed.

Maggie grew restless, wriggling in Salazar’s arms. He put her down, and she scampered off down a corridor.

Another minute passed. It seemed somehow slower than the first one.

Jiang felt the need to check. “Evans, we’re definitely detectable by their scanners at this range?”

“Yep,” the pilot assured her.

A third, separate, different minute passed. What was taking them so long? Salazar had spent countless hours studying Captain Diana Singh, and he was sure she would have been onto them before this.

Less than a minute later, four minutes had passed, and he was beginning to wonder if he’d misjudged Captain Singh. Had he made a serious error? He was just about to ask Jiang’s opinion when a voice crackled over the Albert’s speakers.

“Unidentified craft, this is Captain Diana Singh of the civilian cruise ship Symphony of the Stars. Please state your name, cargo and destination.”

Salazar took  a deep breath, as he thought ‘Well, here goes….’

 

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

= CHAPTER 3 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:50 AM

On the bridge of the Albert, the voice of the Symphony’s captain was heard loud and clear:

“Please state your name, cargo and destination.”

Salazar took a deep breath. Showtime!

“Open the channel,” Salazar told Evans. “But audio only. I don’t want her to see me just yet… State our name? Why, Diana! Are you telling me you don’t recognise the universally feared and dreaded pirate ship known as The Cheeky Albert?”

“I’m afraid not.”

She looked at her First Officer, Mr Sinclair, who shrugged.

“To whom do I have the honour of speaking?” she enquired.

“Oh Diana, I beg your pardon – how rude of me. I… am Salazar Sharp! Soldier of Fortune, Plunderer of Riches, Fighter of Fights, Breaker of Hearts, Scourge of the Stars, and devoted pet owner.”

‘Modest,’ she thought. “I am Diana Singh, captain of -”

“- the civilian cruise ship Symphony of the Stars,” he interrupted. “I know. You’ve been in the post since its maiden voyage five years ago. The FrontierLine Corporation sought you out for the role, coaxing you away from your distinguished 40 year career in the Third Offworld Navy, which saw you honoured with several awards, including the Order of the Blue Star for exemplary bravery and the prestigious Cross of the Three Navies.”

Captain Singh was starting to feel uneasy – how did he know so much about her?

“It appears you have the advantage of me, Captain Sharp. I must ask you again – will you please state your cargo and destination?”

“Certainly, of course, I’d be happy to. Cargo? We don’t currently have any cargo on board, Diana, but I do most certainly have plans to rectify that. And as to your second question… our destination is your cargo hold. My crew and I will be docking with your ship shortly, entering the cargo hold, and relieving you of your secret payload.”

“What?”

“Oh, I’m sorry – was that not clear? We’re gonna steal your cargo. Within the next hour or so.”

“I’m sorry Captain Sharp… Cargo? What cargo?”, asked Captain Singh. “We’re not a cargo ship, we’re a cruise liner.”

“Yes, I am aware you’re a cruise liner, thank you Diana,” Salazar said, a little condescendingly. “I’m referring to the secret payload you’re delivering to your bosses at the FrontierLine Corporation, on this particular voyage.”

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh, First Officer Sinclair, Second Officer Aku and Third Officer Serrano all exchanged concerned looks.

“Oh come on. You know… ” Salazar continued. “The cargo whose very existence is so highly classified that most of your crew aren’t even aware that you’re carrying it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Captain Singh said.

“Aaah, but that’s the thing, Diana – you do. You’re one of the few people who actually has the security clearance to know exactly what I’m taking about.”

“Captain Sharp, I can assure you that The Symphony of the Stars is nothing more than a humble luxury cruise ship …”

Diana paused. Thinking, stalling for time.

Salazar paused too, but his was more for dramatic effect.

Sensing the time was right to break both of these (simultaneous, identical, matching His ‘n’ Hers) pauses, Salazar spoke.

“I’m talking about the gold, Diana.”

“Gold?”, she spluttered.

“Gold. That pallet in your cargo hold, holding ten tonnes of gold bars. You know the one? About a meter high, a meter wide, a meter deep? Shiny? Sort of… golden coloured? So much heavier than it looks? THAT gold.”

Silence hung heavy in the air on the Symphony’s bridge. Sinclair, Aku and Serrano looked expectantly at their Captain. Though her face remained perfectly still, myriad options efficiently whirled through Diana Singh’s mind for half a second, before she settled on one.

She burst out laughing.

“GOLD? And TEN TONNES, you say? Oh, that’s good! That is a good one!”

First Officer Sinclair and the others copied their captain’s laughing – tentatively, unconvincingly.

“Ha ha ha ha hhaaa….”

Captain Singh continued, still chuckling, “You have a very fertile imagination, Captain Sharp – I’ll give you that. Of course I can see why you, as a professional pirate, would love us to be carrying ten tonnes of gold, ripe for the picking… but what conceivable reason could you have for thinking that we actually are?”

“One of my crew members, Lightfoot, is extremely proficient at – shall we say – research”, he answered. “She can find almost any information, including information that doesn’t particularly want to be found. She tells me the FrontierLine Corporation has recently converted some of its considerable assets, and is in the process of discreetly bringing them home to their central operational HQ. Of course, I don’t know why they’ve converted this portion of their immense wealth into gold bars, and frankly it’s none of my business, but -”

Captain Singh snorted. “’None of your business’? After what you’ve said so far, that’s a bit rich!”

Sharp raised an eyebrow. “Is that supposed to be a pun?”

“No.” she said.

Captain Diana Singh did not do puns. “Do go on.”

“Diana, you said it yourself – the Symphony is just a humble luxury cruise ship. It’s easily overlooked, an indulgent spacefaring hotel for vacuous, overentitled holiday makers. Sure, anyone could expect to find a few trinkets in the safes in the passengers’ cabins… but no one would ever think to look for ten tonnes of gold in your cargo hold.”

Salazar Sharp allowed himself a self-congratulatory glance to Jiang and Evans.

“… Well, almost no one.”

Captain Singh had clicked into alert battle mode, and was trying to think three moves ahead. She silently signalled Second Officer Aku to begin rousing and briefing the crew. She’d need them all assembled on the bridge and awaiting their orders as quickly, efficiently and quietly as possible.

This was not a drill.

Grateful that the link was audio only, so Salazar couldn’t see these preparations, she asked “So what exactly are your intentions, Captain Sharp?”

“I just told you. We’re going to dock with your ship, come inside and steal all the gold. Any resistance you give us will be met with extreme violent force.”

Captain Diana Singh drew herself up to her full, impressive height.

“You know I can’t allow you to do that, Captain Sharp. I can not, and I will not, let you attack a civilian ship full of innocent passengers. 2000 innocent people; men, women, and children!”

“You’re quite right, Diana. But you see… you won’t be letting me do that. Because the Symphony isn’t currently carrying any passengers, is it? You and I both know that you’re currently bringing the empty ship back to drydock, for the round of repairs and maintenance that’s scheduled every five years”.

Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair looked at each other, flabbergasted, both wondering the same thing – how the hell did he know that?

“Oh, and in case you’re wondering how the hell I knew that…” Sharp continued, “… My researcher, remember? So right now, the only souls on board your ship are you and the thirteen members of your skeleton crew. And given that it’s not yet 6 AM, I’d be willing to bet that apart from the two or three of you on the bridge, all the others are still fast asleep in their quarters down on F deck.”

Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair exchanged a look. Well, he was half right.

“And if you’re wondering how I know where the crew’s quarters are -”

“Your ‘researcher’.” said Captain Singh, flatly.

“No, I read the brochure. So! If you’d be so kind as to make your way to the main docking bay door, Captain, my crew and I scheduled to be there in – Evans?”

Evans checked the screen in front of her.

“Three and a half minutes, Cap’n.”

“Three and a half minutes. Oh, and Diana,” Salazar continued. “Please don’t bother altering the encryption on the docking locks, or changing or updating any of your ‘randomly generated’ security algorithms in an attempt to keep us out. I have a crew member for all that stuff as well.”

This time, the pause was Captain Singh’s, and hers alone. And when she spoke, her tone was grave, threatening.

“You will fail in this, Captain Sharp. I will see to that.”

“I mean what I say, Diana,” Sharp responded. “If you – or any of your crew – offer any resistance, we will meet it with extreme violent force.”

On the Symphony‘s bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair caught Captain Singh’s eye. He looked sweaty, anxious. Although she gave him a reassuring nod, she couldn’t help thinking ‘When’s this man going to grow a backbone?’

Salazar’s voice bounced back onto the bridge of the Symphony; “See you soon, Diana!”

Although she couldn’t see his face, Captain Singh knew he’d said that with a wink.

The channel closed. Three minutes now. She’d have to move fast. Tapping the captain’s insignia on the shoulder of her uniform which also served as her communicator, she called “Ms Aku?”

“Yes Captain?” the Second Officer’s voice replied.

“The crew’s ETA on the bridge, please?”

“One minute, save for Ms Arenson, who insisted on resuming her post in Engineering.”

“Just so. Thank you, Ms Aku.” Captain Singh tapped the insignia again.

“Mr Torrence?”

“Yes Captain?” a male voice, gruff.

“If ever we needed a Chief Security Officer and Master-at-arms, that time is now. Please retrieve all of the ship’s personal armaments from the weapons locker and bring them to the bridge. Take Mr Ellis and Mr Ferrer to assist you.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Thank you, Mr Torrence.”

Tap.

“Ms Arenson, are you currently in Engineering?”

“Yes, Captain,” came the reply from the Chief Engineer.

“I’m about to order Evasive Protocol Sequence 001. Please be prepared to accommodate and compensate for any sudden power fluctuations.”

“Yes Captain.”

“Thank you Ms Arenson”. Turning her attention back to the bridge, and her Third Officer…

“I expect you overheard that, Mr Serrano. On my mark, please engage Evasive Protocol Sequence 001. Let’s show that conceited privateer that this ship is a lot faster than it looks.”

“Yes Captain,” said Mr Serrano.

“….Now!”

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

If you’d been observing the Symphony of the Stars from outside the ship from a fixed point in space, what you’d have seen next was this.

The liner’s bow dropped 90 degrees as its velocity increased threefold. It raced downwards in a straight line, before abruptly turning to starboard. Then it accelerated again, reaching five times its usual cruising velocity, and heading straight for a small moon nearby. Just when it seemed like it was on a certain collision course, it swung quickly to starboard again, as its engines pulsed, their outlets glowing brighter and brighter as they neared their limits, roughly booting the ship forward, suddenly at eight times its cruising velocity.

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

And when Salazar Sharp and his crew observed the Symphony of the Stars from inside their ship, they saw pretty much the same thing.

“Impressive,” he nodded. “Then again, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from her. Evans, let’s keep up with them, if we can.”

“’If we can?’” Evans snorted derisively, as she expertly manipulated the console in front of her, putting the Albert’s photon engines through their paces. The Albert matched the Symphony’s varying velocity and trajectory easily. Evans’s expert piloting put the two vessels in such close unison, it was as though the cruise ship was casting a smaller, spiky, blood-spattered shadow.

“So we’re on them, then?” Salazar asked.

“Stuck like glue, Cap’n,” was Evans’s answer.

“You want to open channels again, Cap’n?” asked Jiang.

“Not just yet; I think this calls for some more direct communication. Do the warning shot thing, Evans.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

While still expertly shadowing the ducking, weaving, lurching, rolling behemoth, Evans tapped her console, and the Albert’s warning shot program was engaged.

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

If you’d been observing this moment from outside from a fixed point in space, you’d have seen that the Symphony had decided to slow down now, and was resuming a more fixed, stable course. You’d have come to the conclusion that the enormous, stately liner had quickly realised it was just too slow and unwieldy to outrun the nimble, spiky speed machine that was virtually clinging to its hull.

And you’d have been right.

Predictably, the Albert echoed the Symphony’s moves perfectly, also slowing and taking a more steady-as-she-goes line.

A moment passed.

And then, just as the Symphony was meekly slowing to its usual cruising speed, came the ‘warning shots’.

There were two ominous thuds, as the Albert’s plasma cannons shot two brilliant blue energy bolts across the bow of the Symphony, each coming so close that it left scorch marks on the hull. Then, from the energy mortar arrays, two small proton disruptor missiles launched and sped towards the cruiser. Then four more. Then another two. And another two. Ten in total, all locked on and rocketing towards different spots on the Symphony’s pristine, white, expensive hull. As each one impacted, a small explosion erupted, as a section of the cruiser’s outer metal skin was violently ripped off and sent hurtling into space.

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

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh was furious.

“What the HELL? Is that their idea of warning shots? Computer! Damage report.”

“No crew or passengers have been harmed. Minor localised hull breaches in ten locations,” was the reply, in the usual reassuring times of the ship’s computer. “Compartments adjacent to all breaches have been isolated and voided of oxygen. Maitbots have been dispatched to all damaged locations to commence repairs”.

“Why did they do that?” First Officer Sinclair stammered in disbelief. “We’d slowed! It was clear that we were no threat to them, and we certainly weren’t going to be able to outrun them…”

On the bridge of the Albert, Salazar Sharp wasn’t exactly thrilled, either.

“What the HELL? Evans, is that your idea of warning shots?”

“Don’t blame me,” the pilot protested. “The warning shots protocol was programmed by Richards. And anyway, they’re only little ones – the damage isn’t as bad as it looks.”

Salazar fumed “RICHARDS! Get in here!”

First Mate Jiang and Evans the pilot looked at each other.

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” said Jiang. “We’ve got them where we want them.”

On the bridge of the Symphony, First Officer Sinclair and Third Officer Serrano looked to their captain.

“Well, gentlemen, they’ve got us where they want us,” she said. “But what they don’t know is that they’ve just signed up for one hell of a fight.”

 

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.

= CHAPTER 4 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

5:52 AM

On the bridge of the Cheeky Albert, Captain Salazar Sharp gave the order to his pilot, Evans; “Open the channel again.”

“Audio only?” asked Evans.

“Audio only.”

She nodded to Salazar, letting him know that they were now in contact with the Symphony.

“Captain Singh,” said Salazar. “I did warn you that any resistance would be met with extreme violent force…”
‘… But I wasn’t thinking quite THAT violent, thanks Richards,’ he thought.

“So you did, Captain Sharp, so you did,” came the slightly bitter response. “In my long career, I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered another vessel whose warning shots ripped ten holes in my ship.”

There was a tense pause. Salazar was about to apologise, but a stern glance from Jiang told him to maintain a dignified silence. Or as close as he could get to a dignified silence, anyway.

Captain Singh continued, “You have bested us, Captain Sharp. Your ship is faster and more manoeuvrable than mine, and I now have a very clear understanding of the weaponry at your disposal, and your willingness to deploy it. We cannot outrun you, and we cannot outgun you. I find myself with very few options…”

Salazar, Evans and Jiang exchanged expectant looks.

“And so,” continued Captain Singh, “my crew and I will expect you in our docking bay shortly. I remind you, Captain Sharp, that we are a civilian cruise ship. We are not a military vessel. My crew are all innocent people, just doing their jobs. As you pointed out, most of them were not even aware of the cargo which has made us your target today. I implore you to remember this, Captain Sharp. These are innocent people, just doing their jobs.”

Salazar was impressed by her dignity. She had failed to protect the men and women under her command, and she knew it. She was beaten. But she held her head high, and even now, was still fighting for the safety of her crew, the only way she currently could. He admired that; she was indeed a worthy adversary. She had been rational, she had been articulate and, although they were enemies, she had treated him with respect. He owed her the same.

“Sure. See you soon!”

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

On the Symphony, crew members were arriving on the bridge, joining Captain Singh, First Officer Sinclair and Third Officer Serrano.
The captain greeted them all formally, as usual.

“Good morning, Mr Martell, Dr Zivai.”

“Good morning, Captain,” said the Cruise Director and Ship’s Doctor.

“Good morning, Mr Lebedev, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Abara”.

More “Good morning, Captain”s from the Chief Steward, Second Engineer and Chief Technology Officer.

“… and good morning to you, Ms LeGuin”.

“Good morning, Captain,” said Deck Rating LeGuin, the most junior crew member there.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” continued Captain Singh. “we are about to be boarded by pirates.”

There were sharp intakes of breath and sounds of surprise from the crew.

“A short time ago, I spoke with Captain Salazar Sharp of the pirate vessel known as the Cheeky Albert…”

She paused to gauge her crew’s reaction to the name of this supposedly dreaded scourge of the system. Nothing.

“… and he informed me of his intention to board the Symphony, with his crew, and steal the payload that’s currently secreted in our main cargo hold. We employed evasive manoeuvres – which you would have felt as you made your way up here – but they proved unsuccessful. The pirate vessel has subsequently fired upon us, creating minor damage to the hull in ten locations…”

The assembled crew exchanged anxious glances, as they absorbed this information – this was going from bad to worse.

“… None of which is serious, all of which is being repaired. I am sorry to inform you, though,” her tone growing more grave, “that Captain Sharp and his crew will be boarding in approximately two minutes.”

At that moment, Chief Security Officer Torrence strode onto the bridge, carrying five close-defence plasma rifles. Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ellis entered behind him, carrying another ten guns between them. They began distributing the rifles amongst the assembled crew.

“I- I never knew there were so many guns on board”, First Officer Sinclair said apprehensively, as he unconsciously took one step away from the tall, stern Chief Security Officer.

“That’s because you didn’t need to know” said Mr Torrance, briskly distributing rifles to other nonplussed crew members.

“But we’re just a cruise ship!” Mr Sinclair protested lamely.

“Can’t be too careful,” said Mr Torrence, as he thrust a rifle into the startled Cruise Director’s hands.

Chief Security Officer James Torrence was one of three ex-military personnel currently on board the Symphony. Along with Mr Chamberlain – the ship’s Second Engineer – he had served with Captain Singh in the navy, and she had coaxed both of her old comrades to join her when she signed on for this cushy position. Mr Torrence’s duties aboard the Symphony of the Stars were a far cry from his earlier adventures. No espionage here, no high-speed chases, no infiltrating enemy encampments. No gun fights, grenade lobbing or hand-to-hand combat. The only action he’d seen on board the Symphony was breaking up a brawl in The Shifting Sands, and throwing the two would-be warriors in the ship’s brig overnight to sober up. He’d never admit it to anyone, but he secretly welcomed the prospect of a pirate incursion. The threat of being boarded by bloodthirsty bandits in a matter of moments had excitement coursing through his veins. For the first time in a long time, Chief Security Officer Mr Torrence felt ALIVE.

Mr Serrano and Mr Ellis handed the remaining rifles around, and the freshly armed, extremely worried cruise ship crew stood facing their captain.

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

The Albert made its way inexorably toward the Symphony’s docking bay hatch, sliding along the length of the larger ship’s hull. Its pace was leisurely, and the two ships’ hulls almost touched; the Albert was definitely invading the Symphony’s personal space.
In fact, if both ships were at a party, the Symphony would have nervously cleared its throat, self-consciously looked away, and made an excuse to go and get another drink.
That’s if it had a throat. And eyes. And if it was able to drink, and got invited to parties.

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

On the Albert’s bridge, Evans’s delicate piloting brought the Albert’s main hatch into contact with the docking bay hatch. She killed the engines, and engaged the magnetic clamp and airlock protocols. The two portals were far from an exact fit – the Symphony’s hatch was at least twice the size of the Albert’s. Gaining access wasn’t going to be one of Devereux’s delicate code-breaking, lock-picking jobs – this time, it was going to require some old-school breaking and entering.
“A.J?” called Salazar.
“Aye, Cap’n?”, called the crew’s mechanic.
“Got a little metalwork assignment for you.”
“No problem, Cap’n. I’m happier cutting than shooting,” said A.J., patting one of the many power tools strapped into the multi-pocketed harness covering his powerful torso.
“I may need you to do a bit of both this time.”
“Aye, Cap’n.”
The volume of Salazar’s voice increased now, as he addressed the entire crew.
“Alright, ladies, gentlemen – this is it! As A.J.’s cutting through the door, I want us all to assume the usual incursion formation. Now, I don’t expect any resistance from their ‘welcoming committee’. We’ve shown them we’re a force to be reckoned with, there’s only about a dozen of them, and they’re all soft! Just waiters and maids. We will all be armed, with weapons drawn and aimed. They will not be armed – “
Jiang whispered in Salazar’s ear.
“Good point, Jiang. Correction – one of them may be armed. That’d be their Security Officer. But that’s only one person, so let’s make sure they understand that they’re well and truly outgunned. And remember, the aim is no casualties. So let’s get on board…”
Excited rumblings amongst the crew.
“Let’s get to the hold…”
Shuffling feet and eager elbow nudging amongst the crew.
“And let’s GET THAT GOLD!”
There was an explosion of energy in another avaricious cheer, and all twelve members of the Albert’s crew charged towards the ship’s main hatch, as Maggie ran along behind them. As they jogged, an impromptu chant went up;
“Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!
Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!
Get to the hold, GET THAT GOLD!”

