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.

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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

= CHAPTER 20 =

466 years in the future.
A Tuesday afternoon.

4:58 PM

“Today, Diana, you are a woman,” 50 year old Dr Anthea Singh enthused in honeyed tones, as she raised a glass of champagne. Her daughter Diana was eighteen today, and her small, loving family was gathered around this long, elaborately laid dinner table in honour of the occasion. The doctor stood at the head of the table, regarding her daughter with shining, adoring eyes. Diana’s father Raj sat contentedly to her left, accompanied by his other two children; Diana’s brother Armin and her sister Davina. Open, loving smiles shone on all their faces.

At the the opposite end of the table was the guest of honour, beaming delightedly, her pretty, innocent face the epitome of carefree happiness.

Diana’s eighteenth birthday celebration dinner was in full swing at her family’s palatial home; an imposing mansion in the Edwardian style, that somehow managed to nestle unobtrusively in its natural surrounds. The mansion had been ingeniously built into the lush foothills of the rain forest, in what was once called the Sinharaja region of what was once called Sri Lanka.

Its wide, white stone terrace – where the family now gathered – commanded a stunning view of rolling hills in every direction, all blanketed in dense, teeming rain forest. Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers swooped and dived just beyond the balcony, their pink, indigo and orange plumage echoing the myriad hues of the splendid, cloud-flecked sunset. The air was filled with the pleasant gulping song of tree frogs, as phalanxes of bats soared out over the lush green canopy, beginning their evening’s hunt.

Privilege and wealth wafted around the Singh family like so much sweet, expensively fragrant smoke. But good fortune and extreme comfort had attended them for ten generations now, and they wore these blessings lightly.

As Diana sat there, arm in arm with her devoted boyfriend Tim, she looked from her family to him, then back to her family again. ‘I just can’t decide,’ ran her uncomplicated teenage train of thought, ‘who I love the most; who at this table makes me the happiest! I love Tim so much! And I love them so much! And I love him so much! Oh, I’m sure my heart will burst!’

“Happy Birthday, my darling,” said Diana’s father, as he too raised his glass. “We’re just so proud of you.”

“Thanks Dad,” Diana responded, not surprised to hear her own voice cracking with emotion.

“And on that note…” Raj Singh continued theatrically, “your mother and I received a certain communication today. A communication from the cadet selection and recruitment panel of the twelfth regiment, of the Asian arm…”

Diana knew where her dad was going with this.

“… of the Terran fifth Division, of the sixteenth fleet of the Third Offworld Navy!”

Raj paused, relishing the air of happy suspense he’d created.

Unable to contain herself any longer, Diana blurted “… AND?”

A grin spread quickly across his face.

“And… You’re in.”

“I’m in? I’M IN! Aaargh!” she shrieked excitedly. “I’m in!”

“Admitted with ‘Exemplary Distinction’,” her father nodded. “You aced all the theoretical exams, got near perfect scores in all the VR situational simulations, and flew through the medical and physical tests.”

“… Naturally,” said her mother.

“I’m in! I’m in! I’m in!” Diana repeated in thrilled tones as she kissed Tim excitedly, again and again, in between more delighted squeals.

“Congratulations, babe…” he chuckled. Tim and Diana met each other in High School and had officially been a couple for two years now. Theirs was a rare variety of young love; not just passionate, playful, physical and hormonal, but also respectful, companionable and fun. It was a true meeting of the minds as much as anything else, and each of them was certain that, in finding the other, they had found The One. Neither of them wanted to remember life before they met. Neither of them could imagine ever being apart. Now Tim gently removed Diana’s arms from around his neck as he stood.

“Di,” he said. “I’m so happy for you. You’ve always dreamed of joining the navy, and you’ve worked so hard for this. You deserve it, babe. And now,” Tim continued, feeling himself beginning to blush, “I hope this isn’t going to complicate things too much… but there’s something I want to ask you.”

Diana’s pulse quickened. Her smile was instantly replaced by an earnest, searching, almost frightened expression. Where was Tim going with this?

He cleared his throat, as his face reddened further.

“Di, the day I met you two years ago… I fell. I fell in love with you, then and there, and I knew right away. It was simple. I knew you were The One. And every day since then, my love’s grown and grown. I love you so much, babe. Everything about you. And I know…” Tim’s voice was trembling now, heavy with emotion, as he pushed his floppy blonde hair out of his eyes. “I know that I always, always will. I just can’t imagine my life without you in it.”

Tim dropped to one knee and took both of Diana’s hands in his. There were hushed gasps from Diana’s family.

“Diana Singh-”

“Yes?” she laughed nervously, embarrassed that she’d interrupted him with her eagerness. “Sorry.”

Tim smiled, and took a deep breath.

“Diana Singh, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

“Aaargh!” Diana squealed delightedly again. “Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!” she exclaimed. And now she was embracing Tim again and now she was covering him with kisses, and now her family were clapping and cheering, all eyes wet with happy tears.

As the sun finally dipped behind the lush, dense rain forest canopy, Diana looked at her proud mother and father, at her grinning brother and smiling sister, and at her loving, handsome fiance. She’d never conceived that she could be as deliriously happy as this. She looked deep into Tim’s eyes as he moved in close to kiss her again, more slowly and passionately this time. As their lips met again, and they melted, lovingly, into each other, Diana wondered dreamily “What did I ever do, to be this lucky?”

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491 years in the future.
A Saturday night.

10:33 PM

Salazar Sharp’s eighteenth birthday, 25 years after that, was a rather different affair.