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

On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh was fielding apprehensive questions from her extremely jumpy crew.

“Captain, you really want to give each and every one of us a gun?”asked the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev. “After what’s been happening here over the last few days?”

Captain Singh answered without hesitation. “Faced with these thieving, murderous marauders, we’d be extremely foolish not to be armed. Mr Torrence?”

“Agreed, Captain. Our only problem,” the Chief Security Officer answered, “is that we don’t have ENOUGH guns.”

“And hear this,” the captain continued. “You are not to set your guns to stun; all rifles are to be configured to their fullest lethal capabilities. And that is an order. We will give no quarter. They see us as a flying hotel full of gutless, soft hospitality staff, but they are in for a very nasty surprise. Ladies, gentlemen, we have a common enemy here; an enemy outside the Symphony.”

“To add to the enemy we’ve got inside…” thought twelve of the thirteen crew members listening to her.

The captain continued. “Now is not the time to be afraid.”

“No kidding – we’ve been afraid for weeks,” thought those same twelve crew members.

Noting their frightened expressions, the captain continued. “Of course I’m mindful of recent events. And if fear is something you already have, then use it! Channel it into your efforts to repel them! Let’s show them that we are a force to be reckoned with. Let’s arm up, let’s get down to that docking bay, and let’s blast them right off the Symphony and back on to their ridiculous, spiky bucket of bolts!”

Her words seemed to be working. The crew members seemed to be standing taller. She delivered her final reassurance.

“… And I’ll be right there with you.”

“Begging your pardon, Captain,” It was Chief Security Officer Torrence. “but I must strongly advise you to remain on the bridge. It’s the captain’s place. Right now, we need you in command more than we need you in combat. I know you’re a warrior, captain – you don’t need to prove that to any of us – but your place is on the bridge.”

He looked deep into her eyes. They’d known each other so long – and been through so much together over the years – that she knew that this time, he was right.

She capitulated. “Just so, Mr Torrence.”

“And might I suggest, Captain, that you keep First Officer Sinclair here with you, to assist with the co-ordination of operations?”

“Just so. Mr Sinclair, you’re with me.”

Realising he’d now be well away from any fighting, First Officer Sinclair released a rather unmanly squeak of relief.

Mr Torrence took command of the rest of the crew now. “Ladies, gentlemen… let’s make our way to the docking bay. Safety catches off. Good luck, one and all.”

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

The Albert‘s crew had assembled just inside the ship’s main external hatch, where Salazar was checking a display panel on the wall. The integrity of the seal between the two ships was confirmed. He hit a control on the wall, and the external hatch slid open, to reveal the pristine white metal of the cruise liner’s docking bay door.

“A.J.,” he said. “Over to you.”

The ship’s mechanic stepped up to the door, ignited his portable welder, and holding it at arm’s length, began deftly cutting a straight horizontal line through the metal, just above head height. The other pirates shifted excitedly from foot to foot, eager for the moment when they would burst through…

Within a minute, A.J. had expertly burned the outline of a large rectangle – two meters high and four meters wide. As the last shower of sparks was hitting the floor, he deactivated and holstered his welder, and planted a well-aimed kick at the middle of the rectangle. With a quick, metallic wrenching sound, the last scraps of metal connecting the shape to its surrounds snapped, and the enormous slab of steel fell forward and onto the floor of the Symphony’s docking bay, landing with a reverberating boom.

The twelve well-armed crew members of the Albert were surprised to find themselves face to face with eleven equally well-armed, wild-eyed Symphony crew members, whose fear and aggression were so palpable, it was only an instant before the first shot was fired.

In some ways, though, that instant felt more like a week…

 

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.

= CHAPTER 5 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
5:54 AM

The Albert’s twelve crew members were stunned to see eleven members of the Symphony’s crew pointing eleven close-range plasma rifles at them. ‘They’ve all got guns? All of them?!’, thought Salazar. ‘But they’re just waiters and maids…’ Despite his shock, he did manage to shout the two words his crew needed to hear.

“TAKE COVER!”

The pirates all sprang back into the Albert, behind the jagged, smoking edges of A.J.’s freshly-cut entrance way, just as a volley of blue plasma bolts seared the air around them, slamming into one of the Albert’s interior walls behind them, burning and tearing holes in the dirty grey metal.

“WAIT! Stop, stop, STOP!”, Salazar shouted. “HOLD YOUR FIRE!”

The cruise ship’s crew did not comply.

Terrified, paranoid, and unfamiliar with how guns actually worked, they kept firing and firing and firing again, not focussing, not aiming… just blindly shooting bolt after bolt of lethal concentrated energy. Explosions peppered the Albert’s floor, its ceiling, its internal doors. It was fortunate there were no significant control panels or instrument consoles near the Albert’s main hatch; they’d have been obliterated by this indeterminate strafing. As it was, the Albert’s main hatch opened into a dingy, empty gunmetal antechamber – there were a couple of corners to hide behind, but with twelve pirates currently scrambling to save their skins, demand for these hidey-holes was high.

The Symphony’s docking bay could afford its crew more cover – there were bulkheads, structural supporting columns and instrument consoles, even a couple of lifeboats to hide behind.

The gunfire, yelling and smoke made it impossible for Salazar and his crew to know what was going on. Who was where? Were they all shooting? How many shots did they have left? When would they stop? Although it felt like they were being attacked by an army, the pirates actually outnumbered their opponents. The Symphony’s captain and First Officer were still on the bridge, their Chief Engineer had stayed in Engineering, and their Chief Steward, the prim and proper Mr Lebedev, had lost his resolve, dropped his gun and run screaming from the room the moment the first shot was fired. It was now twelve against ten. Twelve experienced, battle-hardened, soldiers of fortune armed to the teeth… against ten terrified, hysterical, cruise liner employees ruled only by fear and panic.

The Symphony’s crew was confused, frantic. No longer ruled by reason, they kept blindly firing their guns – guns most of them had never used – in random yet deadly swirls, loops, waves and sweeps.

The Albert’s crew – all vastly better marksmen and women – returned warning fire, in those rare moments when they could get a retaliatory shot. They deliberately aimed above their adversaries’ heads, or at the floor in front of them; they only wanted to scare them into submission.

“WE DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU!” yelled Jiang.
“WE JUST WANT THE GOLD!” yelled Fullbrook.

Like Salazar said, the folks they were up against were just waiters and maids, who didn’t deserve to die today…. But the pirates’ merciful impulses were being ever so slightly tested by the fact that THE SYMPHONY CREW WOULD NOT STOP SHOOTING AT THEM! Well, perhaps not specifically at them – the terror-stricken cruise crew seemed to be shooting at everything – walls, floors, ceilings… in fact, it was only dumb luck that prevented them from shooting each other.

Being under this barrage of blindly aimed fire tipped some of the pirates over the edge and into a revenge frenzy; they returned fire; serious fire. Shots that were intended to kill – but their opportunities for clear shots were few and far between.

The Symphony’s docking bay had become a maelstrom of panicked, incompetent, deadly chaos.

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From the bridge, Captain Singh and First Officer Sinclair had been watching, with growing horror. Watching, that is, until all the docking bay’s CCTV cameras were destroyed by various random blasts. Now that they’d lost their eyes on the docking bay, all they had was the static-plagued audio feed; the gunshots, the explosions, the grunting, screaming and indistinct yelling…

Tapping the insignia on her uniform, Captain Singh opened her personal communicator.

Symphony crew, report in!” she yelled, struggling to be heard above the mayhem.

SYMPHONY CREW, REPORT IN!” She yelled again, louder this time.

No crew member responded. They were too busy blindly firing in the general direction of the intruders.

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

The pirates realised that this wasn’t planned. They’d all been in enough gunfights to know the danger posed by an amateur with a gun. But these weren’t just any amateurs with guns – they were angry, terrified, panicked, irrational. And most of them looked like they’d never even seen a gun, let alone fired one. They only barely knew which end the trigger was at. And yet, they fired. And they fired, and they fired, and they fired again. Horizontal storms of plasma bolts continued to rip into the walls and floors around the pirates, and strafe the corners they scrambled to hide behind.

Richards had had enough. Holding an augmented photon pistol in each hand, she jumped out from her bolt hole, letting loose a visceral roar, as she blasted away at her assailants in the docking bay. None of her shots found them, in their protected positions. And somehow they still managed to keep firing in her direction, in the direction of her crew mates… in all directions, in fact. Even into the ceiling above them.

Richards’ attempt told her best friend – the brutish Gotmund – that it was time for him to obey his warrior instincts too. He’d played nice for long enough. It was time to click in to battle mode, and change the outcome of this fight, the only way he knew how. Gotmund had spotted one member – and only one member – of the Symphony crew who seemed to know what he was doing. This tall, stern-looking man had been aiming at the pirates before shooting. He moved quickly, smoothly, efficiently, the shots pulsing from his gun at rapid, measured intervals. He was the only one of them who was shooting to kill. Gotmund surmised that this man was the cruise ship’s Chief Security Officer… and the pirates’ biggest threat. Choosing his moment carefully, Gotmund waited until yet another volley of plasma bolts had strafed the wall behind him, leapt up from his cover position, fired two bolts directly at the man’s chest, and ducked down again.

Mr Torrence was jolted backwards and off his feet. A stunned expression on his face, his hands released their grip on his rifle, as he fell in a heavy, dislocated heap on the floor. He lay there, motionless. This sent a shock of horror through the three crew mates fighting alongside him – Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer. They were stupefied that their Master-at-arms had fallen at the hands of these intruders, and so quickly. Each of them realised, in a flash of nauseating clarity, that they could be next. They fled from the docking bay, deserting their crew mates and sprinting off into the depths of the ship.

Although he was still hiding, pressed up hard against the grimy metal of one of his ship’s bulkheads, Salazar saw them go, and seized the moment.

“Ha ha! THREE OF YOU JUST RAN AWAY, SO THAT LEAVES ONLY SIX! THE MATHEMATICIANS AMONG YOU WILL REALISE THAT, AS A RESULT, THERE’S NOW TWICE AS MANY OF US AS THERE ARE OF YOU! LOOK, WE ALL KNOW HOW THIS IS GOING TO END, SO I THINK IT WOULD BE IN YOUR BEST INTERESTS IF YOU JUST -”

He suddenly stopped as he realised he didn’t need to yell; his voice could be heard clearly. The gunfire had stopped. It had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Salazar chanced a swift look around the corner, and into the docking bay of the larger ship.

Empty. The remaining six crew members had disappeared.

From the moment the first shot was fired until now had probably only been about forty seconds.

Salazar waited a couple more, before motioning to his crew to move into the docking bay, but to keep their wits about them – this could be a trick.

It wasn’t a trick. The remaining cruise ship crew were scared out of their wits, they were exhausted, they were in shock, and their ears were ringing. They’d all simultaneously and unanimously arrived at the prudent decision to bugger off.

Salazar, Richards and Gotmund cautiously approached the prone figure of Mr Torrence.
“How long till he wakes up?” Salazar asked Richards.
“I got him twice. In the chest,” Gotmund explained, helpfully.

Behind them, the remaining members of the Albert’s crew were cautiously moving into the Symphony’s docking bay.

A smirk played across Richards’s mouth. “Oh, he’s not waking up, Cap’n.”
Salazar and Gotmund both looked at Richards, confused.
“What?” said Gotmund.
“Richards, you assured me that you’d set all the crew’s gun to ‘stun’.”
“Yeah, look. About that…” replied Richards. “I lied.”
Anger welled up in Salazar – his fists clenched, his teeth ground against each other. Barely containing his rage, he spluttered
“Richards, what the HELL?”

“You said there were fourteen people in this crew.” Richards replied. “Fourteen people between us and that gold. That’s fourteen problems. Now we only got thirteen. You should be thanking me.”

Salazar’s rage at Richards was instant. His hands became fists, his eyes grew wild, and he looked like he was about to hit her.

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On the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh had heard every word of this exchange. Mr Torrence had kept his communicator’s connection to the bridge open throughout the entire battle, right up to the moment he was killed. And, as it now turned out, even past that moment.

Captain Singh’s face betrayed no sign of her deep, instant anguish. Her features were cold and implacable, as she turned away from her First Officer, and stared blankly at the star-filled vidscreen in front of her.

“I wanted to go with him,” she said quietly, more to herself than to First Officer Sinclair. “But he insisted I stay on the bridge.”

“Captain, if you were there, you couldn’t have saved Mr Torrence.”

She turned and glared at him.

“You heard it, Captain,” he continued, growing more unsure of himself under her penetrating gaze. “It was chaos down there.”

She continued to glare at him.

“… And he was right. Earlier, I mean. We need you here, in command, more than we needed you there. We all need you here.”

He felt he was no good at this. Was he getting through to her? Was he offending her?

Captain Singh turned away from Mr Sinclair again, unable to hold his eye any longer, not wanting him to witness her pain. She thought of Mr John Torrence, Chief Security Officer, Master-at-arms; her old comrade, who she’d dragged into duty on this vessel. She had insisted he sign on here. This was her fault. She whispered two words, soaked in sorrow;

“… My friend.”

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

Down in the docking bay, Salazar Sharp had closed his eyes and taken ten deep breaths. His crew had all waited as he did, with First Mate Jiang nodding her approval. When he opened his eyes, he felt better.
Until he saw Richards.
Closing his eyes again, he took another ten deep breaths. The crew waited patiently for this too. When he opened his eyes this time, Salazar Sharp seemed calmer, more focussed and ready to move on.

“Thanks, everyone.”
There were impatient, embarrassed nods from various crew members.

“Alright! Now here’s what we’re gonna do next…”

The Albert’s crew took a couple of steps closer to their captain, forming a rough semicircle around him.

Just a few metres away was Mr Torrence’s lifeless body.
Alone, and growing cold.

 

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.

= CHAPTER 6 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
5:57 AM

When she heard the ‘battle’ from the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh was astonished by the cowardice of her crew. Of course she understood that they weren’t soldiers, but for them to fall apart like this? She glanced at that fainthearted First Officer of hers, Mr Sinclair. The man couldn’t even grow a moustache properly – what WAS that on his top lip?

‘Typical,’ she thought.

This was the crew she was saddled with, and their gutless incompetence had just cost Mr Torrence his life. He’d been the only one of them with any measure of courage. Apart, perhaps, from her Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain – and just what had he been doing during all of this? Struggling to stifle her chagrin, she tapped her insignia, opening a general channel to all of them.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Symphony, this is your captain. Now hear this. In your encounter with the intruders in the docking bay, your behaviour has been…”

She bit her lip.

“… less than honourable. Our Chief Security Officer is now dead. But, in a final selfless act, he left his communicator channel open. As a result, I have heard the conversation of the invaders, and I now know their next move. They are coming for you. They plan to take you all hostage, before stealing our cargo. They will show no mercy, as their murder of Mr Torrence has demonstrated all too clearly. So no matter where you are currently cowering, I order you to make your way to the ship’s bridge, as quickly as possible. I repeat – this is an order. Right now, we all need to be together, to stand together and to fight together, if we are to have any chance of repelling these marauders, and reclaiming our ship…

To have any chance of reclaiming our home. That is all.”

Suddenly remembering the one crew member who’d been away from all the action, she opened a channel to her Chief Engineer.

“Ms Arenson, that includes you, too. You may take your leave of the engine room now. Please bring the ship to a full stop and make your way to the bridge.”

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When they saw Mr Torrence killed right next to them, Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer had sprinted out of the docking bay as fast as they could. They were now three levels higher, creeping nervously along the opulent shopping promenade. It was unsettling seeing the promenade like this – silent, deserted, and bathed in the dim, red-tinged work light that the ship defaulted to when not carrying passengers. Although none of the boutiques currently had any staff or customers, their window displays still featured mannequins – barely visible in this sickly, artificial twilight – draped in exotic furs, gowns and jewellery.

“That one moved!” blurted Deck Rating Ferrer.

He was a shallow young man, hedonistic and not especially brave. He’d signed on as a Deck Rating (the lowest, entry-level position) on the Symphony a year ago. Not because he was interested in travel, in the cruise industry, or even in customer service. He had signed on for two reasons; in his words, “Reason One? Chicks. Reason Two? PAAARTAAAYS!” And, to his smug satisfaction, things had pretty much panned out as he’d hoped. He was tall, he was athletic – he spent a lot of time in the ship’s gym – and he’d been genetically blessed with a blond, blue-eyed male model’s looks.
The ladies loved him.
Unfortunately, he’d also been blessed with a blond, blue-eyed male model’s intelligence.

“Don’t be stupid. It didn’t move. They can’t move; they’re mannequins.”

That was Mr Serrano, the ship’s Third Officer. Higher ranking than Mr Ferrer, a couple of years older, and a good deal more rational. As they continued past yet another pretentious, polished gift shop full of overpriced trinkets, Mr Serrano realised he’d finally shaken off the crazed terror that had gripped him back in the docking bay. And yet, although that chaos was behind him now, there was one very specific part of it that he’d been replaying over and over again…

“Did you hear the pirates say anything back there?” he asked both of his companions.

“Like what?” asked Mr Ferrer.

“Pretty hard to hear anything above all that pandemonium,” said Dr Zivai.

“I thought I heard one of them say ‘We just want the gold’…”

Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer stopped walking and looked at Mr Serrano.

“Captain Singh never told us what they were after,” he continued. “She never told us what the ‘payload’ in the cargo hold actually is… Do you think we might be transporting gold? If we are, it’d have to be a lot of gold, wouldn’t it? I mean, to attract this sort of attention…”

And whether or not Mr Serrano’s saying this convinced either of his companions, it had certainly just convinced him. If he had any residual fear, it completely evaporated at this moment. To be replaced by simple, wholesome, good old-fashioned greed.

“Mr Serrano, I think that’s the least of our – ” began Dr Zivai, but she was interrupted by the voice of the captain coming through all their communicators.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Symphony, this is your captain. Now hear this. In your encounter with the intruders in the docking bay, your behaviour has been… less than honourable. Our Chief Security Officer is now dead.”

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The Symphony’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev was currently even further away from the docking bay, given that he ran at the sound of the first shot. As he’d sped, terrified, along D deck and towards the bow of the ship, the same seven words played on a continuous loop in his head;

“OhwhydidIdropmygun? OhwhydidIdropmygun? OhwhydidIdropmygun?”

His shaken, scrambled instincts had led him straight to the wellness spa. He felt he needed relaxation, he needed serenity, and he needed them NOW, goddammit! Three seconds after he’d reached the entrance, run inside, and locked the door behind him, Captain Diana Singh’s voice came through on his communicator. It took him a moment to focus on her words; to register them above his own frightened panting. Did she just say that Mr Torrence is dead?

“I have heard the conversation of the invaders, and I now know their next move. They are coming for you.”

Mr Lebedev gasped.

“They plan to take you all hostage, before stealing our cargo. They will show no mercy, as their murder of Mr Torrence has demonstrated all too clearly.”

‘She DID…’ thought Mr Lebedev. ‘She did say that!’ This was all too much; he wasn’t meant for this. He was Crispin Lebedev, Chief Steward of the luxury cruise ship Symphony of the Stars. He was an overweight (but only slightly overweight, he told himself), middle-aged, balding man, who’d spent his last twenty-five years climbing the ladder in the luxury cruise starship industry. Housekeeping, staff management and budgeting were his forte. Expertly wielding a close defence plasma rifle to heroically kill hordes of ransacking pirates? Not so much. Prior to this, his most serious challenge aboard this ship had been the horrendous waking nightmare of reconciling a drastically wayward pillowcase inventory.

‘Captain Singh will fix this,’ he thought. ‘She’ll know what to do.’

Even the sound of her voice just now – despite the bad news it conveyed – had comforted him. She was ex-military, she had extensive combat experience… he had always taken solace in her authority, in her wisdom.

“Captain Singh will fix this.”

He was surprised to hear himself saying the words out loud. His decision had been made. He wouldn’t be staying here; the many and varied services of the wellness spa would have to wait. Although he hadn’t (yet) been instructed to, Chief Steward Crispin Lebedev opened the door, glanced nervously around, and started running toward the elevators that would take him to the ship’s bridge.

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In the centre aisle of the Symphony’s 1000 seat theatre, Second Officer Ms Aku and the two Deck Ratings Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis had also halted their retreat, and were listening intently to the captain’s announcement.

“So no matter where you are currently cowering, I order you to make your way to the ship’s bridge, as quickly as possible. I repeat – that is an order.”

Second Officer Ms Aku was, as always, hanging on Captain Singh’s every word. She idolised Captain Diana Singh; her dignity, her intelligence, her vast professional knowledge, her confidence and her coolness under pressure. From the moment Ms Aku met Captain Singh, she’d wanted to win her approval, she’d wanted to impress her… in fact, if she was totally honest with herself, she probably wanted to be her. And now this.