He was on the North Continent of Rigel VII.
He was in the NorCon’s capital city, Fort Spowertrisk.
He was in an alley in the city’s decaying, squalid west side.
And he was lying in the middle of that alley, face down. He’d just been thrown out of O’Malley’s – one of the dirtiest, roughest, most dangerous bars here. And this alley boasted quite a few dirty, rough dangerous bars. The locals didn’t call it “Godforsaken Miserable Sleazeball Lowlife Scumbag Boulevard” for nothing. A warm, chemical-infused drizzle was falling from the neon-lit sky, and foul fumes rose from the piles of unidentifiable rubbish strewn about. A couple of metres from where Salazar lay, the water that trickled haltingly along the gutter was choked with mysterious, alarming brown chunks.

Salazar lay there for a moment, taking stock of his new injuries. Both knees hurt, from when he had dropped to them during the fight inside. His left cheek was stinging from where the dagger had left its gash, and there was muscle soreness in both of his upper arms; probably from the punching and flailing he’d been doing in there. All of his knuckles were split, and his right side ached – possibly a broken rib? He slowly, painfully got to his feet, dragged himself to the footpath and sat down heavily on the remains of a broken crate there.

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The night had started off well enough; he’d come out to one of the district’s outlawed gambling parlours with his older friend Jensen, who made the first of that evening’s many toasts.
“Happy Birthday to you, MISTER Salazar Sharp!”
As he knocked back the first of that night’s many shots, Salazar thought about his name. It was the name he’d chosen for himself when he was a kid, and so far, it had stuck. He supposed that it would now be sticking for the rest of his adult life too. He’d thought it sounded cool when he came up with it all those years ago, but now that he’d turned eighteen, he wasn’t so sure.
Within an hour, Salazar and Jensen had won a tidy sum playing cards against two leery Rigelians. Feeling like the money was burning holes in their pockets, they’d then decided that a pub crawl would be a most excellent idea.

By the time they got to O’Malley’s, they’d worked their way through at least a dozen beers, two bottles of Betegeusean firewater, six grubby saloons, and approximately 90% of their windfall.

The details of what happened next were blurry.
Salazar remembered accidentally bumping a very tall, burly man with an enormous beard. The beard was at Salazar’s eye level, which gave him an all-too-intimate view of the small gobs of unidentifiable food stuck in it. He remembered the bearded man punching him in the nose. He remembered trying to fight back, and receiving another two, three – or was it four? – more blows for his trouble. He recalled that Jensen was trying to smooth things over when FoodBeard made an insulting remark about Salazar’s mother.
Try as he might, Salazar could not remember what had happened next.
In fact, FoodBeard’s comment had sent Salazar into a white hot rage, causing him to pull out his knife and slash furiously at the taller man.
FoodBeard had also pulled out a knife, but not before Salazar had already slashed him twice – once on each arm. Spurts of blood gushed left and right, instantly clearing a large space in the centre of the room. Tough though the O’Malley’s patrons were, they generally preferred not to get caught up in knife fights, as a rule.
As it turned out, Salazar’s first knife fight was over quickly. He was smaller, more agile and much quicker than FoodBeard, and he’d darted at him quickly, again and again, making shallow puncture wound after shallow puncture wound. FoodBeard managed to get one wide arcing slash across Salazar’s cheek as Salazar leapt forward and stabbed him again; this time, in the chest, with what would prove to be the fatal blow.
FoodBeard froze, looked down in disbelief at the stream of blood escaping his rib cage… and crashed loudly to the floor.

There was silence for a second. Then two.

Then the general murmur and hubbub of the bar returned, just as quickly as it had stopped. Disagreements settled by murder were not especially unusual at O’Malley’s.

Salazar’s ‘friend’ Jensen had run off at some stage during the fight, and Salazar now stood alone, staring, stunned, at the man he’d just killed.

“Not cool, man,” growled a low voice from behind him. It was an enormous, stern-looking Rigelian – almost as wide as he was tall – dressed completely in black. He was a member of the O’Malley’s security staff, and this had greatly inconvenienced him; he’d probably have to stay back after his shift to tidy all this mess up.

“You’re OUT.” The bouncer roughly dragged Salazar towards the back door, lifted him up off the floor, and hurled him out into the alleyway, like so much rubbish.

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The drizzle in the alleyway had grown heavier now, and fat, greasy polluted drops spattered Salazar’s aching head, shoulders, legs and back. Broke, broken, woozy and bruised, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, as Jensen’s words from earlier tonight echoed in his sore head; “Eighteen years old! Today, Salazar, you are a man.

“If this is being a man,’ Salazar thought bitterly, ‘I don’t especially like 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 21 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

6:41 AM

In the ship’s Engine Room, Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain had spotted something on one of its 416 monitors.
The Symphony of the Stars was, as you’d expect, comprehensively surveilled by motion-sensitive CCTV cameras in all areas (with the exception of the passengers’ cabins). For the past few minutes, the movements of the pirate Suarez had been recorded, since he’d wandered into the cellar of the Epicurus restaurant. These movements were not especially interesting, though; they consisted mostly of him sitting on the floor and swigging from a bottle… an activity only punctuated when he stood up, fetched another bottle, sat down with it, and did even more swigging.
As luck would have it, Mr Chamberlain had been looking at this screen, when it showed a second figure entering the cellar.

“Ms Arenson, Mr Martell – look!” he called.
The Chief Engineer and Cruise Director joined him just in time to witness the sudden, inhuman act; the taking of Suarez’s life.
But the cellar’s lighting was dim, and the killer faced away from the cameras, making it impossible to discern a face. The killer was completely silent, too, leaving no aural clues. The silhouette did show that they wore a Symphony uniform, but that was the only identifying clue. Ms Arenson had immediately reported all of this to Captain Singh on the bridge, and played her the footage.

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On the Symphony’s bridge, Captain Diana Singh stood at her console, eyes closed, silent.
Fuming.
Another killing.
On her ship.
Under her command.
The crew members here with her – First Officer Mr Sinclair, Second Officer Ms Aku, Deck Rating Ms LeGuin and Chief Steward Mr Lebedev – eyed her warily, as they anxiously waited for her to say something… Anything.

Eventually, she turned to them and regarded their four apprehensive faces coolly. There was an agonizing pause.

“Well, at least we know it’s not one of us!” blurted Mr Sinclair, smiling hopefully, and attempting a relieved chuckle.

“No, it’s not.” Captain Singh responded, frowning. “But it is… one of us.”

She spotted Mr Lebedev’s confusion.

“A member of our crew. The method used here was the same as in the previous murders, before the pirates arrived. And of course there’s the uniform, but that doesn’t gives us a lot of help.”

This was true; the Symphony’s standard uniforms were unisex, and loose-fitting, so the killer could have been a man or a woman.

Captain Singh called out to her Chief Engineer. “Ms Arenson?”

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

“Which Symphony crew members are currently on B Deck?”

Glancing at yet another monitor, Ms Arenson answered. “Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara, Deck Rating Mr Ferrer, Third Officer Mr Serrano and Dr Zivai.”

Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain cut in here.

“Mr Abara was coming to Engineering with Mr Martell and I, Captain… but he took off to find one of the pirates… he reckons he’s fallen in love!”

“We couldn’t stop him, Captain.” Mr Martell added.

“And as you know, Captain,” Ms Arenson concluded, “Mr Martell and Mr Chamberlain have been here with me in Engineering.”

“So we’ve narrowed it down to four,” said Captain Singh. “My Chief Technology Officer, My Third Officer, one of the Deck Ratings, and the ship’s doctor.”

“But are they definitely the only options, Captain? Could it be one of the Synthetic Humans?” Mr Sinclair suggested. “One with fatigued or defective programming, maybe?”

Captain Singh regarded her First Officer. Might he have a point?

“Ms Arenson,” she called, “apart from Marie in the Shifting Sands, are any other Synthetic Humans currently activated?”

The Chief Engineer quickly checked a console in front of her. “No, Captain.”

The usually timid Chief Steward Mr Lebedev found he was getting interested in this discussion, and wanted to be a part of it. “What about rogue maitbots? Could it be rogue maitbots, do you think, Captain?” he inquired.

“I think that’s unlikely, Mr Lebedev,” said she. “Unless they’d stacked themselves six high, and managed to impeccably imitate the shape – and movements and gait – of a person, after expertly squeezing themselves into a Symphony crew uniform.”

The Chief Steward nodded sagely in response, as she thought ‘Lebedev, you’re an idiot.’

The ensuing moment of pensive silence on the bridge was broken by Second Officer Ms Aku advancing a different theory.

“How do we know it’s not one of the pirates? If they’ve found the ship’s laundry, down below F deck, they could have easily found uniforms to fit them. I don’t think we should rule that out…”

“I do,” said the captain, tersely. “With that murder method? A quick jab with a small syringe full of poison? No, Ms Aku. If the murderer was a pirate who wanted to kill somebody, why wouldn’t they just shoot them? And besides, we know the whereabouts of all the pirates are right now; we’ve locked them in the Shifting Sands. So I don’t see how -”

“Except for those three who left the ship, chasing off after the gold!” Ms LeGuin interrupted, brightly.

“Yes, except for those three. So I really don’t see how – ”

“And that other one, who’s just been murdered!” came her next cheerful correction.

“And that one as well, yes. Thank you Ms LeGuin. But I think we can safely assume that the pirate we all just saw being killed – by somebody else – isn’t the killer. I’m pretty confident we can rule him out as a suspect.”

“I agree with the Captain,” said Ms Aku. “We have accounted for all the pirates who’ve invaded the ship today….” She paused, shooting her crew mates a significant look. “… As far as we know.”

“Yes. As we far as we know,” the captain nodded. Then a paranoid thought occurred to her; had they counted the number of pirates on board correctly?

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They had; she needn’t have worried.

Although that minuscule sliver of doubt Ms Aku had just planted in the back of the captain’s mind would continue to prove unsettling…

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Captain Singh now pondered the fresh question raised by this latest murder. The earlier victims had both been Symphony crew members; this time, though, the killer had thrown that “rule” out the window. This time, an opportunity for murder had presented itself, and they’d taken it, straight away – Symphony crew member or not. This led her to a disturbing conclusion; a conclusion she would not be sharing with her crew. Whoever the killer was, it now seemed they weren’t necessarily following a plan. ‘Perhaps,’ she thought, shuddering at the idea, ‘they’re just killing for the thrill of it…’

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Down on B Deck, the Symphony’s Third Officer Mr Serrano had grown tired of all this. The initial thrill of the fox hunt had evaporated quickly, and the absurdity of his current errand now just made him feel foolish. ‘What am I doing?’ he thought. It was dangerous out here, in this empty, dimly lit, pirate-infested ship, and yet here he was – traipsing all over B deck… hunting a fox. A stupid, mangy animal. A pirate’s pet, which, even if he did manage to catch it, would probably bite him, scratch him or infect him with whatever disgusting parasites it was bound to be carrying. He stopped walking.

‘Nup,’ he thought, ‘They’re not paying me enough for this. I’m going to the bridge’.
He made his way to the nearest elevator that would take him up to the Upper Deck, feeling relieved. He’d definitely made the right decision, and he was simply following the captain’s orders, after all.