But… “cowering”? Did Captain Singh just say they were “cowering”?

It was clear what she had to do. This was an opportunity; a chance for Ms Aku to redeem herself, to prove that she was more than just Second Officer material.

“We’re going to the cargo hold,” she stated.

Both Deck Ratings looked at her, confused.

“But Captain Singh ordered us to make our way to the bridge,” protested Mr Ellis.

“I know that, Mr Ellis,” said Ms Aku. “But sometimes orders should be disobeyed. I, for one, want to show the captain that I’m no coward. You, Ms LeGuin and I will go to the cargo hold, we will defend the Symphony’s cargo, we will prove ourselves as strong and as brave and as valiant as Captain Singh herself, and send these depraved looters running home with their tails between their legs! And besides… aren’t you curious to find out what this cargo is?”

Mr Michael Ellis was curious about the cargo, to be sure… but was he curious to the level of potentially-getting-shot-and-killed-by-pirates-and-dying-a-painful-and-futile-death? ‘Yeah, probably not,’ he thought. He just wanted to go home. He was 23 years old, and had only just finished his three year contract on the Symphony. It had been fun at times, but it was definitely time to move on; he’d folded enough towels, delivered enough trays of gaudy technicolor cocktails, and shielded his eyes from enough pairs of pale, hairy, elderly, obese millionaire’s buttocks crammed into too-tiny swimsuits to last him a lifetime.

But there was something in what Ms Aku said; he did want to know what he and his crew mates had just been putting their lives on the line for.

She was disobeying the captain’s orders, but Ms Aku still outranked him – and as such, he was obliged to follow her instructions at all times.

And what if he refused, and Ms Aku and Ms LeGuin went off to the cargo hold without him? The way things were, he didn’t exactly fancy being left alone at this point.

“Yes, Ms Aku,” he said. “The cargo hold it is.”

“Excellent,” responded the Second Officer. “Ms LeGuin?”

“These seats are really comfy,” observed Deck Rating LeGuin.

Since they’d stopped for a breather here in the theatre, she’d plonked herself down in seat H35. If you could somehow distil pure cheerfulness and optimism into the body of a diminutive, bubbly, brunette 22-year-old woman, Ms LeGuin would be the result. Her disposition was way beyond ‘sunny’; it had all but gone supernova. Despite appearances to the contrary, she had been paying close attention to the conversation, and was totally on board to go to the cargo hold with the others.

“Oh yes, Ms Aku,” she said. “I’m with you and Mr Ellis. Let’s go to the cargo hold, and defend the payload that’s there… whatever it is.”

“Thank you, Ms LeGuin,” said Ms Aku.

“I mean, after all,” said Ms Le Guin, brightly. “This sort of stuff doesn’t happen every day, does it?”

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 7 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
5:57 AM

“Right now, we all need to be together, to stand together and to fight together, if we are to have any chance of repelling these marauders, and reclaiming our ship… Any chance of reclaiming our home. That is all.”

When the final part of Captain Singh’s speech reached Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain, Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara and Cruise Director Al Martell in the Tranquility Forest, it only served to echo their last few minutes of bickering.

“The captain’s right,” said the grizzled Second Engineer. “We’ve been cowards. We’ve all been cowards… and now Torrence is dead. Do you know how long I’ve known that man?”

Yep, the others sure did.

“Fifteen years,” said Mr Abara and Mr Martell in unison.

“Fifteen years,” Mr Chamberlain continued, not listening. “Came up through the navy together. I saved his life once. But here’s the thing…” His eyes suddenly grew misty, as he rubbed his beard. “He saved mine twice. Today, I had a chance to even that score. God knows, I owed him that. But with all of you blasting away in blind terror, I –”

“Will you give it a rest?” interjected Mr Martell. “Man, we’re sorry, alright? We’re sorry Mr Torrence is dead, and we’re sorry it’s our fault. We’re sorry we’re not battle-hardened old warriors like you two, we’re sorry we don’t have ice running through our veins, and we’re sorry that we don’t get all super excited by the prospect of casually killing a dozen pirates before breakfast.”

Al Martell was a debonair, middle-aged cruise director with greying temples and a winning smile; his purview was co-ordinating shore excursions, organising concerts and singing the occasional big band tune for the Symphony’s more senior passengers. Al Martell was a Lover, not a Fighter. Well… at least in theory, if not in actual, technical practice.

Mr Chamberlain responded; “Don’t call me ‘Man’.”

In an effort to diffuse the tension, Mr Abara changed the subject. “Come on, you both heard the captain – let’s get up to the bridge.”
Chamberlain and Martell grunted their acknowledgement, and all three men headed for the elevators that would take them to the bridge.

Despite the fact that he outranked his companions, despite the fact that he had taken in all the captain’s instructions and was following her orders to the letter, Mr Abara’s mind was not 100% on the task at hand. He was usually a diligent, professional young man. He took his position as Chief Technology Officer very seriously. He had maintained, modified and improved practically all of the Symphony’s sophisticated computer systems – from environmental controls, to security protocols, to the VR suites. Although he’d never use the word… he was actually kind of a genius at this stuff, and his work aboard the Symphony had always been exemplary. He was proactive, he was ambitious, and his attention to detail was second to none.

But not this morning.

Mr Abara ran a hand through his shoulder length auburn hair and sighed. This morning, he was vague and unfocussed. It wasn’t the events of recent days. It wasn’t the fact that he’d been dragged out of bed before six A.M., it wasn’t even the fact that the Symphony was currently infested with a horde of vicious, heavily armed bandits. Chief Technology Officer Kit Abara was so distracted this morning because three minutes earlier, he had suddenly, and very much to his surprise, fallen in love.

That pirate! The petite one, with the brown bob haircut and the charmingly uncertain look in her big blue eyes. He’d only seen her for a few seconds – but that was all it took. From the moment the invaders had cut and kicked their way in to the docking bay, to the moment he and his crew mates fled, Mr Abara had only been watching her. She was intelligent and she was sensitive, he could tell. As she clumsily – gorgeously, delightfully – continued firing her augmented thermal rifle at him and his crew mates, Mr Abara sensed that she didn’t really  mean it. Heck, she didn’t want to be in the middle of a chaotic, panicked gunfight any more than he did. He found himself pleased to realise that hey, they had that in common! And now he found that he couldn’t stop revisiting the image of her in his mind. A permanent dreamy smile had crept onto his face, he felt flustered, and butterflies seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his stomach. He couldn’t think of very much else. Yep, he was smitten, alright. He was besotted, hooked, head-over-heels. And he didn’t even know her name.

It was Devereux.

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Devereux, of course, was completely oblivious to all of this. She hadn’t even registered Mr Abara during the frenetic gunfight that had burned so many deep black pockmarks into the walls, floor and ceiling of the Symphony’s docking bay.

The moment the Symphony’s crew had fled the area, Salazar Sharp had assembled his, in order to outline their next moves. He’d managed to resist his urge to physically discipline their weapons expert… but only just. Richards had set all of their weapons to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun’, in direct contravention of his orders, and even though he’d taken two sets of deep, calming breaths, he was still furious with her.

“Now,” Salazar began, to his assembled followers. “before we –”

“Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang, glancing in Richards’s direction. “I’d just like to congratulate you on your anger management there. Very impressive.”

“Thank you, Jiang. Now, before we go any further, can I ask everybody to PLEASE set their weapons to ‘stun’?”

Each crew member carefully changed their gun’s settings.

“All done? Everyone’s weapon set to ‘stun’ now?”

There was a chorus of “Aye, Cap’n”s.

“Good,” said Salazar. “Mine too.” And with that, he turned towards Richards, took aim, and shot her. There was a gasp from everyone watching, as Richards instantly hit the deck, collapsing in a crumpled heap.

Jiang rolled her eyes – it seemed she’d spoken too soon. Turning to the crew’s resident medico, Salazar said “Jelani? Revive her, would you?”

“Erm – Aye cap’n,” stuttered Jelani, as she opened her portable medikit and knelt beside Richards. Doctor Jelani had healed all of the Albert’s crew over the years, including herself. There’d been cuts, burns, blunt force traumas, puncture wounds, broken bones, poisonings, near drownings, electrocutions… but this was the first time she could recall treating any of them for ‘friendly fire’. She sighed and pushed her grey-blonde hair off her forehead, as she selected a stimpak from the kit. It only took a second for her to administer a perfectly calibrated cocktail of synthetic adrenaloids.

Richards sat up instantly – wheezing, blinking and dazedly looking around her, before eventually saying….

“Ow.”

“You see I have no problem shooting you, Richards,” said Salazar, giving Maggie a friendly scratch on the top of her head. “Don’t give me any more reasons to do it.”

“Er… No, Cap’n,” said Richards, shaking her head, while waiting for her eyes to begin focusing properly again.

“Now!” barked Salazar, to his assembled – and slightly unsettled – crew. “We’ve got them running scared. This is a good thing. I want you all to split into the usual groups, spread out, round them up, and take them hostage….”

Gotmund raised his hand.

“… Peacefully.”

Gotmund’s hand went down again.

“There is to be minimal violence; shooting is to be avoided at all costs. They’ve already seen us kill one of them, and you saw the way they ‘fought’ in here. They’re clearly terrified. We will take them easily. Keep your channels open, stay in touch. As for finding your way around… you’ve all still got your copies of the ship’s promotional brochure?”

They all nodded.

“Good. That should do us. Once you’ve captured them, bring them all to the cargo bay….” A smirk broke out on his face. “… we just might need them, to help us get all that Gold over to the Albert!”

At this, all members of the Albert’s crew broke in to one of their avaricious cheers.

“Jiang and I will join you in the cargo hold in due course. But first, I have some unfinished business with Captain Singh.”
So saying, Salazar, Jiang and Maggie headed for the elevator that would take them up seven floors, to the ship’s bridge.

Lightfoot, A.J. and Suarez left the docking bay by the starboard door, while Devereux, Jelani and Richards headed for the opposite exit; the door on the port side of the docking bay.

Gotmund struck out on his own – as he always did – calling the elevator to take him up three levels to C deck. That seemed to him to be as good a place as any to start searching for the absconders.

Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard took the elevator one floor down, to the lowest accessible level of the ship. The level with the cargo hold.

The level with the gold.

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In the hours that followed, the Albert’s crew would cover a lot of ground on the Symphony as they searched for potential hostages. They were, of course, no strangers to this. The many raids they’d mounted on other ships over the years had made them accustomed to the barely-familiar floor plans, the uncertainty of not knowing who, or indeed what, was around the next corner, and the stretches of dimly-lit tedium, violently interrupted by explosions of life-or-death combat. As they dispersed throughout the various levels and areas of the enormous vessel, some were diligently following their captain’s orders, while others were just obeying their own (greedy) hearts’ desires…

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In their search for the Symphony’s crew, the first place Devereux, Jelani & Richards (the Albert’s codebreaker, doctor and weapons expert) reached was the ship’s morgue.

Of course they knew that every cruise ship had a morgue. Occasionally, people died while they were on holiday, and the ships had to be prepared for that unlikely eventuality. And of course they knew that this morning, the Symphony’s morgue would be dark, lit only by that sickly reddish glow of the empty ship’s worklight.

Thing is, the three of them also knew that they had a bunch of armed, terrified, trigger-happy enemies somewhere on the ship, who’d most certainly shoot them – or at least incompetently shoot at them – on sight.

These three pirates were rational adults, they were tough, they were professionals, and they knew all of these things. They knew that a morgue was just another room. A room featuring cold storage facilities, to accommodate up to ten adult corpses.

The oppressive quietness didn’t help. Perhaps they were imagining it, but it did feel like this part of the ship had been soundproofed; even the usual, comforting omnipresent hum of the ship’s engines sounded muffled in here.
As the three of them cautiously entered the morgue, rifles drawn, eyes and ears open for any cowering cruise ship crew members, Devereux was the first to spot it.

Two of the ten drawers were currently occupied.

Their display panels were dimly illuminated. She walked over to the first one and read:
NAME: ANTON VICKERS
AGE: 24
HAIR: BROWN
EYES: HAZEL

Devereux pressed the button to open the drawer. She wasn’t sure why she did that… fear? Disbelief? Morbid curiosity? Probably the latter. Sure enough, the drawer slid open to reveal a 24 year old man, wearing the uniform of an entry level deck rating.

Richards had now come up alongside Devereux, and read the display panel on the next drawer:
NAME: TANIA STUPPECK
AGE: 38
HAIR: BLONDE
EYES: BLUE

Richards had no hesitation in opening this drawer. Inside was a 38 year old woman in a pristine maid’s uniform. At first glance, she appeared to be sleeping.
But she wasn’t.

It was then that, with her professional curiosity getting the better of her, Doctor Jelani examined both bodies. Richards and Devereux watched, as she thoroughly inspected them, and scanned them with one of the gizmos from her medical kit.

Eventually, Jelani said “These people were both murdered. Some time in the last 5 – 7 days.”

“Ah, so that’s why they’re all so trigger happy,” said Richards.

Devereux looked at her, not quite understanding.
Would Richards have to spell it out?

Devereux kept looking at her.
Evidently, she would.

“Someone on the Symphony’s crew is a killer.”

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.

 

 

= CHAPTER 8 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:00 AM

“But HOW were they murdered?” asked Devereux.

As Doctor Jelani was about to answer, the door to the morgue slid open with a gentle “shoosh”. The three pirates whirled around, rifles cocked, aimed, and ready to fire, to see an empty doorway.

Until…

Thirty centimetres above the floor, a pair of shiny black shoes hovered across the threshold and into the room, their toes pointing towards the ceiling. They were followed by a pair of white-trousered legs, then a white-jacketed torso, and finally the lifeless face of the Symphony’s Chief Security Officer. It was the corpse of Mr Torrence; flat on its back, and apparently floating into the room.

Richards, Jelani and Devereux all stared, wide-eyed, as the cadaver continued to glide towards them, remaining firmly at knee height. Startled, they all awkwardly moved out of the oncoming corpse’s way, as it drifted past them and towards the other end of the room. It was heading for the wall of unoccupied cadaver drawers.

Richards, Jelani and Devereux were not superstitious people. They were tough, hard-bitten soldiers of fortune, and they’d all seen more than their fair share of death and dead bodies. None of them believed in the supernatural, and they certainly didn’t believe in ghosts… But this? As they continued to stare, riveted, at the ‘floating’ body, they each slowly realised that it wasn’t actually floating at all.

Mr Torrence’s corpse was being carried by four maitbots; two underneath his shoulders, and one underneath each of his legs. The sturdy, highly adaptable little robots had been smoothly scooting along on their crablike legs, expertly distributing the Chief Security Officer’s dead weight amongst them, while balancing him on their black, flat-topped casings.

The moment they reached the wall of drawers, the four little robots halted, and slid out from under the body, gently lowering it to the floor in the process. One of them stood directly in front of the bottom drawer’s display panel, extended a spindly metal leg and entered the unlock code. The drawer slid out from the wall, to its full two-meter length.

Then, working in perfect silent synchronisation, the maitbots gently lifted Mr Torrence’s body off the floor and held it above them. Their legs all extended now, in unison, bringing the corpse level with the open drawer. In a series of smooth, delicate – almost gentle – movements, they deftly transferred the body into the drawer, softly depositing it on its back.
For the next few seconds, the four little droids stood perfectly still before the open drawer. To Richards, they almost appeared to be observing a respectful moment’s silence. Then the maitbot nearest to the drawer entered its lock code, the drawer slid shut, and the Symphony’s unfortunate Chief Security Officer disappeared from view.

Richards, Jelani and Devereux had watched this entire silent procedure anxiously, motionlessly. They didn’t know if the maitbots could see or hear them, and what danger – if any – they presented.

They needn’t have worried. The maitbots were programmed for maintenance and mundane chores; not for defence, and certainly not for attack. Now that their job was done, the little crustacean-like robots silently scurried out of the room on their thin, strong metal legs, and the door swished closed behind them.

All three pirates breathed huge sighs of relief.

“Well?” said Devereux, looking expectantly at the doctor.

“Well what?”

“How were they murdered?”

Apparently, they’d all tacitly agreed not to mention the unnerving spectacle they’d just witnessed.

“They’ve been poisoned,” Jelani explained. “Intravenously; each cadaver has a very small puncture mark. This one; on the neck, this one; the upper arm, and this one; the left buttock. I found very, very small traces of Phexetocin; that’s a toxin that usually breaks down completely, once it’s done its job.”

“Its job?” repeated Richards.

“Instant, massive cardiac arrest. The heart just… stops. Only takes about 10 milliliters, only takes about 10 seconds. Very efficient. Elegant, even.”

“Elegant”? Jelani was starting to make Devereux and Richards even more uncomfortable than they already were.

“But who in their crew would have access to this… ‘Phexetocin’?” asked Devereux.

“Any one of them,” answered Jelani. “If they were clever enough.”

Devereux and Richards looked at each other. They were both now officially freaked out. Richards spoke for both of them when she said “Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me the creeps.”

Richards, Devereux and Jelani left the morgue. But one of them would be back there again, all too soon.

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One deck below them, three of their crewmates were steadfastly making their way towards the cargo hold, eager to get their hands on the fabulous treasure they’d been promised. Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard had certainly heard Captain Sharp’s orders, but for them, rounding up hostages came a very distant second to scoring the gold they’d been told was in the hold. Ten tonnes! If the Albert’s crew split it evenly amongst them, it would still net each of them more wealth than they could ever hope to spend. And it was virtually within their grasp. They could almost smell it. They had to see it. They needed to touch it.

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Four decks above them, the Symphony’s Second Officer Ms Aku, and Deck Ratings Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin were striking out for the same destination. Their self-appointed mission was to defend the invaluable cargo, and repel these despicable marauders. As Second Officer Aku led Deck Ratings Ellis and LeGuin out of the theatre and through its foyer, they trod lightly, warily. All three had their rifles drawn, and were on high alert, never knowing if the fearsome invaders would be waiting for them around the next corner.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?” chirped Ms LeGuin.

The trio exited the theatre’s foyer, past posters for the last show that had played there; a run-of-the-mill farce set on a space station, entitled Sheesh – No Atmosphere!

Their path then took them past two of the Symphony’s four rock climbing walls. These three storey high surfaces – studded with brightly coloured handholds and footholds – formed one edge of the Symphony’s vast central atrium. The atrium, however, stretched even higher than the rock climbing wall, occupying four storeys of vertical space. It was a hub for the ship’s passengers; somewhere to meet and socialize before heading off to experience the vessel’s many amusements.
On its ground floor were the theatre, shopping promenade, various cafes and the bases of the two rock climbing walls that Aku, Ellis and LeGuin were now passing. Its second level housed the Wellness Centre and the VR suites. Level Three of the atrium was home to the vast library, one of the three swimming pools and Epicurus, one of the ship’s three restaurants, which adjoined the ship’s extensive cellar. The top level of the central atrium housed provided access to the ‘Symphony Spacewalk’ attraction (in which passengers donned a spacesuit and went for an actual spacewalk outside the ship), The Shifting Sands cocktail lounge, and the premium accommodations of A Deck.
The ship only went one level higher than the atrium. That was the upper deck – home to the ship’s bridge, another restaurant (the not-so-imaginatively named La Brasserie), and the ship’s largest swimming pool, which was also the embarkation point for its two celebrated waterslides. The smaller one was an enclosed tube that twisted and turned through just two levels – from the upper deck down to level three of the atrium, where it disgorged its riders into the pool there. The big waterslide – and the main attraction, if you like this sort of thing – was the ‘Mad Maelstrom.’ This too was an opaque, enclosed tube, but it was at least three times longer. It dropped all the way from the upper deck to the ship’s very lowest level, spiralling, zigzagging, curling and coiling. In fact, it traveled through most areas of the ship, and – thanks to some very clever engineering – somehow seemed to drop even further than its actual length. Eventually, it spat its brave bathers out into the ship’s third swimming pool. This pool was at the bow of the ship, and effectively filled the front part of the vessel’s underside; anyone swimming in here was only separated from the vacuum of space by the hull directly beneath the pool’s floor. This lowermost level of the Symphony also housed the ship’s brig, laundry, engineering, some crew accommodation… and the cargo hold.
In fact, the cargo hold backed on to the third swimming pool – one strong dividing wall being the only thing separating the cargo hold and all that it contained from 126,000 litres of water.

However, that amount only accounted for one tenth of all the water currently aboard the Symphony. The development of Water Synthesis Technology three hundred years earlier had truly been one of humanity’s turning points. Once the challenges of establishing hydrogen mines up in the earth’s heterosphere had been conquered, harvesting the required oxygen had proven to be the relatively easy part. Miraculously, the political will had existed to make the fruits of this great leap forward accessible to all. In the space of a single generation, the earth’s landscape had changed – not just environmentally, but agriculturally, industrially, socially, economically, even philosophically. With cheap universal access to an all but limitless supply of clean fresh water, it was a moment in human advancement that was right up there with the invention of the wheel, the internal combustion engine, or the internet. Unfortunately though, some pun-loving tabloid journalist had dubbed this epochal breakthrough “The Great Watershed”.
And that term had stuck.
Oh well.