Mr Serrano called the elevator. As he stood facing its closed doors, waiting for it to arrive, someone was approaching him, silently, from behind.

It was someone Mr Serrano knew – a crew mate of his.

The elevator was down on F Deck when it was summoned, and it was now making its way up to B Deck rather more slowly, it seemed to Mr Serrano, than usual.

The someone was two steps closer to him now. The someone still hadn’t made a sound.

The elevator ascended past E Deck, past D Deck….

The someone was directly behind Mr Serrano now, and had retrieved a small syringe from one of the pockets of their uniform.

The elevator rose past C Deck, and came to a halt at its destination.
The doors opened, and as Mr Serrano stepped in, he noticed his colleague in his peripheral vision, and turned, saying
“Oh, hello. I’m going back up to the bridge. I’ve had enough of this; we’re not gonna find that -”

The syringe was plunged so forcefully into his abdomen, just to the left of his navel, that he thought he’d been punched, rather than stabbed. As the wind escaped from him, the killer quickly depressed the syringe’s plunger, instantly delivering its entire fatal payload.

Mr Serrano dropped to his knees inside the elevator, while the killer calmly took a step back from its threshold.

Their eyes met, and locked, as Mr Serrano’s body began twitching and convulsing, confusion and fear flooding his eyes. The killer stood perfectly motionless, holding his victim’s gaze with eyes that showed nothing but cold, corrupt arousal.

“You?!” gasped Mr Serrano incredulously, through a mouth that had become a rictus of terror, of panic; “But I…I… don’t understand…”

He wheezed as a few final breaths escaped his body, and then collapsed to the floor. The killer remained almost entirely still. Only the eyelashes fluttered, as though they were struggling to restrain those eyes. Those eyes pierced with insanity, those eyes that were greedily devouring the victim’s horrific final moments, those eyes that took such depraved pleasure in this monstrousness.

The doors closed with an impassive metallic swoosh, and the elevator transported the late Mr Serrano to the Symphony’s Upper Deck, just as he’d asked.

The killer paused in front of the closed elevator doors with eyes shut, savouring the moment… before turning and walking briskly down the corridor, past eight maitbots scurrying in the opposite direction. The little crab-like droids moved quickly, efficiently, and in perfectly co-ordinated lockstep. Placed carefully on their flat, black backs was the corpse of the recently deceased pirate Suarez; they were swiftly conveying him to the morgue. The killer smirked as this grimly ludicrous little procession passed, thinking ‘Keeping you busy today, aren’t I?’

The murderer’s smugness was new, and it came from an overinflated sense of confidence, an increasing sense of invulnerability. ‘I’ve got away with it so far,’ went the thinking. ‘And right under the captain’s nose…’ But this smugness had brought its pal carelessness along for the ride, and for the first time since the sick spree began, the murderer had not covered their tracks.

During the quick, opportunistic assault on Mr Serrano, the elevator’s cameras had captured the murderer’s face clearly, and from two different angles. Anyone seeing the footage of that moment as it happened would have learned exactly which one of the three remaining suspects was the ship’s resident serial killer. The elevator was well-lit, the picture was clear, so the identity of the guilty Symphony crew member had just been clearly exposed, beyond all doubt. It was an open and shut case for anyone watching the screen that displayed the event; ship’s monitor #783465.

But at that moment, not a single Symphony crew member had eyes on that screen. Each and every one of them turned out to be otherwise occupied.

Which was a bit of a shame, really.

 

 

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 22 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

6:45 AM

The luxury space liner the Symphony of the Stars featured three large swimming pools, each with a capacity of roughly 144,000 litres.
The first of these pools was on the upper deck, amidships, between the ship’s bridge at the forecastle and the ship’s largest restaurant – The Brasserie – astern.
The second swimming pool could be found two levels lower, on B Deck, in the ship’s bow, directly adjacent to the second restaurant – Epicurus.
And the third swimming pool was six levels lower than that, nestled in the bow of the ship’s keel. The area forward of this pool featured a delightful, tropically themed poolside bar, and the aft end of the pool shared a wall with the ship’s Cargo Hold.

That is to say, until this morning, it had shared a wall with the Cargo Hold. That wall had now been destroyed by a fierce gunfight between three Symphony crew members and three of the invading pirates. As a result, all the water in that pool had flooded out into the Cargo Hold, and then was sucked into space, through the fresh hull breach in the Cargo Hold, caused by the same fracas.

The Symphony of the Stars also boasted two water slides. The first was the famously terrifying Mad Maelstrom®, which dropped and curved and plunged and corkscrewed 150 metres, from the Upper Deck pool all the way down – through the middle of the ship and the central atrium – to the pool in the keel. The second water slide was called the Pleasant Plunge®. It started at the same level as the Mad Maelstrom®, but promised (according to the ship’s brochure):

a shorter, more leisurely descent past some of the ship’s most captivating views, as it elegantly snakes its way down two levels, before gently entrusting you to the pristine waters of the pool on B Deck.

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The Pleasant Plunge® did not currently have any water running down it.
It did, however, have a fox scrambling up it, pursued by a man crawling up it, not far behind.

It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Mr Ferrer was now clambering up the water slide, just above B Deck, trying and trying again to find any available foothold – and any available handhold – in the dry, glossy chute. The unfamiliar noise he’d followed here was the sound of Maggie’s claws scrabbling on its smooth, moulded surface.

Despite being completely dry, the water slide was still slippery. Its surface was seamless, and Maggie’s clawed feet made it extremely difficult for her to attain any grip, let alone purchase. Possessing, as he did, arms and legs that were considerably longer than hers, Mr Ferrer was gaining on her.

The fox looked behind her, panicked, and tried to increase her speed. This only made her slip more. As she reached the section of the slide curving around one of the rock climbing walls and past the library, she finally lost her footing altogether and slid quickly down towards her pursuer…

… and straight into Mr Ferrer’s chest. He instinctively clamped both arms around her, and she bit down on his left forearm with all her might. And that might was considerable, given that red foxes such as Maggie have surprisingly powerful jaw pressure for such a small animal. Add to that her considerable annoyance at being caught by Mr Ferrar, her unwillingness to let go of him, and her extremely sharp teeth, and young Mr Ferrar was left in no doubt that his day had very quickly gone from bad to worse.
He lost his grip on the slide.

“YAAAAAAAAAARRRRHHHHHHHH!!!” he screamed in agony, as he and the violently conjoined vixen tumbled and rolled and bounced and grazed their way down, down, and down, gaining ever more momentum, scratches and bruises along the way.

When he’d finally plummeted all the way to the slide’s end, Mr Ferrar wasn’t so much “gently entrusted to the pristine waters of the pool”, as he was roughly slammed into its icy cold depths, with a brutal, shocking force that knocked all the air out of his battered rib cage.

He surfaced, coughing, spluttering, cursing and wheezing, the blood from his arm staining the water around him. The impact had shocked the animal into releasing his left arm, and he quickly grabbed her tail with his right hand, holding her as far away from him as he could. The bedraggled, winded and wounded fox hung upside down, frantically flailing her legs, also coughing, also gasping for air. She furiously attempted to bite her captor again, but couldn’t quite reach.

Mr Ferrar slowly made his way to the edge of the pool, and painfully hauled himself up the ladder and onto its decking, still holding his furry orange prize at arm’s length. He scowled at her.

“You’d better be worth this…”

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

It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Mr Abara was on B Deck, shuffling toward the Engine Room. Inside, Ms Arenson spotted him on one of the screens she was surveying, and opened the door to let him in.

“Ah, there he is – Lover Boy!” mocked Mr Martell, as Mr Abara shambled over the threshold, and the door quickly slid shut behind him. “Manage to locate the girl of your dreams?”

“No,” he moped. “Couldn’t find her anywhere.” He looked miserably to his three crew mates to see them fixing him with looks not of empathy, but of extreme suspicion.

“Exactly where were you looking?” enquired Mr Chamberlain.

“Oh, just around B Deck,” he sighed.

“Anywhere in the vicinity of the restaurant?”

“There she is!” Over Mr Chamberlain’s shoulder, Mr Abara had spotted the screen showing the interior of the Shifting Sands. He saw that the eight remaining pirates were indeed there… and, sitting next to that woman with all the guns, there she was! Mr Abara’s eyes grew wide, his despondency instantly replaced by hope.

“There she is, there she is, there she is!” he repeated dreamily.

Not daring to take his eyes from the screen, he pulled up a chair and sat down in front of it, drinking in the sight of his beloved.

“There she is…” he said once more, in a delighted, reverent whisper.

He was oblivious to the skeptical, wary glares of Mr Chamberlain, Ms Arenson and Mr Martell. As they continued to observe this most peculiar murder suspect, Mr Chamberlain commented under his breath “Well, at least we won’t have any trouble stopping him wandering off…”

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

It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano, and Dr Zivai was now making her way up towards the bridge. She’d decided that the fox hunt was a fool’s errand, and had summoned an elevator to take her up to the Upper Deck. She stood waiting for the elevator to arrive, lost in her thoughts. It seemed to be taking a long time.

Eventually, the lift arrived and its doors slid open in front of her.

It was empty. Dr Zivai stepped inside and specified her destination. The journey up those three levels was quick. The lift arrived on the Upper Deck, its doors slid open, and she exited and strode off in the direction of the ship’s bridge. Behind her, the doors of her elevator slid shut. The doors of the elevator beside it, however, were open.

That elevator still held its ill-fated occupant; the recently deceased Third Officer of the Symphony of the Stars, 25-year-old Ricky Serrano, slumped awkwardly on its floor.

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

It had been three minutes since the murder of Mr Serrano. The murder that was clearly captured by the cameras in the elevator. The resulting recording unequivocally revealed the identity of the Symphony’s serial killer, beyond the shadow of a doubt. But none of the crew members up on the bridge or down in Engineering had seen it. They’d all been otherwise engaged, closely watching the exchange between Captain Singh and Salazar Sharp that was unfolding in front of them…

“Mr Sinclair, please patch me through to the Shifting Sands,” Captain Singh had requested. The continuing distraction of – and disturbing thoughts about – the killer in their midst had almost made her forget the pirates.

“Yes Captain,” came the response from her First Officer.

“And make sure the feed’s audio and visual – I’m tired of not looking my adversary in the eye.”

“Yes Captain.”

The feed from the Shifting Sands appeared on the bridge’s main screen – it showed all eight pirates sitting at the bar, one of them all but slumped over it, teetering dangerously on her bar stool as she laughed at one of Marie’s jokes.

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

At the same time, in the Shifting Sands, the implacable countenance of Captain Diana Singh appeared on one of the larger wallscreens.

“Captain Sharp!” she called.

Salazar left his conversation with Jiang and spun around on his stool to look at the screen.

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

And so it was that Captain Diana Singh and Captain Salazar Sharp saw each other face-to-face for the first time.

And she couldn’t help gasping at the sight of him.