Over the years, the decades, and the generations, the science had naturally evolved. And now Water Synthesis Technology had become so efficient, portable and ubiquitous, that virtually anybody could access the means to actually make water out of thin air. Predictably, manufactured water was now far more common than naturally occurring water.

Manufactured water filled the ornamental koi pond on the shopping promenade that Ms Aku, Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin were currently passing, as they continued toward the cargo hold. The koi in the pond were synthetic, of course, but they looked like the real thing. So much so, in fact, that the maitbots had to regularly clean their ponds of all the food scraps thrown in by well-meaning but dim passengers, who didn’t realise that the fish they were ‘feeding’ were really just sophisticated assemblies of smart circuitry.

The three Symphony crew members arrived at the elevator, and started the journey down four levels. In just a couple of minutes they’d get to the cargo hold.

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Evans Fullbrook and Skarsgard were approaching it now. They ran to its door, barely able to contain their excitement.

“We’re nearly there, we’re nearly there!” squealed the diminutive Fullbrook.

“I can’t wait to SEE it,” said Skarsgard, while Evans simply said “Goooold,” although she made it more of a breathy, luxurious exhalation than a word.

They pressed the panel to open the door.

Nothing happened; it was locked.

Well, of course the door to the cargo hold was locked – why wouldn’t it be?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 9 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:02 AM

As Captain Diana Singh and First Officer Mr Sinclair waited for the rest of the crew to join them on the bridge, she ran through things again, for what felt like the hundredth time…

In the past week, two members of her crew had been murdered, by surreptitious lethal injections.
Nobody had embarked or disembarked in the past week, so the killer had to be one of the fourteen Symphony crew members currently on board. She knew it wasn’t her, so that made it thirteen. Tracing the victims’ final movements and reviewing the ship’s CCTV footage had proven fruitless. Whoever it was had thought of that, and had disabled or masked the relevant cameras, just prior to committing the crimes.

Captain Singh looked across the room at her First Officer, Mr Sinclair. It was difficult for her to believe that he could be the murderer. Firstly, because they spent so much time together when they were on duty; she’d realised that she was – subconsciously at least – aware of Mr Sinclair’s whereabouts most of the time. Secondly, because she was sure he was far too timid to do something as decisive and final as taking another person’s life.

Could it have been the Chief Security Officer, her poor departed friend Mr Torrence? She couldn’t bring herself to imagine that. Not just because of their friendship, but because of the character of the man; he was brave, he was a warrior. The concept of a fair fight – nobly fought, and justly won – wasn’t just something he’d learned in the navy; it was central to his makeup. No, if James Torrence wanted to kill you, he wouldn’t do it by sneaking up behind you and jabbing you with a needle; he’d do it face to face, and give you a chance to defend yourself. Anyway, he was dead now. If he was the murderer (and Captain Singh was sure that he wasn’t), he’d taken that secret with him. She blinked away a tear as she realised – again – how much she was going to miss him.

Then there was her other friend from her previous life – Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. Another battle-hardened veteran, whose life in the military was the only life he’d known for decades. A man who’d fought many fights, a man who knew what it felt like to kill someone. But his fights back then were always for a cause; he fought and killed for reasons. The validity of those reasons was another question, but Captain Singh couldn’t imagine him randomly and clandestinely killing his crew-mates for no reason other than… what? The thrill of the kill? No, that wasn’t the Mr Chamberlain she knew. That wasn’t her friend.

Deck Rating LeGuin? No, definitely not Ms LeGuin; Captain Singh was sure of that. She was too cheerful. And it wasn’t a “this-will-cover-up-all-those-murders-I-did” type of cheerfulness. Ms LeGuin was cheerful before the murders started, cheerful when they were discovered, and even cheerful now that the entire ship was being overrun by pirates. ‘How does she do that?’ wondered Captain Singh, a mite jealously. ‘It must be nice to be that breezily good-natured all the time…’

Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of Chief Steward Mr Lebedev arriving, breathless and sweaty, on the bridge.

“Shut the door behind me! Shut the door behind me! Shut the door behind me!” he panted, fearfully.

Mr Sinclair did so, as Mr Lebedev ran to the corner of the room farthest from the door, and slumped down onto the floor, wheezing and gasping.

Captain Singh looked at him. Could he be the ship’s murderer? This middle-aged, middle class, middling middle manager? She knew Mr Lebedev was a disgruntled soul – he often complained of being taken for granted, of being overlooked. “No one understands how hard my job is, but you’d all notice it if I suddenly wasn’t here!”, but was he disgruntled enough to commit murder? Looking at his heaving, frightened form, she’d have thought that he wouldn’t be fit enough for the task. That is, if the murder weapon wasn’t a tiny syringe. Unfortunately, the ‘weapon’ didn’t help her to rule anyone out at all.

“Mr Lebedev, are you alright?” she enquired, more out of politeness than concern.

“Yes… thank you, Captain…” he replied, in between gasps as he sat on the floor. “I dropped my gun… back in the Docking Bay… and so I’ve run all the way here… completely defenceless!”

“Well done,” said Captain Singh insincerely. “Rest assured you’re safe now, Mr Lebedev. Take your time, catch your breath, and stand by for further orders.”

“Yes Captain…” he wheezed. “Thank you, Captain.”

She nodded tersely. Mr Lebedev’s arrival had interrupted her theorizing, and she hadn’t even gone through half of the crew. It would have to wait. Turning her attention to her First Officer, she asked “Mr Sinclair, why haven’t any of the others arrived by now? I want everyone on the bridge before that Captain Sharp makes his way here”.

“It has only been five minutes since your order, Captain,” Mr Sinclair offered.

“Exactly – five whole minutes! Where are they?”

Mr Sinclair surveyed the screen that showed the crew members’ locations by tracking their communicator badges.

“Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis are currently down on F deck. Mr Ferrer, Mr Serrano and Dr Zivai are just leaving the Shopping Promenade, and Mr Chamberlain, Mr Abara and Mr Martell are at the aft edge of the Tranquillity Forest. All crew members do appear to be on the move, with the exception of Ms Arenson, who’s still at her post, in Engineering.”

“Oh, is she?” said Captain Singh. “We’ll see about that.”

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On their journey to the ship’s bridge, the Cheeky Albert’s captain Salazar Sharp, its first mate Jiang, and its mascot Maggie the fox, were now approaching the forward edge of the Tranquillity Forest.

“I mean, where do you even begin?” Jiang asked Salazar. “How do you even start this dialogue with her? Have you thought about that?”

“You don’t think blasting our way onto their ship and killing her Chief Security Officer might have broken the ice?” he responded through a bitter smirk. This mission had not begun the way Salazar had planned, but he was still determined to have his meeting with the legendary Captain Diana Singh. And it had to be face to face. He needed to see her with his own eyes. He needed her to see him, too.

“What do you think, Maggie?” Salazar cooed indulgently to the little fox jogging alongside him, who, on hearing her name, stopped and looked up at him. He gave her an affectionate scratch behind the left ear.

First Mate Jiang watched this interaction between owner and pet, realising that she and the ship’s mascot were the only two souls from the Cheeky Albert who knew the real reason Salazar had brought them all here. He’d confided everything to First Mate Jiang; he always did. She’d often wondered why she was the only crew member to be afforded the captain’s confidence in this way. Perhaps it was her long history of discretion and loyalty. Perhaps it was her cool, clear-headed intelligence. Could it be all her visible scars? Maybe they made Salazar view her as a kindred spirit. Or perhaps it was just her kindly, smiling brown eyes, peering out from beneath the jet black fringe. Whatever it was, First Mate Melissa Jiang was (although you’d never catch him using this particular F-word) Salazar Sharp’s closest friend.

They reached the Tranquillity Forest, and she pressed the panel to open its door. As it slid open, revealing the wall-to-wall green vista of lush foliage, grasses, flowers and three storey tall trees, Salazar and Jiang gasped.

The Tranquillity Forest occupied a large area amidships, just to port of the central atrium. It was indeed home to 10,000 trees, shrubs and plants from earth and elsewhere, just as the brochure had bragged. And they were expertly curated – the thick-trunked Terran sequoias thrived in harmony with the Rigilian ferns, whose translucent emerald fronds delighted the eye. The dense Amazonian vines stretching between the treetops twisted prettily around the sturdy boughs, while down below, nestled amongst the Velan feather-shrubs, were two highly prized Centauran Masterpiece-Trees. By an accident of evolution, every individual fruit borne by these miraculous plants was a naturally-occurring work of art, boasting patterns and designs so complex, intricate, delicate and sublime, they’d rival the work of any Old Master. They regularly had passing art lovers transfixed for hours.

They tasted like crap, though.

Weeping willows bowed gracefully over the brook that wound through the forest; a brook stocked with more synthetic koi fish that sparkled gold, yellow and white, as they darted amongst the lush Ophiuchan waterweeds.

The koi, however, were the only fauna (or faux fauna, as it turned out) who made their home here. In the early design stages of the Tranquillity Forest, the task of populating it with the requisite birds, insects and small adorable mammals found in real forests was quickly consigned to the ‘Too Hard’ basket. Their random behaviour and unpredictability was a disincentive, not to mention the myriad health and safety issues. And to populate the forest with the various synthetic versions was deemed too expensive. In the end, they’d settled on the sounds of birdsong and insect and animal life being piped in to the forest from cleverly concealed ambient speakers. The Symphony‘s passengers were none the wiser, and indeed many of them spent hours happily craning their necks, eagerly trying to spot the sources of all that delightful birdsong. Of course, there were no passengers on board today, so the birdsong hadn’t been switched on. The silence gave the forest’s beauty a layer of eeriness, gently nudging the atmosphere away from ‘tranquil’, and slowly toward ‘tense’.

On the ground a metre ahead of Salazar was a twig. A twig that had fallen to the forest floor yesterday. It was, as far as twigs go, a very fortunate twig. You see, this twig was about to fulfil the most dramatic and noble destiny that any twig could ever dare to hope for. Over the millennia, billions of twigs had fallen to millions of forest floors all over the earth – and all the other tree-sustaining planets – but only a small handful of these fallen twigs had ever been called to their one ineffable, ultimate, sacred purpose. That rare, final, pivotal MOMENT that would make any twig’s separation from the tree, its slow-drying death and its final sacrifice so very, very sweet…

Jiang and Salazar continued to move through the forest, craning their necks to take in the unexpected botanic splendour that surrounded them, as Maggie bounded along behind. Suddenly, Salazar stepped on the twig, snapping it loudly.

Symphony crew members Chamberlain, Martell and Abara were at the other end of the forest, waiting patiently for the elevator that would take them up to the bridge, when they heard the loud snap of a twig being stepped on.

“What was that?” barked Mr Chamberlain rhetorically, arming his gun and looking back towards the centre of the forest. There was someone else here! His pulse quickened instantly, his warrior’s blood was up – here was a chance to avenge the death of his friend Mr Torrence.

To avenge it by KILLING SOME PIRATES!

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 10 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:03 AM

“Ms Arenson, please respond.”
The Symphony’s Chief Engineer had not yet acknowledged her Captain’s earlier order.
“Ms Arenson”, Captain Singh repeated. “Can you hear me?”

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The Symphony’s Engine Room was on B deck, two levels below the bridge, at the aft-most point of the ship. It was the hub from which all of the ship’s main systems were controlled; life support systems, electrical systems, security systems, maintenance and repair systems – including the maintenance and repair of the maitbots themselves – and of course the the ship’s propulsion system.

The Symphony of the Stars – like most ships these days – was fuelled by SPR (Stardrive Permanent Regeneration). This was a power generation system developed in the mid-22nd Century, and was essentially the logical conclusion of the solar energy technology pioneered 200 years earlier. Like those early systems, SPR used photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy and convert it into electricity. The clever bit was the amplification capability of each of these miniaturised cells. This technology massively boosted the solar energy being received, which meant that any visible starlight could provide useful energy. The SPR solar cells were able to extract useful energy from any star that could be seen, be it near (four light years away) or far (10 light years away). And given that the natural home of a spaceship is in space, surrounded by millions of stars in every direction, the invention and mass production of SPR meant that no spaceship would need to be without power ever again. The cells were thin, flexible, and extremely resilient, and it wasn’t long before they were being built in to the exterior skin of every new spaceship. SPR was truly revolutionary, and it heralded the age of endless, free energy to power every system on every spaceship, forever. Stardrive Permanent Regeneration was the life’s work of Professor Caroline P. Stardrive, who only completed the first working model of it when she was 90 years old. At the press conference following the first successful prototype tests, one reporter facetiously asked “Professor Stardrive, do you think that your surname always meant that you were destined to invent the ultimate stardrive?”
The professor looked puzzled, then surprised.
“Oh!” she replied. “I’d never noticed that before.”

SPR had already been ubiquitous for 150 years when Ms Arenson began her career in engineering. Jane Catherine Arenson had always been a brilliant mathematician and analyst. The daughter of two celebrated maths professors, she’d been born with what was once called dwarfism. As result, all stations and consoles on her turf – the Symphony’s Engine Room – were set low, to the perpetual inconvenience of her immediate subordinate – the former military man Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. He had complained about this so many times, and she had responded “Naawww… Tough Luck!” so many times, that it had become a running joke between them. She was brilliant, logical, and well-liked by the Symphony’s crew, although that had taken a little while, because although she’d been blessed with the infinitely complex and brilliant mind of a mathematical genius, Ms Arenson had also been blessed with the social skills of a mathematical genius.

“Ms Arenson,” the captain’s voice pierced the Engine Room’s efficient silence. “Please respond. Are you on your way to the bridge?”
Ms Arenson tapped her insignia badge, opening her communicator’s channel.
“No Captain,” she responded. “Sorry.”
“I take it you received my earlier order? To bring the ship to a full stop and make your way to the bridge?”
“I received it, Captain. I’m just not doing it.”
Up on the bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair shot a concerned glance at Captain Singh, who simply said “Ms Arenson, please explain yourself.”
“Captain, as you well know, my Engine Room is the nerve centre of this vessel. Every significant system we have is controlled from here. Whoever controls this room, in many ways, controls this ship.”

Mr Sinclair snorted at this, muttering “Delusions of grandeur. If she thinks – ” But Captain Singh cut him off with one of her caustic glances.

Ms Arenson continued. “If this room were to fall into the hands of the invaders, the consequences simply do not bear thinking about. And so I won’t be deserting the Engine Room at this time. I won’t abandon the responsibilities of my position, and I won’t commit dereliction of duty to this ship. Sorry Captain, but I won’t be making my way to the bridge; I’ll be staying where I am, and defending this room from those marauders. At all costs.”

Captain Singh considered Ms Arenson’s position, and was about to respond, but –

“And quite frankly, Captain Singh,” continued Ms Arenson. “I’d feel a lot more comfortable if Mr Chamberlain were here, defending the Engine Room with me”.

There was a pause, as Captain Diana Singh considered all she’d just heard. Perhaps she had been hasty, in summoning all of her crew members to the bridge.

It was probably a slightly longer pause than was warranted.

“Just so, Ms Arenson. I can see how Mr Chamberlain’s skill set would currently prove useful to you. I’ll send him back to Engineering immediately, to provide you with support.”
“Thank you, Captain,” she said.
Captain Singh nodded instinctively, although she knew Ms Arenson couldn’t see it.
“Thank you, Ms Arenson.”
Captain Singh tapped her insignia communicator again.
“Mr Chamberlain?”
There was no response.
“Mr Chamberlain, please respond.”
Nothing. Captain Singh shared a concerned look with Mr Sinclair.

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As it turned out, Mr Chamberlain had an extremely good reason for not answering Captain Singh’s call – he was currently otherwise occupied, in a fierce gunfight with the pirate Captain Sharp and his First Mate Jiang.

Gunfire, explosions, battle cries and panicked yelling echoed through the Tranquillity Forest, which, it was fair to say, was not currently living up to its name.

“THIS IS FOR JOHN TORRENCE!”, yelled Mr Chamberlain, as he fired his close defence plasma rifle repeatedly at the plants that Salazar and Jiang had dived behind. Blue-hot energy bolts sizzled past their ears and into the tree trunks behind them, making sparks, embers and ragged chunks of sizzled bark rain down on them. Salazar crawled quickly forward on his belly. “Jiang! Follow me!” he whispered urgently. As the pirate captain and his trusty first mate hurriedly dragged themselves forward, desperate to stay silent, desperate to stay unseen, Mr Martell and Mr Abara came up alongside Mr Chamberlain, rifles drawn.
“Where did they go?” asked Mr Martell.
“Not sure,” replied Mr Chamberlain, who had instantly fallen into the role of military leader, which he’d played so often in his earlier career. “Mr Martell, you go that way,” gesturing to the right. “Mr Abara, you go that way,” gesturing to the left. “We’ll flush ‘em out.”

Mr Martell nodded, reluctantly, and took a couple of steps further into the forest. This was also done reluctantly. He didn’t want to shoot anyone. He was no warrior; he was the ship’s Cruise Director – the Party-Animal-In-Chief! (A job description he’d coined for himself, which he rather liked.) ‘Plus,’ he thought, ‘The pirates had guns too, didn’t they? And we’ve already seen how they use them…’ If Al Martell found the idea of shooting someone unsavoury, the idea of someone shooting him was positively distasteful. He stalked onward, nervously.

Mr Abara also did as he was told, automatically following the order of his more senior crew mate. His thoughts, though, were not one hundred percent on the task at hand. He was thinking about HER. That pirate – the one who had captured his heart, even as she was shooting at this head. ‘Where is she now?’, he wondered, dreamily. ‘What’s she doing at the moment? I bet that whatever it is, it’s adorable.’ He stopped for a moment, as he spotted a flower – a Rigilian pansy. He bent down, picked it, and brought it to his nose, savouring its exquisite sweet fragrance. ‘She’d smell even better than this. I know she would.’ he thought. He sighed as he put the flower behind his ear and slung his rifle over his shoulder. As Mr Abara mooched further into the forest, he smiled. He’d already forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. When he came alongside the brook, and heard its cheerful, innocent sploshing and bubbling, he wondered if her laugh sounded like that. ‘Surely it must,’ he thought. It was a sound so happy, so musical, so… angelic. He sat down on the soft grass by the brook, and watched the koi darting around in the shallows. ‘They’re pretty, alright,’ he thought. ‘but not as pretty as her…’

“I KNOW YOU’RE IN HERE!”, yelled Mr Chamberlain. “AND I’M COMING FOR YOU!”

Salazar and Jiang had moved some twenty metres by now; they were still flat on their bellies, hiding behind some shrubs, and slowly making for the forest’s exit, on the port side of the ship. There was a series of loud blasts, as a barrage of bolts tore through the shrub in front of them, instantly igniting it, and slammed into the tree trunk behind them. Mr Chamberlain had found them , and was now charging straight at them, with two guns blazing. In front of them was the burning shrub, beyond that was the charging Mr Chamberlain, and to their left, some thirty metres away, the exit… As Salazar frantically tried to calculate their chances of making it to that exit alive, there was an almighty shuddering CRACK. It came from behind them. Salazar and Jiang whirled around, to see the gigantic tree trunk behind them shudder, tremble and start to slowly fall towards them. The gunfire that had missed them had hit the tree, more or less in a horizontal straight line. The blasts had shattered the trunk’s integrity, burning a series of weak points right through it. The tree had no choice but to fall – straight towards them, and the rapidly approaching Mr Chamberlain.

Mr Chamberlain skidded to a halt. He was now staring at a two storey tall tree falling straight towards him. He instinctively sprinted to the right, as fast as he could – he needed to dodge not just the trunk itself, but all its enormous boughs and branches, any one of which could also kill him.
Jiang and Salazar knew that this was their chance. Jiang sprinted toward the exit, Salazar right on her heels, as, with an enormous deep swooshing noise, the tree came down behind them. It smashed through half of the burning shrub, whose fire was now spreading to the grasses, flowers and leaf litter around it. They felt the rush of wind at their backs as the falling trunk and all its branches displaced all the air around it. They made it to the door, opened it, and ran out into the ship.

Back in the forest, on the other side of the fallen tree, stood the stunned Mr Chamberlain. He was panting, and his face was badly scratched by a few of the falling tree’s smaller branches that he hadn’t quite managed to avoid in his mad dash.
As he stood there, collecting himself, 15 maitbots scurried onto the scene and expertly deployed their fire-extinguishing capabilities to dowse the various small spot fires around him.

Salazar and Jiang were running along C Deck, and had put some 50 meters or so between themselves and the Tranquillity Forest when Salazar suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Jiang was surprised to see a look of panic in her captain’s eyes.
“Where’s Maggie?” he asked.

 

 

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 11 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:03 AM

Up on the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Singh still hadn’t heard back from Mr Chamberlain, and she was starting to feel anxious. After their brutal murder of Mr Torrence, had the pirates now killed Mr Chamberlain too? The thought of losing two friends – her two best friends in the entire crew – within just a few minutes of each other was unbearable. Or perhaps he’d fallen victim to the threat much closer to home – the Symphony’s resident murderer. She was unaccustomed to feeling quite this impotent, to feeling quite this powerless.

Captain Singh considered the remaining suspects – her remaining crew members – one by one.

She’d only just been speaking to her Chief Engineer Ms Arenson, and hadn’t detected any guilt, or any hints of deception, in her voice. But then, Ms Arenson was clever; in fact, she was a mathematical genius. But was she a murderer? Given the portable, discreet, tiny murder weapon, she’d be as just able to use it as anyone else – her size would be no barrier. Her diminutive stature tended not to be a barrier for Ms Arenson anyway. As Captain Singh saw it, the fact that Ms Arenson had been born a little person didn’t present anywhere near as many challenges as the fact that she’d also been born an incredible nerd.

But then, nerds had never been in short supply on the Symphony of the Stars. There was the Chief Technologist Mr Abara… but he was a professional, diligent crew member, whose work had always been exemplary. Captain Singh had never seen him display any violent or antisocial tendencies, although she did suspect that he was probably more interested in machines and and systems than people.

Of course she had no idea how desperately, madly, head-over-heels in love he’d fallen, just a few minutes earlier.

Another young man, close in age to Mr Abara, was the Deck Rating Mr Ellis. Captain Singh had to admit that she didn’t know much about Mr Ellis at all. He was right down at the opposite end of the ship’s chain of command, and their paths had hardly ever crossed; she could only recall a handful of exchanges with him over the three years he’d been on board. He was young, energetic, and seemed pleasant enough… but the only remarkable thing about him, from Captain Singh’s perspective, was that he was so… unremarkable.

Then there was that other young Deck Rating, Mr Ferrer. He was blonde, blue-eyed, handsome and athletic… but again, Captain Singh hadn’t had much to do with him. Her overall impression was that he was vain, hedonistic and not especially bright. What possible reason could he have to go around killing his crew mates? She drew a blank.

Could Dr Zivai be the murderer? She was certainly a cold, efficient character… but it was hard for Captain Singh to get past the fact that Dr Zivai was, well… a doctor. It was her duty – not to mention her career – to save, heal and prolong lives; not to end them. On the other hand, no one would have had easier access to the murder weapon – syringes and Phexetocin. Which was not to say that she was the only person who could have access to it…

Could her Second Officer Ms Aku have had access to the weapon? There was no doubt in Captain Singh’s mind that Ms Aku was a smart, proactive, intelligent young woman, and Captain Singh also knew that Ms Aku idolised her. She was always extremely respectful, dutiful and disciplined, whenever she was on the bridge. Captain Singh liked all of these qualities in her younger charge; in fact, Ms Aku reminded her of the young officer she herself had been, some forty years earlier. She knew that Ms Aku would do almost anything to impress her, but surely that couldn’t include murder… could it? Just how warped would Ms Aku’s sense of “duty” and her eagerness to impress have to become, in order for that to be a real possibility?

Her Third Officer Mr Serrano couldn’t be the murderer, surely. He was an unremarkable, respectful, compliant officer. Captain Singh had never had any problems with him; he’d always followed her orders perfectly; efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. He was a good twenty five years younger than her, and they did not have much in common. She knew nothing of his life outside his work – whether he had a family, friends or any connections outside the hull of the Symphony.

Captain Singh chided herself for not taking a more personal interest in her crew. Not because she wanted to be closer to them (she was in no way sentimentally inclined), but because knowing them more personally might’ve provided her with some vital, concrete clue to this current mystery.

And what of her Cruise Director Mr Martell? The self-appointed “Party-Animal-In-Chief”? No, that silver fox and would-be ladies’ man was a lover, not a fighter. Or so he kept telling everyone. But on the other hand, was he telling them that because he was hiding something? It occurred to Captain Diana Singh that she was now starting to second-guess herself. She was going around in circles, and couldn’t fully trust her own instincts anymore.

But then again, she also couldn’t trust anyone on her crew right now. Not until she’d solved this thing. And it was essential that she solve it, just as it was essential that she had to somehow get these invaders off her ship. These were the two goals immediately in front of her, and so these were the two goals that currently occupied all her energy. Diana Singh was looking forward – always looking forward. For the past 30 years, she’d always looked forward. She’d made it such a habit that she’d almost forgotten why she never looked back.
Almost.

Her anxious reveries were interrupted by a familiar voice coming through over her communicator.

“Captain Singh,” said her Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain. “My apologies for not responding to your call earlier.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, happy and grateful to hear his voice. He sounded a little breathless, but otherwise alright.

“Mr Abara, Mr Martell and I came across two of the pirates in the Tranquillity Forest and there was an exchange of fire.”

“Any casualties?”

“Negative, Captain. Unless you count one of the giant Terran sequoias, and a few of the smaller trees. The maitbots have extinguished all the fires.”

“And the pirates?”

“They got away.” He sounded crestfallen.

“Thank you, Mr Chamberlain,” she said, in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. “But the main thing is that you, Mr Abara and Mr Martell are alright. I am grateful for that.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Listening in to the conversation, Mr Abara and Mr Martell were buoyed by this all-too-rare glimpse of their captain’s softer side.

“Mr Chamberlain, I’m now amending my previous orders. Rather than coming up to the bridge, I want the three of you to head over to Engineering. Ms Arenson has elected to stay there and defend the Engine Room, should any of the invaders make their way there. The three of you are now to provide her with support.”

Mr Abara and Mr Martell exchanged a worried look. That sounded dangerous.

“Yes Captain, we’re on our way,” was the immediate response from Mr Chamberlain, before either of his crew mates had a chance to voice any objection.

“Thank you, Mr Chamberlain.”

“Thank you, Captain,” he said, ending the communication. Then, as he turned to his companions “Well, you heard the captain – the Engine Room it is.”

“She’s changing her orders?” Mr Martell said. “She never does that.”

“Extraordinary circumstances,” barked Mr Chamberlain, although he had to agree – it was out of character for Captain Singh to do this. “Come on,” he said, checking that his rifle was still armed, “Let’s go.”

Carefully picking his way through the charred undergrowth and fallen tree limbs, Mr Chamberlain led Mr Martell and Mr Abara out of the Tranquillity Forest. Bringing up the rear, with a hopeful, goofy grin on his face, the lovelorn Mr Abara thought ‘I wonder if we’ll run into her on the way…’

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Meanwhile, four levels below the Tranquility Forest, the pirates Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard were standing outside the Cargo Hold, staring forlornly at the touch panel that would open the door… if only it weren’t locked.

“Now what do we do?” asked Fullbrook.

He genuinely had not counted on this eventuality. Kevin Fullbrook was a greedy man, not a smart one.

“Well,” began Evans, frowning. “I guess we could go and find -”

BLAM! She was interrupted by the painfully loud explosion made by Skarsgard shooting the touch panel, at point blank range. Fullbrook and Evans instinctively leapt back from the ensuing shower of sparks. They didn’t hear it due to the ringing in their ears, but by the time the smoke had cleared, the Cargo Hold door had slid open, with a metallic swoosh.

As the last remnants of the smoke dissipated above their heads, the three pirates strode into the Cargo Hold, weapons drawn. It was dark – illuminated only by the ship’s dull, ruddy worklight – but they could discern that the vast, warehouse-sized room was almost empty. At the far end of it, though, they could just make out some pallets, loaded full of… something. As they drew closer, Evans counted 20 pallets in total – each one was a metre wide, a metre high and a metre deep. They’d been stacked two pallets high, so they formed ten two metre tall structures. For some reason, they had not been arranged symmetrically; these two meter tall structures seemed to be placed almost randomly near the wall, creating a little maze of laneways between them.

Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard came nearer still, and saw that the contents of each pallet had been wrapped in black plastic. But surely they had to have labels on them somewhere…

Fullbrook’s greed was swelling within him; as his pulse quickened, so did his pace; his walk turning into a jog, then a run, then a sprint, as he dashed towards the pallets. This visceral avarice proved contagious, as Evans and Skarsgard soon found themselves joining him, bolting towards the two metre high stacks. They all skidded to a stop as they arrived and started frantically searching the black plastic covered surfaces for labels. The labels were easy to find, and each time they spotted a new one, they shouted its contents out;

“Assorted Stationery!”
“Shampoo and assorted toiletries!”
“Protein – Type A!”
“Maitbot replacement parts!”
“Wine!”
“Linen!”
“Protein – Type B!”
“More wine!”

Within a minute, they’d read all 20 labels. It seemed all 20 pallets were loaded with completely commonplace, everyday items.

“Damn,” moaned Fullbrook. “None of the labels said ‘Gold’.”

As mentioned above, he was not a smart man.

He stared at the floor disconsolately. Evans rolled her eyes, as Skarsgard began using his long fingernails and considerable strength to tear into the black plastic on the pallet closest to him. This particular one did, as promised, contain nothing other than maitbot replacement parts. Following his lead, Evans and Fullbrook began tearing into the plastic on the pallets nearest them, too. After ripping open the plastic on fifteen of the pallets, only to reveal the contents specified on the labels, all three pirates were starting to have doubts.

Tearing wearily into the plastic on yet another pallet, Evans said “What if there is no gold?”

“No, but there has to be,” said Fullbrook, desperation edging in to his voice. “There just has to be!”

“What if Salazar has brought us all here on a wild goose chase?” Evans continued.

“No,” said Skarsgard, as he uncovered another pallet load of linen. “I refuse to believe he’d do that. What possible reason could he have?”

“I don’t know, Skarsgard,” answered Evans. “All I know is -”

She gasped.

There, on the upper pallet in front of her, right at eye level, something shone through the hole in the black wrapping. In the red worklight, it was the colour of amber. She touched it; it felt cold and metallic. With surging energy and trembling hands, she tore frantically at the plastic, ripping it off in great chunks. Her frenzied activity brought Fullbrook and Skarsgard to her side, as her efforts roughly, hurriedly unveiled…

The Gold.

Brick upon brick upon brick upon brick of shiny, lustrous, wondrous… gold.

The bricks were in stacks of ten, and this side of the pallet showed ten stacks. She scooted across to the other face of the pallet; it was five stacks wide. Quickly doing the calculations in her head, Evans realised that this pallet contained 500 bricks of solid gold.

So it was true.

It was all true.

Her breathing quickened, as she drank in the sight of it, scarcely daring to make a sound in its sacred presence.

Skarsgard, too, was rooted to the spot – transfixed by the loot, and overtaken by a state of blissful, avaricious rapture.

Fullbrook’s eyes were assailed by tears of joy, and he wept freely. His shoulders jerked up and down, as his hands impulsively wiped the tears away, lest they interrupt – for even a second – his glorious view of the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful gold.

Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard embraced each other, basking in the glow of this moment, surrendering to the staggering wave of happiness that had suddenly swamped them.

And right at that moment, three figures appeared in the Cargo Hold’s doorway. Symphony crew members Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis were here to defend the ship’s precious cargo, and they’d arrived not a moment too soon.

 

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 12 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:04 AM

It had only been a few minutes since captain Salazar Sharp had dispatched his pirate crew throughout the ship (to capture any Symphony crew members they came across), but those few minutes had already provided the pirates with more than a few surprises.

Richards, Devereux and Jelani had found themselves in the ship’s morgue, where they’d discovered that one of the Symphony’s crew was a serial killer, before being interrupted by a “floating” corpse…

Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard had made their way straight to the Cargo Hold, where they’d discovered – to their avaricious ecstasy – that this ship really was transporting ten tonnes of gold bars…

And Captain Sharp and First Mate Jiang had found themselves fleeing for their lives in a luxuriant forest, where they’d only narrowly escaped being shot, burned, and crushed by a giant falling redwood.

The remaining Cheeky Albert crew members – computer genius Lightfoot, ship’s cook Suarez and Second Mate AJ had banded together, while their crew-mate Gotmund had, as always, headed out on his own…

Gotmund hadn’t encountered any Symphony crew members on his trip up to C Deck. He’d searched the end of the shopping promenade closest to the ship’s bow, and then made his way up to the mezzanine level, to the second of the ship’s three swimming pools. He’d been navigating by the map in the Symphony’s promotional brochure, which was currently displayed on the screen of the rectangular tablet strapped to his left forearm. These devices were standard issue for each of the Albert’s crew members. They served as communicators, cameras, sound recorders, and had at least a dozen other functions. Gotmund stood and stared blankly at the swimming pool’s rippling surface.

After he’d been doing this for a full minute, Gotmund had a thought.

‘This is boring.’

Granted, it wasn’t an especially profound or insightful thought, but that was Gotmund for you.

‘How can I take any hostages, if I can’t find any people?’ He was desperate for a chance to do what he did best – fighting and winning. He craved some action; a skirmish, a run-in, a bit of good old fashioned argy-bargy.

Sure, he did feel bad about killing that guy back there in the docking bay. But Gotmund thought that his weapon had been set to ‘stun’. As did all his crew mates. Why hadn’t Richards told him that she’d set them to all to ‘kill’, instead? She was supposed to be his best friend. He wasn’t sure why she’d keep this… trick (was it a trick?) secret from him. He just couldn’t work it out, and it hurt his brain to think about it.

So he didn’t. He just stood by the pool and stared at the water some more.

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As it happened, Lightfoot, A.J and Suarez were only one level above Gotmund, searching the most ostentatious of the ship’s three restaurants, Epicurus. Thirty tables filled the large room, looking unnaturally naked without the elegant cutlery, fine glassware and elaborate floral centrepieces they usually boasted. The three enormous, ornate chandeliers gracing the ceiling were lustreless, too – the only light source in the room being the sickly, unsettling red work-light that currently illuminated most of the ship’s interior. Each wall here had been hung with magnificent works of art; heroic and dramatic scenes from late 23rd century history, sunset landscapes on a dozen different worlds, and adoring portraits of some of the greatest beauties the system had ever known. Suarez gawked delightedly at all this extravagant splendour.

AJ and Lightfoot didn’t. Their outlook was altogether more practical; they only wanted to know if this restaurant was currently sheltering any Symphony crew members they could capture. If it wasn’t, they could cross it off the list and move on. They still had a lot of ground to cover.

To Suarez, though, Epicurus was a destination. ‘Now this is more like it!’ he couldn’t help thinking. A short, rotund, and outwardly cheerful man, Alfredo Suarez had served as ship’s cook on the Cheeky Albert for almost a decade now. It was, he’d always thought, a post that was far beneath him. His family had always venerated fine food and wine. He was the son of two chefs, and his four siblings had all followed in their footsteps. But after a series of bad decisions, by the time he was 22, young Alfredo had become estranged from his family, and firmly ensconced in the criminal underworld. His considerable skills in culinary improvisation, his extensive knowledge of fine wines and his general air of bonhomie had made him a popular addition to various gangs and criminal crews… but he’d always felt he was destined for greater things. And this raid was about to make them all possible. With his share of the gold, he’d be able to live the life he’d always dreamed of – the life he deserved. He’d teach his family a lesson. He was about to become a wealthy, distinguished gentleman of leisure, never settling for anything but the very best, most exclusive, most exquisite, most fashionable food and wine available to humanity. Perhaps after all this was over, he’d even book a cruise on the Symphony of the Stars as a paying customer. He smiled at the thought. But right now, there was somewhere he simply had to go. It was the reason he’d suggested that he, Lightfoot and AJ begin their search here. It was the one and only place on the Symphony that Suarez was desperate to visit, ever since he’d read those entrancing words in the brochure;

our extensive cellar,
home to over 12,000 bottles of the finest and rarest and most exotic wines, spirits and liqueurs ever assembled in this – or any other – system.

Suarez knew that the cellar adjoined this restaurant. He slipped away from the other two, surprisingly quietly and quickly for a man of his girth.

AJ and Lightfoot didn’t see him leave.

Suarez thrilled to the idea that he’d soon be alone – entirely alone and uninterrupted – with all that liquid magnificence! Of course, he had no idea how vulnerable that would make him, to one of the Symphony’s crew members. One of the “waiters and maids” (as Salazar had called them) who was, in fact, a serial killer.

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The serial killer who’d been haunting the thoughts of Captain Diana Singh for days now. Her mind returned – as it had so often recently – to the killer’s possible motivation. She thought about the two victims…. Well, the two victims so far. Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck. She’d pored over their files more times than she cared to count, but she had yet to find anything to suggest a reason for anyone to want to kill them.

Anton Vickers: Age 24. Mr Vickers’ official title was Second Technology Officer. He reported to Mr Abara, and was essentially his apprentice. He was an enthusiastic assistant, always keen to learn more about the ship’s systems and machinery – especially the maitbots. Despite being relatively new to the crew, he’d already proven quite brilliant at maintaining and upgrading them, and had even designed some very clever new programs and features for them. He did, however, have an unfortunate fondness for practical jokes. He’d replaced the birdsong soundtrack in the Tranquillity Forest with loud polka music, he’d rigged all the replicators in the staff canteen to only ever deliver lukewarm banana custard, and he was the reason Mr Martell’s regular crew safety briefing had been interrupted by 12 pairs of maitbots bursting in, doing a rather good Viennese waltz.

And that was just last week.

‘But,’ thought Captain Singh, ‘were Mr Vickers’ jokes actually annoying enough to make someone to want to kill him?

…. Possibly’.

Tania Stuppeck: Age 38. She worked in Housekeeping, and was Mr Lebedev’s second-in-command. An efficient, pragmatic woman who was a lot more down-to-earth and sensible than her superior. It was well known that they had frequent differences of opinion, and they’d often been heard arguing in the corridors… which naturally cast suspicion on him. But would Mr Lebedev ever bring himself to murder her? Captain Singh didn’t think so. She couldn’t picture her fastidious, unmanly Chief Steward as a killer. Quite apart from the moral – and physical – considerations of actually killing someone, she wasn’t sure he’d cope with the untidiness. On the other hand, was there someone else who Ms Stuppeck had irritated even more than she irritated Mr Lebedev?

Whoever the killer was, Captain Singh had to ensure that their first two victims would also be their last. The stakes were too high – she had to unmask and punish the murderer, before they struck again.

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Ms Aku, Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin stood in the doorway of the Symphony’s dimly lit Cargo Hold. The smouldering remains of the door’s touch panel told them that whoever was inside, they certainly weren’t gun shy…
This was Ms Aku’s chance.

“Weapons drawn,” she whispered urgently to the two Deck Ratings. “And make sure they’re set to ‘kill’. We’re not taking any prisoners.”

Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin nodded nervously.

Ms Aku was still ashamed of her efforts – and the efforts of her crew mates – in their first encounter with the pirates, back in the docking bay. She would make her captain proud of her yet. This was her chance to redeem herself. It was her chance to be how she imagined Captain Singh was, back when she was in the Third Offworld Navy; fierce, on the front foot, and completely fearless.

“THIS IS SECOND OFFICER AKU, OF THE SYMPHONY OF THE STARS,” she yelled boldly into the darkness. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER IMMEDIATELY, OR FACE THE CONSEQUENCES. WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED!”

Mr Ellis and Ms LeGuin looked at each other, both thinking ‘Um… no, we don’t.’

“YOU HAVE UNTIL I COUNT TO THREE!” Ms Aku continued. “ONE… TWO… THREE!”

 

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.

= CHAPTER 13 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:05 AM

At the forward wall of the Cargo Hold – the wall where the pallets were arranged, the wall that separated the Cargo Hold from the Symphony’s third swimming pool – the pirates Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard were suddenly startled out of their greedy, gold-lusting reveries.

“THIS IS SECOND OFFICER AKU, OF THE SYMPHONY OF THE STARS,” came a voice from the other end of the room. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER IMMEDIATELY, OR FACE THE CONSEQUENCES. WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED!”

Fullbrook looked at Skarsgard and Evans. Fear had instantly flushed through Fullbrook, washing away his greed with a swiftness and efficiency that had even surprised him. ‘Surrender? Surrender sounds fine to me, guys,’ he was thinking. ‘Okay by you two?’
Skarsgard frowned and shook his head. Evans put her finger to her lips.

“YOU HAVE UNTIL I COUNT TO THREE!” the Symphony crew member at the other end of the room continued. “ONE…”

Skarsgard renewed his grip on his gun. ‘Aha – a fight!’ he thought, relishing the quick adrenalin surge he was feeling.

“TWO…”

Evans, though, didn’t want another skirmish – she just wanted the gold. If she could just talk to them, she might be able to –

“THREE!”