It wasn’t his clothes; all the layers of stained, torn shirts, waistcoats, jackets and outer coats that he wore. It wasn’t the various guns, knives and other – more unfamiliar – weapons strapped and tied about his torso, arms and legs. Or the myriad piercings of his ears, the mane of unruly orange hair and its long, feathery pony tail, or even the aggressively insolent look in his eye.

What made Captain Singh gasp was the sight of Salazar’s face. There were eyes – clearly visible, brown – there was a nose, and there was a mouth. But even in all her years in combat, she’d never seen so many scars. Salazar’s face was like the road map of an overcrowded metropolis… designed by engineers who were plastered. Ragged, angry scars bisected thinner gashes which, in turn, intersected old lacerations. Lacerations that were surrounded by nicks, furrows and scratches of various sizes. Pockmarks and craters fought for space with assorted pits, scrapes, slashes and dents. Maybe that fight was responsible for the adjacent notches, blotches and dimples. It seemed to Diana that even his scars had scars. His skin was so ravaged and discoloured by all of these ancient injuries, she couldn’t begin to guess at his original appearance, other than to suppose that under all that scar tissue, his skin had been dark? Maybe olive coloured? He’d obviously been in countless fights, but he’d obviously also had scant access to decent medical attention. And she understood now why his voice was so coarse, so gravelly – someone had once tried to cut his throat. No – from a closer look at his neck, probably more than once. His face told a hundred stories. All of them filthy.

Captain Singh’s face did not surprise Salazar in the slightest. It was a face he knew well, from a distance. The extensive research and detective work he’d done prior to this morning’s raid ensured that he knew much more about her than she realised. This was exactly how he’d expected her to look.

The olive skin, the lustrous black hair greying at the temples, swept back off her forehead and behind her ears, precisely cut to shoulder length. The ramrod straight posture, as it was in every picture he’d seen of her. ‘Thirty five years in the navy will do that,’ he thought. She was taller than average, and slim. Despite the relative looseness of her formal white uniform, Salazar could see that she was lean, muscular and extremely fit – the type of fitness that didn’t come from VR simulations or synthetic muscle and co-ordination enhancement technologies. Captain Singh’s peak physical condition was the type that could only come from regular strenuous, exercise. Another habit born in the military. He face was remarkably unlined for a woman in her mid-sixties. There were a few small wrinkles around her lips, and a couple of noticeable furrows on her brow, but none of the other crow’s feet, creases, or little folds common to women who’d lived for six and a half decades. As he looked upon her, Salazar suddenly realised why that was.
She had no laugh lines.
She was a woman for whom smiles were scarce.
He also now noticed something else the pictures and footage had never conveyed; the weariness in her dark eyes. She looked tired. Exhausted, in fact. Not just exhausted with recent events, but – it seemed to Salazar – exhausted with… everything.

For a moment, he almost felt sorry for her.
Almost.

 

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 23 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

6:48 AM

“I don’t want to hear it, Captain Sharp. Whatever you have to say to me, I do not want to hear it. You will listen to me, and I will tell you what’s going to happen next.”

That’s what Captain Singh had intended to say. She was in no mood for negotiation. These marauders had invaded her home, blasted holes in the ship’s hull, lost its precious cargo and killed two of her crew. She was furious with them, but she had them all trapped now. She had them exactly where she wanted them, and was in total control.

And yet, when she’d seen his face…
There was something there that made her receptive to him, curious to hear what he had to say. Pity? No, it wasn’t that. Admiration? Respect? Certainly not. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

The two captains scrutinized each other. Although she was on the ship’s bridge and he was in the Shifting Sands, they felt no distance between them. Salazar smiled at Captain Singh. The smile was not returned.

“This ends here, Captain Sharp. Your attempted raid this morning has been a disaster. One of your crew is dead, others have deserted you, and the precious prize you were all chasing after so greedily is gone – strewn through space. You lose, Salazar.”

Salazar looked to Jiang, whose stunned expression mirrored his own. Dead? Who’s dead? He scanned the bar. Apart from Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard, the whole crew was here, except for –

“Suarez is dead?” he blurted, disbelievingly.

“Yes, just now. You didn’t know?” Captain Singh gloated. “Oh dear, Salazar. Not much of a ‘Captain’, are you?”

“I don’t believe you. You’re bluffing,” Salazar countered. She had to be, didn’t she? Surely those waiters and maids on the Symphony’s crew wouldn’t have the guts to actually kill anyone.

Captain Singh didn’t bite. “Time to wind it all up, Salazar. You let one of your crew get killed, you let various others abandon you, you let the gold slip through your fingers, and how do you show leadership in a time like this? You go to the pub. Your failure is total, Salazar. You are a disgrace. Even for an amoral pirate, you’re a disgrace.”

“Wooooh!”

Marie the bartender’s attempt to lighten the mood by emitting a high-pitched whine of mock fear while waving her hands about drew an unimpressed silence from seven of the eight pirates. Dr Jelani, however, found it hilarious, and snorted with laughter that caused her current drink to shoot out of her nose and straight onto Marie’s crisp white blouse.

“Oops, sorry about that, Marie,” the doctor giggled. “Can I have another one, please?”

Marie nodded, winked at her, and reached for the bottle again.

Salazar could feel the others – Richards, Gotmund, Devereux, Lightfoot and A.J – eying him judgmentally. Only his First Mate Jiang, it seemed, was looking at him kindly.

“Captain Singh, you make some good points there,” he said, swivelling back to the wallscreen, his customary swagger somehow returning, “But I’m not finished here yet. Far from it, in fact. You see, Diana, our mission here today was never about the gold.”