With a series of loud bangs, a volley of energy bolts slammed into the wall behind them, the pallets in front of them, and the floor to the right of them. They were under attack! Evans dived behind one stack of crates, as Fullbrook and Skarsgard ducked behind some others, desperately hoping they’d provide some cover.

“WAIT! JUST WAIT A MINUTE!”, Evans yelled. “CAN WE JUST – ”

Another burst of blue energy bolts blasted the crates in front of her and the wall behind her. So this Second Officer Aku and her crew mates weren’t interested in negotiating. Time to return fire, then. Chancing a glance around the side of the crates, Evans peered down the length of the long room. It was dimly lit, and there was some smoke clouding her view… but there they were! Taking cover behind the two bulkheads near the hold’s obliterated entranceway. She spotted two women behind the bulkhead on the port side, and one man behind the starboard bulkhead. She didn’t spot any more Symphony crew members, but that didn’t necessarily mean that that there weren’t any.

These bulkheads were a feature of all the larger rooms along the ship’s hull. They housed airtight barrier walls which could be quickly extended to seal off sections of the room, in case of any hull breach. Ms Aku, Ms Leguin and Mr Ellis were currently using them as shields, tentatively springing out from behind them to shoot at the pirates for as long as they dared.

“MS LEGUIN, MR ELLIS – GIVE THEM HELL!” shouted Ms Aku. Mr Ellis nervously jumped out, aimed his rifle in the general direction of the crates and fired off a rapid burst of energy bolts. None of them came anywhere near the pirates; four shots hit the wall behind them and another three impacted on the starboard wall of the hold. He sprang back behind the bulkhead, sweating, panting, and afraid. He was no good at this.

At the same time, Ms LeGuin and Ms Aku leapt out into the open and squeezed off a couple more bursts, too. Their blue-hot energy bolts also flew wide of the pirates, instead strafing the crates, the wall behind the crates, and the starboard wall (where Mr Ellis’s shots had just also impacted), leaving small, smoking black craters across each surface.

Skarsgard and Evans were angry now. He gestured to her; he would concentrate on the starboard bulkhead, while she should take the other. They both stepped out from behind their crates, and peered down the room, taking careful aim at the bulkheads, as they waited for their enemies to show themselves again. Mr Ellis was the first to peek out from behind his cover, and Skarsgard fired instantly; instinctively and accurately. Mr Ellis jolted as the bolt hit him. His crewmates Ms Aku and Ms LeGuin watched in horror, as he collapsed to the ground, and lay there, still.

They had no way of knowing that he’d only been stunned. They thought they’d just witnessed his murder.

Fury overwhelmed Second Officer Aku – first these marauders had killed Mr Torrence, and now Mr Ellis? It was too much. Propelled by fury, and an instant burning desire for revenge, she sprang from behind the bulkhead and charged towards the pirates, roaring a battle cry and blasting furiously at them, again and again and again. Ms LeGuin reluctantly followed her superior, fighting back her fear as she ran, rifle blasting away.

Skarsgard and Evans barely ducked back behind their crates in time, as dozens of energy bolts seared the air around them, tore into the crates in front of them, and smashed into the wall behind them. A couple of metres away, Fullbrook crouched behind the pallet holding the gold, cowering, his eyes screwed shut, wishing this was over.

Ms Aku and Ms Leguin had only taken five or six steps beyond the bulkheads when they saw it. What looked like a thin, horizontal crack in the wall behind the crates. All their wayward gunfire had taken its toll – the various blast marks and craters had chipped away at the structural integrity of the wall behind the pirates, and some smaller cracks between the impact points now seemed to be joining up. It looked like the wall was starting to buckle; almost as though something was pushing on it, from the other side.

Something was pushing on it from the other side. 144,000 litres of water; the entire contents of the Symphony’s third swimming pool. The weight of the water pressed hard against the newly perforated wall; distorting its metal skin, buckling its internal struts and joists, bending and kinking the wall’s various layers, dumbly and mightily probing for the point of least resistance, until… there was a deep, grinding, metallic wrenching sound, as the metal wall tore open and a gigantic wall of water exploded into the cargo hold.

The maelstrom immediately threw Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard off their feet and into the centre of the huge room, as it buffeted, bashed and beat them with the pallets, the crates, and all their contents. The violent tide turned everything in the room – people, pallets cargo and gold – into a chaotic, disorienting din. Fullbrook’s gun was knocked from his hands, as he, Evans and Skarsgard frantically struggled to find their footing, to get their heads above the water, to get some air. They scrambled and rolled as the wave pushed them further away from their original position, further toward the Cargo Hold’s entranceway, past the bulkheads.

Ms Aku and Ms LeGuin had a split second longer to register the danger, but that didn’t help them. They were also knocked off their feet, and sent sprawling back behind the bulkheads and closer to the entrance. Ms LeGuin’s gun was pulled from her hands by the tide, and her mouth, nose and lungs instantly filled with water as she coughed, retched and struggled for air. The limp, unconscious form of Mr Ellis was tossed like a rag doll towards the starboard wall, sending him a good ten meters further into the room than his crew mates and the pirates.

At the same time, the massive wave also slammed into the starboard wall. The starboard wall that was the interior of the ship’s hull.

The mighty torrent hit this wall with so much force that it punched through the seven small craters made by the Symphony crew’s earlier, inaccurate shots. It instantly flooded, and then pierced, all the layers of the wall – the insulation, the fibre network cabling, the girders, the stringers, the outer skin, and finally the SPR panels.

An entire swimming pool’s worth of water had just found a way to get out of the ship, and into the vacuum of space.

It had just caused a hull breach.

The resulting suction began pulling everything in the Cargo Hold towards those seven holes. As more and more water was pulled through them and out into space, the holes grew larger, and their suction grew ever stronger. Its power was massive and inescapable, as it dragged all the pallets, all their contents, and the six hapless people here slowly closer and closer to the hull…

The first pallet – a pallet loaded with crates of wine – hit the wall, shuddered there for a moment as the massive external pressure of space struggled to pull it through…. And was sucked out with such monstrous force that it bent the wall, and enlarged the hole to a meter square. This accelerated the suction, and all the other pallets – and people – began to be dragged more rapidly towards the gaping wound in the ship’s side.

The three pirates, Ms Aku and Ms LeGuin were still behind the bulkheads close to the entranceway… but they wouldn’t be for long. As the five of them struggled to regain their footing on the wet slippery floor, as they haplessly tried to scramble their way out of the Cargo Hold, they felt themselves being hauled inexorably towards that ever-growing gash in the starboard wall.

Fullbrook was – predictably – terrified, and he didn’t care who knew it. “SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!” he yelled.

Ms Aku scanned the inner hold for the prone form of her crewmate Mr Ellis, but couldn’t see him. He certainly wasn’t here with her; behind the bulkheads, there was just her, Ms LeGuin and the three pirates. As she slipped over yet again, and felt herself being pulled closer to the main area of the hold, Ms Aku made a decision. She tapped her communicator insignia badge.
“Ms Arenson, please close the number one bulkhead barrier in the Cargo Hold immediately! Please close the number one bulkhead barrier in the Cargo Hold immediately!”
The ship’s Chief Engineer was still in the Engine Room, watching events unfold via the Cargo Hold’s CCTV cameras. She’d already considered closing the bulkheads, but there was one Symphony crew member who was not safely behind them…
“But Mr Ellis!”, she protested.
“PLEASE CLOSE THE NUMBER ONE BULKHEAD BARRIER IN THE CARGO HOLD IMMEDIATELY!”, Ms Aku repeated frantically. She and Ms LeGuin were being pulled dangerously close to the bulkheads – once they were dragged past that point, there’d be no saving them. Frantically scrambling on the wet, slippery floor, trying to find any purchase, Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and the pirates Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard were now all just one meter away from the bulkheads… now sixty centimeters… forty centimeters… now twenty…

There was a loud mechanical swooshing sound, as a floor-to-ceiling metal barrier shot out from the middle of the port bulkhead and into the centre of the room, perfectly joining with the barrier that had simultaneously slid out from the the starboard bulkhead, opposite.

The airtight seal was complete. The suction stopped, and Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and the three pirates found themselves sitting on the wet floor of the Cargo Hold, just inside its wrecked entrance, surrounded by pieces of wrecked pallets and random supplies… breathless, dazed and exhausted.

On the other side of the barrier, the effective shrinking of the room made the suction even stronger, and the Hold’s contents were now being pulled towards the ever-growing hole in the side of the ship with greater and greater force. Faster and faster, more and more violently, pallet after pallet was yanked to the breach and out into the void.

If you’d been observing this moment from outside from a fixed point in space, you’d have seen a ragged, two metre wide opening in the starboard hull, amidships, and down low – close to the keel. You’d have seen 144,000 litres of water blasting through it with the force of a high-pressure fire hose. 144,000 litres of water that didn’t just drag 20 pallets, dozens of crates of sundry ship’s supplies and three close defence plasma rifles along with it….

But also 800 loose bricks of solid gold.

And the limp, lifeless body of Symphony of the Stars Deck Rating Mr Michael Ellis.

 

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.

= CHAPTER 14 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:07 AM

On the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh, her First Officer Mr Sinclair and Chief Steward Mr Lebedev watched the feeds on various screens in stunned silence.

They’d seen the gunfight – from numerous angles – via the cameras in the Cargo Hold, they’d watched all the water instantly get sucked from the pool via the poolside cameras, and now they were staring at all the water, all the cargo (including the gold), and the tiny, pathetic figure of Mr Ellis tumbling and drifting further and further away from the ship, and out into the vast cold emptiness of space.

They’d heard it all, too – Ms Aku had left her communicator channel open, hoping her heroics would impress her beloved captain. She hadn’t foreseen this disastrous result. The result that she’d been instrumental in causing. Captain Singh was angered by Ms Aku’s recklessness, by her irresponsibility and by her extremely poor marksmanship. But she would deal with her Second Officer in due course. Right now, there was someone else she needed to talk to.

“Mr Sinclair, please open the ship’s emergency public address system. All speakers, all decks.”

“Yes, Captain,” he nodded.

Captain Diana Singh took a breath, as Mr Lebedev watched on, helplessly.

“Captain Sharp, I know you can hear me,” she began. “And I know your crew can hear me too. Your mission has failed, sir. You’ve shot up my ship, you’ve torn a hold in its side, you’ve killed two of my crew members, and terrorised the rest.” She paused, determined not to let any emotion creep into her voice. “And all for nothing. Your precious gold is gone; scattered and dispersed into hundreds of bricks, now randomly spinning through space. Go and collect it, if it’s that important to you – be my guest. You have failed… Salazar.

The mocking contempt in her pronunciation of his name could be heard throughout the length and breadth of the ship.

“Now get off my ship, all of you. Or my crew and I will force you off. I promise you that.”

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

Captain Singh’s speech found its target down on C deck, where Salazar and Jiang listened intently.
Salazar tapped his forearm tablet, closing his communication channel, and motioned for Jiang to do the same. She did. He didn’t want the rest of his crew to hear what he was about to say to his trusted First Mate.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This was never about the gold.”

“Well, I know that,” said Jiang, “but the others don’t. You gotta tell them what’s going on, Cap’n. You have to tell the crew the real reason we came here.”

Salazar was staring into the distance, his mind clearly on something else.

“Not yet,” he replied at last.

“Well, at least call a three-fourteen.”
“But what about Maggie?” he said forlornly, with a hint of desperation. “We’ve gotta find her…”

‘That fox,’ thought Jiang. ‘That damn fox!’ She sometimes thought he cared more about that animal than the people willing to risk their lives for him.

“Cap’n,” she said, as reassuringly as she could, “we will find Maggie. I promise. But right now, your crew needs you. They’re scattered all over the ship, and right now they’re easy targets. We’ve seen how trigger happy this lot are, and they’re gonna be even angrier now that we’ve killed two of their own, on this supposedly ‘casualty-free’ raid. Our people are in real danger, and their big shiny reason for following you here has just been blasted into space. You owe them.”

Salazar looked into the imploring eyes of First Mate Jiang. She was right. As usual. He nodded gravely, and cleared his throat as he re-opened the general communication channel.

“All crew members of the Cheeky Albert, this is your Captain. I’m calling a three fourteen. Repeat, I’m calling a three-fourteen. You all know where to go.”

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

As they left the Epicurus restaurant on B deck, Lightfoot and AJ were interrupted by Captain Singh’s announcement. They processed the information it contained, and looked at each other.

“Wait – so, the gold is gone?” said Lightfoot.

“She’s bluffing,” said AJ, shaking his head vigorously. “She’s got to be bluffing.”

“Of course she is,” Lightfoot agreed. “She wants us off the ship, and obviously, she’ll say whatever it takes…”

“That’s right. Of course that’s right. It must be…”

The idea that their mission could prove entirely fruitless – the thought that there could be NO GOLD on this ship after all – plunged AJ and Lightfoot into deep, speculative discussion. Discussion so deep that they didn’t notice that Suarez was no longer with them.

And when Captain Sharp’s three-fourteen order came through, Suarez drifted even further from their minds. They made their way toward the nearest elevator.

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

By the side of the Symphony’s second pool up on B Deck, the brawny pirate Gotmund had also heard the cruise ship captain announcing that the gold was lost. He assumed she was telling the truth. Gotmund had always assumed that everyone else was as much of a straight shooter – both literally and metaphorically – as he was.

‘This is serious,’ he thought. ‘Really serious.’

It was so serious, in fact, that it made him take his bare feet out of the pool, put his shoes and socks back on, and think – think, dammit! – about what to do next.

Gotmund came up blank.

So often the way.

Thankfully, Captain Sharp’s three-fourteen call had come just after that. Gotmund checked the ship’s map, and started out for the rendezvous point.

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

Devereux, Richards and Jelani – still shaken from their experience in the ship’s morgue – stopped when they heard Captain Singh’s announcement. They’d seen none of what happened in the cargo hold, so the speech raised more questions than it answered.

Richards wondered idly about the second dead Symphony crew member, and hoped that she wouldn’t be blamed for this casualty, too. All the pirates’ guns were definitely now set to stun, weren’t they?

But more than that, all three of them wondered about the gold. It couldn’t really be gone, could it?

The three-fourteen would sort this out. They knew where to go.

And so they went there. Just like all of their crew mates.

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

All of them, that is, except Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard. They’d heard their captain’s announcement, but they were currently running towards the docking bay.

“Sorry Cap’n,” said Evans, under her breath as she turned off her communicator, “But we won’t be able to make it…”

A minute earlier, back on the wet floor of the cargo hold, Evans had yanked Fullbrook and Skarsgard to their feet and dragged them out and into the corridor.

“Come on!” she’d said. “We gotta get that gold!”

“How?” spluttered Fullbrook.

But she’d run off, sternward, leaving her dazed companions little choice but to follow her. They’d sprinted past the ship’s laundry, past the ship’s brig, and were now nearing the Symphony’s cavernous Docking Bay, where Evans had berthed the Cheeky Albert just a few minutes earlier.

“I still don’t understand,” puffed Fullbrook.

“Me neither,” added Skarsgard. “Those gold bricks shot out of the hold in all directions. And the Albert’s much too big and unwieldy to take us around collecting them all.”

“Yes it is,” agreed Evans. “But the pinnaces aren’t.”

Fullbrook and Skarsgard smiled. Yes, that could work.

The two pinnaces housed aboard the Cheeky Albert were smaller vessels, used by the pirates for short trips and lightning raids. Lighter and more manoeuvrable than the Albert itself, they were fast, and fitted with fearsome weaponry, making them perfect for hit-and-run strikes where speed was essential. Each pinnace could accommodate four crew members, and had very basic amenities – berths, replicators, sanitation facilities, and an emergency spacesuit for each crew member on board.

Evans and Skarsgard crossed the threshold of the Docking Bay, followed by Fullbrook, who was beginning to tire.

“But we’ll never be able to get all of the gold,” he moaned.

“So what?” said Evans, as they reached the aperture where the Albert was docked. “Even if we only get half of it, or a third of it, or just a quarter… we’ll still be set for life.”

“And,” added Skarsgard, “however much we get, splitting it three ways is a whole lot better than splitting it twelve ways…”

And with that, the three of them darted through the aperture where the two vessels joined – off one ship and onto the other.

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

If you’d been observing from outside, from a fixed point in space, you then would have seen two sections of the docked pirate ship’s hull slide apart, to reveal a smaller spaceship inside.
You would have seen that smaller ship emerge from the larger one, and gently make its way around to the Symphony’s starboard side. You’d have seen it sweep half way down the length of the gigantic cruise ship, until it was adjacent to the fresh gaping breach in the hull.

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

Inside the pinnace’s command module, Evans and Skarsgard had taken up positions at the two control consoles, while Fullbrook hovered impotently behind them. From the piloting console, Evans issued an order;

“Skarsgard, kill all communications channels, would you? I don’t want us to be disturbed. We’ve got work to do.”

 

 

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.

= CHAPTER 15 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:15 AM

Salazar Sharp could always be sure that whenever he called a three-fourteen, he’d have his crew’s undivided attention. He knew they’d drop whatever they were doing and make their way to the predetermined rendezvous point. He was certain that the three-fourteen was one order – perhaps the only order – that he could issue to that devil-may-care crew of his that they’d follow every time, without fail.

You see, a “three-fourteen” was Cheeky Albert crew slang for a-trip-to-the-pub-for-a-drink-and-a-chat.

It had been common parlance on the ship for so long that by now they’d all forgotten how the term came about. It made sense once upon a time, though. Years ago, when the Cheeky Albert’s crew was larger, Salazar had called the ship’s first Official Emergency Drinking and Debriefing Session after they’d all narrowly survived a particularly harrowing hostage situation on Rigel VI. Feeling that they could all use some liquid refreshment – and fast – Salazar immediately bought three drinks for each of his fourteen crew members the moment they arrived at the first seedy bar they found. And that set the tone – not to mention the pace – for the evening ahead of them. Over the next few hours, they drank, they talked, they laughed, they cried, they drank, they fought, they laughed, they made up, they kissed, they hugged, they sang, they drank and they laughed again. The event was very good for the pirates’ morale… if not their livers. And by the tail end of the evening (which, as it turned out, was actually the middle of the next morning) they’d taken a vote, to include the newly named ‘three-fourteen’ as one of the Cheeky Albert’s Totally and Utterly Essential Emergency Protocols.
Unsurprisingly, the vote was unanimous.

Yesterday, before embarking on this particular raid, the Albert’s crew had perused the Symphony’s brochure, and decided that, should a three-fourteen be necessary, the Shifting Sands lounge would be the place for it. The Shifting Sands was the largest and most elegant bar aboard the Symphony of the Stars. It was located astern, on A Deck, and modelled after the opulent Jazz Age and Art Deco bars of the early twentieth century, back on earth. Thick burgundy carpets, marble topped bars with shiny brass fixtures and warm, muted downlights were the order of the day here. Golden geometrical designs adorned the chocolate brown walls, and each table had a warmly glowing frosted glass ornament as its centrepiece. There were soft, deep brown leather couches, and intimate booths, where the lighting and the upholstery were softer again. The Shifting Sands was somehow spacious yet cosy, and its myriad seductive, plush comforts welcomed you in, making you suspect that very soon, you’d never want to leave.

Salazar and Jiang were the first to arrive. Like every other location they’d covered on this ship, they approached the bar’s entrance with extreme caution; weapons drawn and armed, not knowing what waited for them round the next corner…

The ship’s sensors had noted their approach, and a second before they entered, the bar’s lighting state changed from the dim red worklight to its usual warm, inviting ambience. And a second or two after they’d crossed its threshold, and as they were still taking in its convivial opulence, a jovial, gravelly female voice rang out:

“Whoa-Ho! Here’s a couple of likely looking customers!”

Instinctively, Salazar and Jiang whipped their rifles around to aim at the source of the sound, and saw a buxom, middle-aged woman in a formal white hospitality uniform, cheerfully regarding them through sparkling eyes, as she polished a cocktail glass.
Salazar and Jiang exchanged a look.

‘Wha- ?” said Jiang, probably not that helpfully.

But Salazar was confused too. Why wasn’t this barmaid shooting at them? Wasn’t she scared? Hadn’t she heard Captain Singh’s announcements? Didn’t she know that the entire ship was currently being overrun by a reckless band of marauding, bloodthirsty pirates?

“Welcome to the Shifting Sands! I’m Marie. Now, what can I get you?”

Evidently not.

“Erm…” said a confused Salazar, trying to sound nonchalant, and almost succeeding, “Do you have rum?”

“Do we have rum? Do we have rum?” chuckled Marie the barmaid, glancing conspiratorially at Jiang. “He asks me ‘Do we have rum?’!”

Jiang shrugged and smiled politely.

Turning to Salazar, Marie asked “Light, gold, aged or dark?”

“Erm, dark” he replied.

“Rigelian, Terran, Betelgeusean?”