The other pirates exchanged confused looks. Only Jiang nodded, knowingly.

Captain Singh frowned, as Salazar smiled smugly, enjoying her confusion.

But before she had a chance to respond, the door to the ship’s bridge slid open to reveal Deck Rating Mr Ferrer, drenched, bleeding and bedraggled, holding a violently squirming fox at arm’s length.

“Captain…” he panted, “I… got the… fox.”

He staggered a couple of steps, leaving a trail of blood from his wounded arm, and dropped to his knees. He was pale, he was shivering, and looked as though he was about to faint. Ms LeGuin rushed forward and smartly grabbed the fox’s tail, just as Mr Ferrer released his grip and fell to the floor, unconscious.

In the Shifting Sands, Salazar’s composure instantly evaporated.

“Maggie!” he shouted desperately. “Please don’t hurt her! What do you want? What do you want?”

All the pirates at the bar – even First Mate Jiang – were slightly appalled at their captain. They regarded this shameless display with disdain.

On the bridge, Captain Singh ignored him. Mr Ferrar had fainted and he needed first aid. Just as she knelt down beside him, though, the door opened again, and Dr Zivai entered.

“Doctor Zivai – good timing,” said the captain, urgently. “Mr Ferrer’s unconscious, he seems to have lost a lot of blood. Attend to him, please.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Dr Zivai strode across the room, reaching into the folds of her coat as she did. She rummaged – carefully – in her pockets for a good 20 seconds, before bringing out her dualphased panmediscope. This was a small handheld unit whose dozens of medical functions made it an indispensable tool of her trade. She knelt down beside Mr Ferrer, and within a minute, she’d disinfected the wound, repaired the nerve and tissue damage, cloned and replaced the lost blood and tissue, and invisibly sutured the skin. She’d also given Mr Ferrer a dose of strong painkillers and a stimulant to bring him around. He sat up, blinking and rubbing his left arm. He opened and closed his left hand, marvelling at the disappearance of the pain.

Sitting down on the floor next to him, Dr Zivai asked “How are you feeling?”

Mr Ferrer considered the question carefully before responding. “Fine. Thank you,” he said, in a tone of grateful surprise.

It was then that Dr Zivai and Mr Ferrer looked up and saw that they’d been surrounded by their crew mates, who were staring at them coldly, suspiciously. Mr Ferrer suddenly felt extremely self conscious. “What is it?” he asked Captain Singh, tentatively.

“MAGGIE! Please don’t hurt her!”
Captain Singh rolled her eyes at the interruption of the pirate captain’s plaintive cries. She turned to the wallscreen that showed his anxious face. Looking Salazar straight in the eye, she held up her index finger… “Hold that thought,” she barked, as she killed the link to the Shifting Sands. She had more pressing concerns.

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In the Shifting Sands, Salazar gasped when Captain Singh cut the link.

“Maggie! They’ve got Maggie!” he exclaimed, pathetically. Then, as his helplessness was replaced by firm resolve, “I’m going after her.”

“Cap’n,” began First Mate Jiang, “do you think that’s wise?”

But he was already on his feet and heading toward the door.

“You don’t understand – ” he began.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” she responded. “What about us? What about your crew? You’ve just casually announced that our mission today was never about the gold – you don’t think you owe them some sort of explanation?”

“That can wait,” he said as he reached the door. “They’ve got Maggie! I’ve got to rescue her!”

“But Cap’n -” protested Lightfoot.

“Oh,” said Salazar. He had stopped, and was now standing at the door, having just learned that it was locked.

“The door’s locked,” he informed his crew helpfully. Adding “We’re all locked in here, ” somewhat unnecessarily.

There was silence, as A.J, Lightfoot and Devereux looked concernedly to Jiang. Richards gave a worried-looking Gotmund a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Nobody spoke for a moment.

“Fine by me!” announced Dr Jelani suddenly, as she drained her glass, and summoned Marie to bring her another.
“Pffffffft,” she added, happily.

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“Ms Arenson, please transfer the Engine Room feed from the bridge to my ready room,” Captain Singh commanded. “Dr Zivai, Mr Ferrer and Ms Aku, come with me, please. Mr Sinclair, you have the bridge.”

“Yes, captain,” said the First Officer, moving to replace the captain at her console.

Captain Singh walked briskly to her ready room – her small office adjacent to the bridge – and waited until the three crew members were inside and the door was closed, before she spoke. She addressed the wallscreen that showed the link to the Engine Room.

“Ms Arenson, is Mr Abara still there?”

“Yes captain,” came the response, as Ms Arenson gestured to Mr Abara to come to the screen.

The Chief Technology Officer reluctantly tore himself away from the screen where he’d been watching his piratical beloved, and stood front and centre, awaiting his captain’s orders.

“Yes, Captain?” said Mr Abara.

“Mr Abara… Mr Ferrer… and Doctor Zivai,” she said, looking each of them in the eye, as she slowly and deliberately pronounced their names, “One of you is a murderer.”

The fourth person in the ready room, Second Officer Ms Aku, looked between the three suspects, grateful that the captain hadn’t included her in that macabre roll call.

“About ten minutes ago,” the captain continued, “down on B Deck, in the cellar of the Epicurus restaurant, one of the invading pirates was murdered. By one of you.”

Dr Zivai, Mr Ferrer and Mr Abara all stared at Captain Singh, wide eyed. None of them dared to speak.

“He was not shot. He was killed by a very quick, lethal injection; exactly the method that was used on Chief Cabin Steward Ms Stuppeck and Second Technology Officer Mr Vickers a few days back. The question is… which one of you did it?”