“Terran.”

“Jamaican, Portuguese, Cuban, Australian or Guyanese?”

“Australian.”

“Rocks?”

“No. Neat.”

“And for you?” smiled Marie, turning back to Jiang.

“The same.” She didn’t want a grilling like that; she just wanted a drink… and to know why they’d been so warmly welcomed here.

“Coming right up!” chirped Marie, and bustled away to get the drinks.
When he called this three-fourteen, Salazar had expected that he’d be the one behind the bar here. He predicted the place would be deserted, and if it wasn’t, he was just going to stun whoever was here, standing in his way.
He certainly hadn’t banked on receiving such a gregarious greeting. But before he and Jiang could work out why they were being treated to such convivial hospitality, Devereux, Jelani and Richards walked in.

“Cap’n, Jiang,” said Devereux, nodding her greeting.

Richards spotted Marie behind the bar, and instantly swung her rifle up and aimed it at the barmaid. Salazar gestured for Richards to lower her gun, as he said “Glad you three could make it. Join us in a drink? This is Marie.”

Marie smiled at the three newcomers as she served the first two drinks.

“Hello, hello, hello!” she chortled. “Triple trouble now! Hey, if two’s company, (she gestured to Salazar and Jiang) and three’s a crowd (and here, to Devereux, Jelani and Richards)… then what does that make five? You tell me!” and she laughed heartily, as the five pirates regarded her, nonplussed.

Salazar shot the newcomers a hapless look, but his voice was casual as he said “we’re having the usual. Would you like the same?”

“I think that’d be wise,” said Jelani.

“Three more of the same please, Marie,” said Jiang.

“Coming right up, like a nasty pimple!” she chuckled, and busied herself getting the order.

Richards, Jelani and Devereux carefully put their rifles down (but within easy reach, as always) and settled in to the bar stools alongside Salazar and Jiang. It was only then that they realised someone was missing.

“Hey, where’s Maggie?” asked Richards. She’d been too surprised by Marie to notice that the ship’s mascot wasn’t here. And yet Salazar Sharp and his pet fox were inseparable; everyone knew that.

“We got separated,” said Salazar, his brow furrowing. “I wanted to keep searching for her, but…” he looked at Jiang, almost accusingly.

“We’ll find her, Cap’n,” she said. “I promise.”

“Of course we will, ” “She’ll turn up.” “She’s just exploring, that’s all,” the three newcomers chimed in. As their drinks arrived, Jelani raised her glass.

“To Maggie!” she said.

“To Maggie!” echoed the others, downing their drinks in one gulp, and slamming the glasses on the bar.

“Same again please, Marie!” said Richards.

“Of course, of course – some more of the sauce!” she giggled, as she scooped up the five empty glasses and scooted off.

“What’s her deal?” Devereux asked Jiang.

“Hello!” boomed a deep male voice behind them.

It was Gotmund. He stomped up to the bar, and sat himself down, heavily, next to Richards. There was a big, relieved grin on Gotmund’s face. He hadn’t much liked the confusing, fruitless, non-confrontational sneaking around of the last half hour, and he was very grateful that a three-fourteen had been called. Other than fighting, this was one of the few things he understood. This was something he knew how to do, something he was good at; drinking with his mates.

“Gotmund!” said Richards, slapping her friend on the back. “The usual?”
“The usual.”

Lightfoot and AJ arrived a few seconds later, gawping appreciatively at their luxurious, inviting surrounds. Jiang greeted them with a question;

“Where’s Suarez?” he asked. “Wasn’t he with you?”

“We must have got separated back at the restaurant…” Lightfoot began. AJ finished her sentence. “… But I’m sure he’ll turn up!” as he approached the bar, rubbing his hands together.

Salazar was less than impressed by his crew’s lack of attention to detail.

“Hello Lightfoot, AJ. So, from the look of things,” he sighed, “No-one’s managed to take any hostages yet?”

The pirates all shook their heads. There were a couple of murmured “Nah, sorry Cap’n”s.

Salazar exhaled heavily. “And has anybody seen Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard?”

More shaken heads, accompanied this time by a few shrugged shoulders.

“So instead of increasing our numbers,” Salazar continued. “with hostages we can use as bargaining chips, we seem to have gone from a crew of thirteen… down to just the eight of us here. All in the space of half an hour.”

“Thirteen?” blurted Gotmund. “But we’re a crew of twelve…”

Salazar fixed him with a piercing glare. “Are you saying that Maggie doesn’t count as a member of our crew?”

“No Cap’n. Sorry Cap’n”, mumbled Gotmund, and guiltily guzzled the rum that Marie had just set down in front of him.

She immediately relieved him of his empty glass. “Same again, Big Fella?”

Gotmund nodded.

“And what about you two latecomers?” Marie continued, winking at AJ and Lightfoot. “Will you be having the same?”

AJ and Lightfoot nodded dumbly, as they both bellied up to the bar.

“Thank you!” Lightfoot called after Marie, as she watched her zip back to that suddenly very popular rum bottle.

“Interesting,” said Lightfoot, easing herself into an available bar stool. “Marie’s a Shh.”

“Really?” asked Richards.

“Yeah, of course she is.”

‘Shh’ was the slang term for SHs – Synthetic Humans – and it was a borderline offensive term. It was fine for Synthetic Humans to use it, to refer to each other by that term – it was their word – but for real humans to use it was generally considered bad form. But Lightfoot had never bothered herself too much with such niceties.

“How do you know?” asked Gotmund.

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Lightfoot. “If she was just a regular human Symphony crew member, she’d have been scared of us. She’d have shot us – or (considering their marksmanship) shot in our general direction – the moment we walked in. There’s no way she’d have greeted us as warmly as she did. I’m tipping she’s got no idea what’s been happening for the past half hour. And that could only be the case if she’s been in here, powered down and offline. No reason for her to be switched on when the Shifting Sands doesn’t have any customers. But then we arrived, and she’s all systems go.”

Gotmund was impressed.

“Also,” Lightfoot concluded, “she’s got wheels instead of feet.”

Gotmund leaned over the bar and peeked down. It was true.

 

 

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

= CHAPTER 16 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:18 AM

Marie, the bartender in the Shifting Sands lounge, was indeed a Synthetic Human.

The complexity and sophistication of androids had developed exponentially since their earliest versions in the 21st century. At first they were unwieldy, cumbersome and more designed and built for the jobs that no human wanted to do – repetitive factory work, tedious transportation work, dangerous mining and exploration work… but with the vast leaps in AI and Moore’s Law being superseded by Cook’s Law in the early 22nd century, Synthetic Humans had become more autonomous, more nuanced, and more and more lifelike.

This was the birth of an entirely new race – a new “other” – and it was not without its teething troubles. For all those politicians who traded in fear and hatred, in demonisation and sowing the seeds of division… the development of Synthetic Humans had provided a brand new, ready-made target. A new breed of second class citizen to look down on; an entire subsection of society to gang up on. And sadly, and predictably, a lot of people did. “They’re stealing our jobs,” they cried. “They’re stealing our resources,” they cried. “AND they’re stealing our women.”

That last one, in particular, made no sense at all, but that didn’t stop the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the disingenuous from raising their voices – and their fists – loudly and often. As The Bard said, in one of her more pessimistic moments: “People are people… Unfortunately.”

In some places, the New Racism descended into street fighting, pitched battles and even a couple of small civil wars.

A matter of existential regret for the SHs was the fact that they didn’t have – and couldn’t have – families. Sometimes humans were vulgarly smug about this. But this did mean that the SHs were also immune from “the whole sex thing”, as they called it… all their thoughts, impulses and drives were completely untroubled by that deeply primal, hardwired human undercurrent. But from what the SHs had seen, it had brought humanity nothing but trouble over the last few millennia, and they generally agreed that they could do without all that palaver.

In the end, a global treaty was signed between the humans and the Synthetic Humans, with significant concessions on both sides. The humans were forbidden by law from treating any SH “in an inhuman manner” (lawmakers apparently missing the irony of this, given that the lines between “human” and “inhuman” had never been blurrier.)
And every SH manufactured from that point on was required to have what was called a ‘telltale feature’. This was a built-in idiosyncrasy that would allow them to be easily distinguished from real humans. Sometimes it was an extra finger, sometimes an unusually coloured patch of hair. In Marie’s case, it was wheels instead of feet.

And that suited Marie just fine. She was specifically made for bartending work, and she’d never been outside of the Shifting Sands, apart from her initial trip there from the factory, after manufacture. And the the Shifting Sands had no stairs, so it really wasn’t an an issue. Marie was born and bred – or rather built and programmed – to be the ultimate bartender. She had an on-board database of every known beverage in the galaxy, and programs for hundreds of sets of customs, manners, niceties, conversations… protocols on protocol. But her crowning glory – thanks to her somewhat eccentric programmer – was her genuine synthetic sense of humour. She’d been fully loaded with a vast database of jokes, riddles, epigrams and quotations. Most of her jokes were a little on the blue side – sex jokes, bodily function jokes, drinking and drug humour. The thought of a completely asexual machine making bawdy jokes of every stripe had amused her programmer, because she’d been programmed with thousands upon thousands of them. The old comedian’s catchphrase “I got a million of ‘em!”, wasn’t quite true in Marie’s case…. But she did have 786,983 of ‘em.

None of the pirates currently at the bar knew this, of course. They were discussing their missing crew members; in particular, Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard. Salazar knew that they had taken one of the Cheeky Albert’s smaller ships, to chase after the gold, but Richards was skeptical.

“You sure about that?” she asked.
“Pretty sure,” Salazar responded. “Marie, can you give us an outside view? Starboard side? Amidships?”
“Sure thing! That’ll be coming quicker than a science fiction fan, on his first visit to a -”
“Thank you,” said Salazar.
Marie pushed a couple of buttons on a console behind the bar, and gestured to the wall behind the pirates. They all spun around on their stools to see that it was now a floor-to-ceiling screen displaying the vast, endless starfield outside the ship, just a hundred metres or so from where they were sitting.

Sure enough, one of the Albert’s pinnaces was there, slowly and deliberately sweeping along the Symphony’s hull. On closer inspection, they could all just make out the the tiny figure of someone in a spacesuit – Skarsgard, probably – being dragged along behind the pinnace, on the end of a long survival cord. He held an open crate in one hand, and was presumably planning to use his other hand to pluck the gold bricks out of the void.

As they nursed their drinks in the plush comfort of the Shifting Sands, Salazar, Jiang, Gotmund, Lightfoot, AJ, Richards, Devereux and Jelani stared at Skarsgard’s minuscule, utterly vulnerable floating form, as it was jerked along through the freezing depths of infinite space.

It looked like a really tough way to get rich.

“If they’re that determined,” Salazar said, jolting his crew from their rapt observation, “I don’t think they’ll be coming back any time soon.”

“But Cap’n, if they’ve gone after the gold, what’s to stop any of us jumping in the Albert’s other pinnace and going after it too? We could maybe get to it… or at least some of it… before they do.”

“You really want to do all that work, Lightfoot?” Salazar countered. “Look at him!”

Skarsgard (it was him in the spacesuit – Evans was deftly flying the ship, while Fullbrook was also extremely busy, cowering in a corner) appeared to be flailing helplessly, even as he gradually moved closer and closer to a solitary floating gold brick. Eventually, he came within arm’s reach of it. His heavily gloved hand closed over it. It slipped from his grasp. His hand closed over it again. Clasping the gold brick desperately tightly, he carefully transferred it to the empty crate in his other hand, and closed its lid securely.

One down, seven hundred and ninety nine to go.

“You really want to go through all that?”, Salazar continued. “If they’re so determined, I say we just let them do it for us.”

“That would be smart,” agreed Jiang. “We can just track ‘em down after they’ve collected it all, and we can divide it up properly then.”

“And what are supposed to do until then, Cap’n? This raid’s been a disaster,” said Richards, quick to complain, as always.

“Yeah!” agreed Devereux. “This has been a rough morning. I say we cut our losses, head back to the Albert, and get out of here. Who’s with me?”

The drinks might have had something to do with it, but the seeds of discontent appeared to be sprouting. Lightfoot, Devereux, and Jelani all stood up, as Marie stared at them, uncomprehendingly.

“What if we all just forget about the gold for a minute?” asked Salazar, realising how futile this request was, even as he heard himself making it.

There was an uncomprehending pause.
There’d been a few of those so far today.

Stoically evading his crew’s cynical gazes, he soldiered on.

“What if the gold wasn’t the only reason l brought you all here?” he posited.

First Mate Jiang – Salazar’s closest confidant – wondered what he was about to say next… Surely it wouldn’t be the truth?

The pirates were all standing, staring expectantly at the captain.

“Don’t worry everyone; we’ll get that gold in due course,” Salazar assured them. “But right now, we stand to claim one hell of a consolation prize.”

“What consolation prize?” asked Gotmund.

“You’re sitting in it.”

Gotmund looked down. Sure, these bar stools were comfortable, but he wasn’t sure he was quite that enthusiastic about them. Pennies began to drop amongst the brighter members of the crew, as Gotmund kept examining his seat.

“The Symphony of the Stars!” Salazar enthused. “It’s simple – we take the ship!

‘Ah,’ thought First Mate Jiang. ‘Yes, I can see why he would tell them that. Clever.’ It looked to her like Salazar was saving the real reason they were here for later.

“We make this glorious flying hotel our own,” Salazar continued, “and enjoy luxury, five-star living for the rest of our days! AJ, imagine all the tinkering and improving you could do to this ship’s systems! Gotmund, Richards… The VR suites have a library of thousands of battles, thousands of fights from every period of history! Jelani, this ship has state-of-the-art medical facilities, replicators and what about that library? 10,000 real books. I know how you love real books….”

He was right. She did. A smile crept across her face.

“And Lightfoot… can you imagine all the computer systems on this thing? Twenty times bigger and more sophisticated than the Albert’s; you could get lost in them for days. What’s not to love?”

Lightfoot nodded, as she considered the proposition.

“I know that most of you planned to retire to a life of luxury after we got the gold… well, look where we are! We can start that life of luxury today! Right here and now!”

“Well, I don’t know – ” Devereux began.

“You’re not seriously telling me you’d rather keep living on the Cheeky Albert!” said Salazar! “How many people get a 2,000-passenger luxury space cruise ship all to themselves?”

“You think we can keep pirating in this sluggish, cumbersome behemoth?” Devereux countered. “The Symphony’s not exactly built for lightning raids, is it? You don’t think they might see us coming? And what about its defence and attack capabilities? Non-existent.”

“I guess we could retrieve and re-purpose all the weapons from the Albert,” suggested AJ. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Salazar nodded sagely, as though he’d already thought of this.

“That’s the spirit!” He enthused. And the more this idea grew in AJ’s mind, the more he liked it; tinkering, improving, mechanicking – making improvements and upgrades – ad infinitum, for all of the foreseeable future? That was pretty much AJ’s idea of total fulfillment.

His crew mates seemed to be warming to the idea, too. Smiles were spreading amongst them, along with the glow from the rum.

“I hate to be the lone voice of reason here, Cap’n…” said Richards, although she didn’t hate it at all – she quite enjoyed it.
“… But there is the question of the Symphony’s crew. And their captain, Diana Singh. She is ex-navy, you know.

“Oh those are just details, Richards,” Salazar said, breezily, as he got another round in. “Leave them to me.”

Jiang always worried when Salazar said things like that.

 

 

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. 

= CHAPTER 17 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:25 AM

On the bridge of the Symphony of the Stars, Captain Diana Singh, her First Officer Mr Sinclair and the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev had just been joined by Second Officer Aku and Deck Rating LeGuin, who were both still breathless and soaked from their disastrous encounter down in the Cargo Hold.

“Ms LeGuin, Ms Aku.” Captain Singh’s greeting was perfunctory, distant.
“Captain,” they both nodded.
“Are you injured?”
“No, Captain.”
“No, Captain.”

There was a pause.

“Ms Aku, please tell me what you were thinking.”

“Captain?”

“As a result of your reckless, hot-headed, foolhardy actions, Ms Aku, every single item of our cargo – including the gold – is now lost to the vast reaches of space. There is now an enormous hole in the side of my ship. But most importantly Ms Aku, a healthy, innocent 23-year old man – Deck Rating Mr Michael Ellis – is now dead. Mr Ellis is the second member of my crew who has died today, Ms Aku, and his blood is on your hands. Mr Ellis died as a direct result of your decisions, a direct result of your actions.”

“But captain, I was -”

YOUR DECISIONS!” Captain Singh exploded. “YOUR ACTIONS!”

There was a startled silence. None of the crew members on the bridge had heard their captain raise her voice like this before. She took a deliberate, measured breath, regarding her Second Officer disdainfully.

“If we weren’t currently under siege, and in a state of emergency, Ms Aku, I’d be throwing you in the brig immediately. And indefinitely.”

Ms Aku’s heart skipped a beat, as she felt something crack inside her. A metaphysical slap in the face, the implications of her actions hit her suddenly, and with full force. Captain Singh was right. Ms Aku’s role model, her mentor, the woman she admired above all others was disgusted with her. And it occurred to Ms Aku that her own actions had been disgusting. She hadn’t been brave, she hadn’t been clever, resourceful or strong – she’d just blindly stumbled towards danger, driven by her lust for cheap, easy glory. And she’d dragged two trusting, innocent subordinates along with her. Only one of them had survived. Ms Aku now saw herself as Captain Singh saw her. Her knees weakened and began to buckle, but she willed herself to stay upright. ‘Stay strong,’ she told herself. ‘Don’t show her any weakness.’ She felt the shame rising in her, from her toes to her head. How had she been so selfish, so stupid?

A whispered “Yes, Captain,” was all she could manage.

Captain Singh turned from Ms Aku and addressed the rest of the assembly.

“But as it is, I need all hands to play their role in defending the Symphony – defending our home – and in making those pirates pay. To that end, I have dispatched Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara to Engineering, to provide assistance and support for Ms Arenson.”

Looking around the room, Ms LeGuin asked “What about Dr Zivai? And Mr Serrano and Mr Ferrer?”
“They’re on their way back here together,” Captain Singh responded. “They’ll be here any minute.”

Spotting Ms LeGuin’s concerned look, the Captain reassured her.

“Oh, you needn’t worry about them running into the pirates, Ms LeGuin – we’ve had a stroke of luck there.”

Captain Singh nodded to First Officer Mr Sinclair, who brought the video feed from the Shifting Sands lounge up on the bridge’s main screen.

“For some reason, at this stage in proceedings…” Captain Singh continued, gesturing to the screen, “the pirates have all decided to go to the pub.”

Sure enough, the overheard cameras showed eight pirates sitting at the bar, listening happily to some story Marie was telling, with exaggerated gesticulating and comical facial expressions.

“Ms Arenson,” said Captain Singh, alerting her Chief Engineer. “Please lock all entrances and exits to the Shifting Sands lounge.”

“Yes Captain,” came the response from the Engine Room.

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At the bar, none of the pirates noticed all the entrances and exits being silently closed and locked. They were too busy listening to Marie;

“This feller goes up to the recruitment officer at a circus, and says ‘Hello, I’ve come about the contortionist job you had advertised.’
‘Oh yeah,’ says the recruitment officer, ‘so how flexible are you?’
He says ‘well, I can’t do Thursdays…’

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“Of course,” Captain Singh continued. “just because we now have the pirates locked away, that doesn’t mean the latecomers are completely safe…”

She looked deliberately, searchingly into the eyes of Mr Sinclair.

“There’s still a murderer in our midst.”

And into the eyes of Mr Lebedev.

“And unless it was poor Mr Torrence or poor Mr Ellis…”

And into the eyes of Ms Aku.

“… that killer is still on the loose. Possibly even in this room.”

And into the eyes of Ms LeGuin, who simply nodded cheerfully at her, in response.

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Dr Zivai, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Deck Rating Mr Ferrer were indeed making their way back to the bridge, as per their captain’s orders. They’d caught an elevator up two levels from the Shopping Promenade, and were currently making their way through the library, towards the elevators that would bring them up the remaining two levels to the bridge.

The thick green carpets here – and the thousands upon thousands of leather-bound book spines lining the shelves – deadened what little sound there was. The library was empty now, and bathed in that familiar, dim red worklight, but even when the ship was heaving with passengers, this place was always preternaturally quiet. People had great respect for real, paper-and-leather books; in this day and age, a real book was a sacred thing. Not just as a cultural link to the past. Not merely as an artistic or creative link to the past. And a book was more than a documentary, historical link to the past. It could be all of these things, of course – but to the people of this time, it was so much more. Just the fact  of a real book, as a means of storing and retrieving information, was a wonder in and of itself. The notion that someone had procured and assigned a quantity of paper – the pulp of wood from a tree that was once a living thing! – to permanently record a collection of words and images that would be committed, locked on to – married to – that paper forever! The very act of it contained such boldness, such confidence, such faith in the future! ‘Someone, somewhere will want to read this one day,’ the people who made real books back then must have thought. ‘Perhaps even after we’re all dead. And so, we will give them that opportunity.’ A staggering gamble. A gutsy leap of faith. And what of the leather bound volumes? Wrapping the skin of an animal that was once a living thing around that paper, which was also once a living thing… the two-fold ultimate sacrifice. And although that sacrifice wasn’t freely volunteered – or even suggested – by that tree or that animal, it was still a profound thing. Yes, the fact that the Symphony of the Stars boasted a library of 10,000 real books was a great enticement to its passengers, and they would never enter this place without being struck by its manifold significance, and adopting a devout, reverential silence.

The library was completely silent now, too.

Apart from that scurrying sound.

“Ssh!” Mr Serrano said suddenly, gesturing for his companions to stop. “Did you hear that?”
Both Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer shook their heads. They all stood perfectly still, listening carefully, straining their ears.

The scurrying sounded again; quick, light footsteps. They all heard it that time.

“Maitbots?” whispered Mr Ferrer.

“I don’t think so,” whispered Dr Zivai.

“Me neither,” the Third Officer agreed. “Not frequent enough. And too irregular, ”

The footsteps of a maitbot were frequent and rhythmical; they had eight legs, after all. Whatever was making this noise didn’t.

All three of them instinctively checked that their rifles were armed, and crept forward, as quietly as they could.

They heard the scurrying sound again, coming from behind one of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases on their left. Mr Serrano moved quietly to one side of the bookcase, signalling to the others to take the other side. Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer complied. They steadied, centred themselves… then, on Mr Serrano’s nod, the three of them leapt out from behind the bookcase, weapons drawn, trigger fingers tensing, and stopped.

There, on the plush rug in front of them, sat a fox. She was curled up, and too busy fastidiously licking her tail to notice them.

Mr Ferrer’s relief exploded from him in a loud “Ha!”, which made the fox stop her grooming and look up.

“Hello!” smiled Dr Zivai, “how did you get here?”

The fox eyed her coolly.

The sight of the animal took Mr Serrano back to their first encounter with the pirates. “I think I saw her before. In the docking bay…”

He seemed to remember staying close to the one who was giving the orders. “… I have a feeling she might belong to their captain.”

“If that’s the case…” said Mr Ferrer, “then she’s a bargaining chip.”
“Their captain will be at our mercy,” Dr Zivai agreed. “We’ve got to catch her.”

Maggie eyed the three strangers suspiciously as they shouldered their rifles and began slowly moving toward her, each one of them wearing a plastered-on smile that was far creepier than they’d intended. Before they’d taken two steps, Maggie had darted under a reading desk, around a corner and out of sight. This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to catch her – she was the mascot of a pirate ship – and she knew a thing or two about quick escapes.

“This way!” Mr Serrano said, sprinting off in the direction of Maggie’s initial trajectory, and out of sight. But the moment Dr Zivai started to follow him, she heard something behind her – had a bookcase been knocked over back there?

“No – I think it’s this way,” she said, turning in that direction.

Mr Ferrer was about to agree with her when he heard something else – a chair being nudged? – behind him. They had to act quickly or this valuable orange asset would get away.

“Let’s split up! You follow the noise you heard, I’ll follow mine,” he suggested.

Dr Zivai nodded. “I’ll see you up on the bridge.”

“Tally-Ho!” grinned Mr Ferrer, warming to the idea of his own personal fox hunt.

And they were off.

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In the corridor outside the Symphony’s Engine Room, reinforcements for Ms Arenson had finally arrived, in the form of the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain and the Cruise Director Mr Martell. They both looked up into the cameras above the door, as Mr Chamberlain tapped his communicator badge.

“Ms Arenson, we’re here.”

A moment passed before the door to the Engine Room slid open, revealing the Symphony’s Chief Engineer – distraught, crying, tears streaming down her face. Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell stared at her uncomprehendingly – what had brought this on?

“I killed him”.

 

 

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

= CHAPTER 18 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:31 AM

“I killed him, and you can’t tell me I didn’t,” Ms Arenson continued, wiping her tears with one hand, and gesturing for them to come in with the other.

“Killed who?” asked a stunned Mr Martell, as he and Mr Chamberlain entered the Engine Room.

“Mr Ellis, Mr Ellis!” she wailed. “I closed the bulkhead doors!”

Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell stared at her.

“In the Cargo Hold! I closed the doors – Ms Aku told me to – and he was on the other side. The side with the hull breach. He got sucked out in to space,” Ms Arenson explained, as she collapsed wearily into a chair. “All my fault.”

Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell knew this; they’d also heard the feed from Ms Aku’s communicator, as it was happening. The two men exchanged a look.

“You did what you had to do,” Mr Chamberlain said quietly. “There was a hole in the side of the ship – you had to make a split second decision.”

Mr Martell nodded. “You were following Ms Aku’s orders. And Ms Arenson, if you hadn’t closed those bulkhead doors, Ms Aku and Ms Leguin would also be gone now. You saved their lives.”

“… Along with those three pirates,” she retorted bitterly, referring to Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard. “I saved them too, you know”.

“You did,” said Mr Chamberlain. “But they won’t be troubling us anymore. They’ve gone off in one of their own ships, chasing after the gold.”

“Ha!” said Mr Martell, snorting at the futility of the gesture. “Wish them luck – they’ll need it.”

Ms Arenson allowed herself a small smile. It was good to have these two with her – she’d been feeling very alone and helpless since the pirates stormed the ship, being cut off as she was, all by herself, in the engine room. What had been happening this morning was dreadful, but at least the others had been surrounded by their crew mates, helping them through it.

“Where’s Mr Abara?” she asked suddenly, as she realised that the Chief Technology Officer wasn’t there. “Wasn’t he with you?”

“He ran off,” Mr Martell answered. “We couldn’t stop him. Said he wanted to find one of the pirates. Said he’s fallen in love, and he just had to see her. As he ran off, he yelled ‘I’ll be back here in fifteen minutes!’”

“… Damn fool,” muttered Mr Chamberlain.

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Searching the corridors on B deck, Mr Abara pondered while he wandered. His mind kept drifting in circles – numerous circles, various circles, irregular circles… but each circle had her at its centre.

What would her name be? It needed to be something that suited her – something delicate, feminine, and pretty… Melissa? Catherine? Pia? Martine? But it had to be strong too; as strong as she was. Jane? Fiona? Kim? Sarah? He remembered the defiance in her eyes, the confident way she wielded that rifle, that aura of danger and action about her… a shiver of excitement ran down his spine as he pictured her yet again.

As he kept walking, smilingly searching for her, he tried to envisage their first meeting. What would he say to her? (After he’d got past “Please don’t shoot”)? Would her voice sound as lovely as he imagined? Had she noticed him earlier? Would she like the look of him? Was he good enough for her?

He suddenly stopped walking. An extremely unwelcome thought had interrupted his blissful reverie. What if she wasn’t single? His heart hurt. ‘NO!’ he thought, instantly banishing the idea from his brain. ‘She has to be single – she can’t already be with someone! She just can’t. I couldn’t stand it if she was. I just. Couldn’t. Stand it.’ In the past, Mr Abara had been known to let jealousy get the better of him.

He re-started his search, wrangling his thoughts back to the pleasant pastime of guessing her name. Hannah? Meredith? Jennifer? Tamara? Nicole? Michaela?

Devereux’s given name was actually Ariane.

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Dr Zivai was now on the outskirts of the library, hoping to find the fox in non-fiction. She was sure she’d heard a noise come from one of the shelves here… and had that been a flash of orange fur behind the thesauruses? The scurrying noise sounded again, as she came up alongside the dictionaries and atlases. This time, though, it came from behind her. Feeling her frustration growing, Dr Zivai turned and followed the noise out of the library and onto B deck’s central corridor. In an effort to tamp down her rising anger, she told herself ‘It’ll be worth it. Once we catch that animal, we’ll have those marauders in the palm of our hand. Their captain’s a fool for having a mascot; who does that? His pointless sentimentality will be his undoing.’ But her self-administered pep talk didn’t seem to be working; Dr Zivai’s anger continued to grow. This ludicrous little mammal had put her on high alert. She was jumping at shadows, following hunches, doubting her own eyes and ears. The animal was making a fool of her. Dr Zivai had planned to catch the fox simply, quickly and with a minimum of effort. And she still hadn’t caught it.

Dr Zivai did not like to lose.

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Although he was searching B deck for the fox, Mr Serrano could not stop thinking about the Cargo Hold, and the secret shipment it had been concealing. He hated Captain Singh for not telling them about the ten tonnes of solid gold bars right under their noses. (She did, of course, have very good reasons for the secret cargo to remain secret, but Mr Serrano’s greed-clouded mind couldn’t conceive of them.) He hated the fact that all of the gold had now been blasted out into space. He hated the fact that he never even got a chance to see it. And he hated those pirates. He hated them for making him aware of the gold, he hated them for chasing the gold, for fighting for the gold, for killing his friends over the gold… but the thing Mr Serrano hated the pirates for most was for losing the gold.

As he grumpily continued his search, straining his ears for any vaguely vulpine utterances, he found himself hating the fox, too. She was one of them. Mr Serrano looked down at his rifle, wondering if the ‘stun’ setting (calibrated for humans) would also stun something as small as a fox. Or would it just kill her?

The way he was feeling at the moment, he’d gladly take the chance. Granted, the pirate captain’s pet would be a more valuable bargaining chip if she were alive… but if it could put an end to this ridiculous hunt, while hurting the man responsible for the deaths of two Symphony crew members – and the loss of all that beautiful, wonderful gold – Mr Serrano was perfectly prepared to pull the trigger at the first opportunity.

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So was his colleague, Deck Rating Ferrer. Mr Ferrer was not brave, in the classic sense – that is to say, the technically accurate sense – of the word. He’d never needed to be. Mr Ferrer was a young man blessed with handsome features, a strong, well-made body and a sense of easy entitlement to all the perks his genetic good luck had brought him.
The idea of chasing the fox had initially struck him as a fun diversion…. But now that he was out here, all alone, roaming the dark, empty corridors of B deck, that novelty had well and truly worn off. There were still pirates – vicious, murderous, pirates – aboard the Symphony. And any one of them could be waiting for him around the next corner, ready and waiting to shoot him on sight.

Mr Ferrer felt his arms begin to quiver. It wasn’t especially cold in here, he observed – so he wasn’t shivering. This was such an unfamiliar sensation to him, that it took him a moment to work out what was happening. He was trembling with fear. He would go back to the library. He needed to find Dr Zivai and Mr Serrano, and fast. There was safety in numbers.

He stopped, turned, and had taken two steps back towards safety when he heard something faint. An unfamiliar sound – something he didn’t at first associate with the fox.

Although he was still afraid, Mr Ferrer knew himself well enough to realise that his curiosity was about to get the better of him.

Flipping his rifle from ‘stun’ to ‘kill’, he ventured forward.

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B Deck on the Symphony of the Stars was also home to its restaurant Epicurus, along with its famed cellar. The cellar whose siren call had enticed the pirate Suarez away from his crew mates some 24 minutes earlier. Suarez had not wasted a single one of those 24 minutes, in his quest to sample the myriad liquid delights stored here. So far he’d sipped Irish whiskey, quaffed French brandy, swigged Australian rum, and all but inhaled some very fine Swiss absinthe.

He was currently feeling no pain.

“Now!” he said loudly and agreeably to himself. “Where shall I go next? Whomsoever shall I drink next, do I think? You?” he said, staring at a bottle of Betelgeusean schnapps. “…You?” he said, spinning around to address a carafe of Rigelian claret “….or maybe even… YOU!” (a sealed decanter of Terran tawny port).

He stood for a moment, swaying, frowning and deliberating.

“I know!” he exclaimed suddenly. “I’ll drink all three!” chuckling approvingly at his own genius, he carefully gathered all three vessels, sat on the cellar floor, and opened the decanter.

Five minutes later, Suarez had indeed sampled all three, and was frowning at the nearest wine rack. “I will decide which bottle to open next…” he told himself, “… just as soon as I can focus on the bloody things.”

Suarez was concentrating so hard on trying to see the bottles clearly that he didn’t realise there was now someone else in the room with him.

Someone with a syringe.

 

 

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

= CHAPTER 19 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
6:37 AM

The murder of Suarez was not complicated.

The Symphony’s resident killer had heard him, and carefully crept into the room through a door just behind him, completely unnoticed. Suarez was drunk and distracted, so there’d been plenty of time to pull the syringe out of one pocket, and to take the small vial of Phexetocin from another.

Plenty of time to draw 10 milliliters of the deadly fluid into the syringe, and plenty of time to ascertain exactly which region of Suarez’s corpulent form would receive the fatal jab.

The murder of Suarez was quick.

The killer stabbed the needle into Suarez’s neck from behind, just to the right of the nape and depressed the plunger, delivering the entire dose in just under a second. Suarez, shocked by the suddenness, the violence and the pain of the attack, turned to see his assailant. As he stared in confusion at his killer’s face, he was too shocked, too violated to speak. It was only his frightened, bewildered eyes that silently asked the most desperate, final, crucial of all questions... ‘WHY?’

The killer simply smiled in response. As the poison flowed swiftly through Suarez’s veins, a depraved parody of joy surged through the killer. These were the moments the killer lived for. This abominable, twisted thrill; this vile, depraved power trip had been an element of the previous murders too, when poor Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck had breathed their last. Suarez began to struggle and convulse, clutching desperately at his heart. His legs began to twitch, then jolt. Then his arms began spasming too, as he fell from his sitting position to the floor, gasping, wheezing and frantically, fruitlessly, trying to pick himself up. All too soon, a quiet, high-pitched sound briefly escaped his lips; half a cry, half a sigh…. And he was still.

That insatiable connoisseur, that jovial gourmand, that irrepressible bon vivant, the amiable Alfredo Suarez… was dead.

The killer shuddered in delight, savoring the hideous, warped travesty of pleasure found in this moment, before pausing for a second, turning and leaving the room.

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Back in the Shifting Sands, the rum and the conversation were flowing freely, and Captain Salazar Sharp had warmed to his theme.

“Can you imagine,” he asked his crew, “waking up here every morning in your own Presidential Suite? Endless five star dining, every type of entertainment you could ever think of, all the butlers, maids and servants you could ever want…”

“What? Where?” asked Gotmund. He’d only seen the Symphony’s skeleton crew members they’d encountered so far, and assumed that there was no one else on board.

“The ship’s Synthetic Humans. They’d all be powered down right now, because there’s no passengers at the moment. Not much point wasting consciousness on a Synthetic Human when there’s no one for them to serve.”

Salazar spotted Marie.

“Oh. No offence, Marie.”

“None taken!” she replied. “Consciousness is overrated anyway… AS THE ACTRESS SAID TO THE BISHOP!”

She laughed heartily at this, and Lightfoot concluded that Marie’s double entendre programs probably needed a damn good defragging…

… if you know what I mean.

The pirates’ doctor, Jelani, had been listening quietly to all of this, and was finding the idea of retiring to the good life aboard the Symphony of the Stars more appealing by the minute. She made a hand gesture to Marie; the universal sign for “May I have another drink, please?”

The cheerful barmaid opened another bottle of rum and brought it over.

“Just what the Doctor ordered!” she chortled, pouring Jelani another.

“Thanks very much, Marie. Would you mind leaving the bottle?”

“No worries” was the reply, accompanied by an ever-so-slightly mistimed conspiratorial wink.

Jelani liked Marie. Even though they’d only known each other for a few minutes, Jelani had warmed to this sassy, saucy Synthetic Human. She liked Marie’s merriness, her eagerness to please, her repertoire of jokes, and her generosity with the beverages. And right now, Jelani was picturing herself as a permanent resident here on the Symphony, as she drained her glass and poured herself a triple. Her retirement here would be leisurely, yet full; swims, massages, strolls through the Tranquility Forest, happy hours spent exploring the contents of that library… It would be bliss, she reflected, as she drained her glass, and poured herself another.

She’d pamper herself every day here. Extravagant meals in the restaurants, every conceivable spa treatment, every last indulgence for body and mind that the VR suites had to offer. And (she’d just decided) she’d pop in here, to the Shifting Sands, every afternoon at cocktail hour, for a drink or two and a friendly chat with her new best friend Marie.

She had earned this. Dr Jelani was 49 years old, but the past two decades of piracy had left her with the care-worn visage of a woman well into her sixties. She was tired of it all; the fighting, the running, the killing and the maiming, the rushed emergency patching and re-patching of war wounds. The futility of fighting to save the lives of so many people, only for them to be killed soon after…

Yes, she was ready to retire. More than ready. She didn’t want to go haring off around the galaxy, chasing after 800 floating gold bricks. She’d had enough. She wanted to retire, and she wanted to retire right now. In fact, as far as she was concerned, she now was retired. Had been since Salazar reminded her about the Symphony‘s library.

“I’m retired,” she said out loud.
Nobody heard. Jelani didn’t care. The act of saying it – of making the decision concrete – was the important thing. As far as she was concerned, her Golden Years started NOW, and good luck to anyone who tried to convince her otherwise.
She finished her drink and poured herself another.
Raising her glass in the air, she said “Here’s to my retirement!”
Again, no one heard.
Again, Jelani didn’t care. She took a celebratory swig and smiled, as the liquor warmed her throat and then her chest. She looked around the plush, warm, tastefully appointed surrounds. Yes, she liked being retired. She liked it very much. Now, what was Salazar banging on about?

“We’d be living in The Lap of Luxury!” the pirate captain enthused.
“That sounds good,” Lightfoot conceded. “Back on the Albert, weren’t even in the vicinity of Luxury’s thigh.”

That sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

“Living here would make us all soft,” offered Richards, grumpily.

“I have absolutely no problem with that,” said Devereux, swigging her drink.

Gotmund nodded. “I’ve never been soft before…” he reflected.

“But Richards,” Salzar countered, “if we still want to explore, to strike out and see the galaxy… we can! This is still a ship, you know. And we can still take it anywhere we want.”

That also sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

“And have you seen the Symphony’s shore boats?” Salazar continued.

“Only in the brochure,” said Richards.

“They’re like the Albert’s pinnaces… only a hundred times more spacious, plush and luxurious.”

“And I’ll bet they were built this century,” AJ chipped in, “Not like ours…”

Salazar nodded approvingly at AJ; it looked like he was coming around. “And, AJ – wouldn’t you love to have all those maitbots at your disposal, for all those dangerous, dirty repair jobs? How easy would they make things for you?”

AJ nodded, smiling. “Sure. Back on the Albert, we never had anything that even came close!”

This too, sounded reasonable to Dr Jelani.

in fact, all of this was sounding reasonable to Dr Jelani.

‘And furthermore,’ she thought to herself, ‘I’m really enjoying these drinks.’

She poured herself another.

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

Salazar was right. The Symphony’s vast army of those hardy little multi-purpose droids was probably the most significant labour saving device on the ship. At this moment, twelve maitbots had been dispatched to the bottom of the vessel, to start mending its hull breach, while another six had started repairing the hole in the adjacent wall, between the (newly empty) swimming pool and the cargo hold.

Ten more were efficiently working away in the Tranquility Forest, clearing away debris, replanting damaged specimens, and tidying up the aftermath of the firefight from when Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara had encountered Salazar and Jiang, half an hour earlier.

And a minute from now, four more maitbots would be dutifully scurrying toward the Epicurus restaurant’s cellar, for the grim task of retrieving the cooling, coagulating, pallid remains of Alfredo Suarez.

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

Salazar’s pitch had come to an end.

“So…” he said, fixing each crew member with an excited, expectant look, “What do we think? Are we all agreed? Do we take the mighty Symphony of the Stars for our very own?”

“Aye, Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang.
“Aye, Cap’n,” from Second Mate AJ.
“Aye, Cap’n” said Gotmund, looking at them, following suit.
“Aye, Cap’n,” from Devereux and Lightfoot.
“Aye, Cap’n,” a little less enthusiastically from Richards.
“Ayye, Caaaap’n”, said Dr Jelani, her voice slurring quite a bit more than she intended.

“Haha! Wonderful, wonderful!” Salazar enthused. “When Suarez turns up, he’ll be so happy with this turn of events!”

Clapping his hands and rubbing them together, Salazar barked “More drinks, Marie – more drinks, immediately!”

Marie filled all the pirates’ glasses, and as Salazar raised his, each one of his crew members did as well.

“You have all just made a brilliant decision! This will change everything for us. Relieving Captain Diana Singh of the Symphony of the Stars won’t just bring each and every one of us the most palatial, sumptuous, extravagant home we’ve ever known… it will also make Captain Diana Singh suffer for what she’s done.”

Salazar’s voice grew quieter and colder now.

“For what she’s done to me.”

 

 

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