The first protestations came from Mr Abara in Engineering. “It wasn’t me, Captain! I’d never kill anyone. I was devastated when Mr Vickers died, you remember. We worked so closely together. And I didn’t even know Ms Stuppeck; why would I want to kill her?”

“What about this pirate?”

“The one that’s been killed?”

Captain Singh inhaled impatiently.

“Yes, the one that’s been killed.”

“Well, I’m just glad it’s not her…” Mr Abara’s voice softened to a reverent whisper on that last word.

“What?” snapped the Captain.

“Her! The one I’m in love with! I don’t actually know her name, but -”

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, don’t be sorry, Captain; don’t be sorry – it’s wonderful! I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love….”

“Alright.”

“I’m in love – ”

“ALRIGHT! But you were on B Deck, alone, 10 minutes ago?”

“Yes! I was looking for her. I couldn’t find her though, so I came back to Engineering, where…” he looked over his shoulder at the monitor, and a smile spread across his face, “I find out that she’d been in the Shifting Sands all along! I love her.”

“Alright,” said Captain Singh.

“I LOVE HER!” he declared, ecstatically.

“ALRIGHT!”

‘That moony grin really does make him look idiotic,’ thought the captain, as she turned to Dr Zivai, and stared at her, probingly. Captain Singh wielded this silence well – eventually Dr Zivai felt compelled to speak.

“You can’t suspect me, captain, surely. I’m a doctor.”

More silence from Diana Singh.

“You know, a physician? Surgeon? Healer? Someone who’s sworn to uphold, treat and prolong life?”

“All life, Dr Zivai?” the captain asked, coolly.

Dr Zivai nodded eagerly, glad that this had finally become an exchange, and not just a monologue. “Of course!”

“Even the life of a scrawny, frightened pirate?

“Yes, even a – even a scrawny, frightened pirate.”

Captain Singh gave a small nod and turned to Mr Ferrer. Dr Zivai exhaled.

Ms Aku had been standing next to the captain, watching the scene unfold. She was spellbound, but bewildered as to why the captain had brought her in here.

“And Mr Ferrer? Can you account for your whereabouts over the last 10 minutes?”

“Of course, Captain. I’ve been chasing that stupid fox,” he said, rubbing his left arm. “All through the library, half way up the rock climbing wall, then up the waterslide and…” here, he gestured to his wet clothes “… down the waterslide as well”.

“Half way up the rock climbing wall?”

“Yes…” said Mr Ferrer, now wondering if he’d made a mistake, “half way up the rock climbing wall.”

Captain Singh held his eyes for a full five seconds before giving another small nod, and turning her back on him.

“Well,” she said, “thank you Dr Zivai, thank you Mr Ferrer,” then, turning to the wallscreen, “and thank you, Mr Abara. You’ve all been very helpful.”

Each of the three suspects looked at their captain uncertainly. As they did, they each thought they spotted a glint in her eye that wasn’t there before. There was a moment’s pause.

Then, in one quick, continuous movement, Captain Singh grabbed Ms Aku’s gun, flicked its setting to ‘stun’ and shot Dr Zivai in the chest. She dropped to the floor instantly.

 

 

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 24 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

6:58 AM

THE SYMPHONY SPACEWALK
Do you dream of floating in zero gravity, outside the safe confines of a VR suite?
Do you share the bold, pioneering spirit of the earliest trailblazing astronauts?
Are your cravings for adventure only ever satisfied by the real thing?
Then this is for you. This is the Symphony Spacewalk.
You’ll climb into your very own Triple A-grade SLS spacesuit and venture outside the ship, and into the dark, silent reaches of space. You’ll leave the sanctuary of the Symphony far behind, with your only link to it being the umbilicom cord, a high-tensile cable no thicker than your little finger. As you glide out into the soundless, endless depths, you’ll experience solitude, distance… and danger… like never before. And the further you drift, the further you’ll go on your inner journey, too.
With the isolation and quiet absence of all distractions, you’ll soar to new plateaus of mindfulness and self-examination.
It’s confronting, it’s thrilling and it can even be life-changing.
It’s definitely not for everyone.
But you’re definitely not just anyone.
Like The Bard says… “You ask me if I know what Fear is. I’m afraid I don’t.”

– From the ship’s promotional brochure.

Captain Singh stood in her ready room, alone, watching the feed from the Symphony Spacewalk’s disembarkation platform. There was no one there. It was a stunning room – two of its walls, its floor and its ceiling were screens displaying the live video feeds from the wide angle cameras on the ship’s outer hull… to stand here was to feel that you were in a long glass tube, enveloped by the infinity of space. At the far end of this ‘tube’ was The Hatch; the airlock and portal through which the more intrepid Symphony passengers would boldly leave the safety of the ship, on their own astral odyssey.

She waited, a look of grim resolve slightly creasing her brow. Any minute now…

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Ten minutes earlier, after shooting and stunning Dr Zivai, Captain Singh had sent an almost equally stunned Ms Aku and Mr Ferrer back to the bridge, as she shut off the link to Engineering. Then, satisfied that she was alone with the unconscious form of Dr Zivai, she summoned six maitbots to her ready room, and set them to work.

Those six maitbots responded to the call instantly, extracting themselves from their storage brackets, climbing nimbly down to the floor and scurrying out of the maitbot enclosure with surprising speed. As they hastened towards the Upper Deck, they passed six more of their number, scooting past in the opposite direction, smoothly conveying the deceased Deck Rating Mr Serrano to the morgue.

The maitbots Captain Singh had summoned soon joined her in her ready room, gently picked up the unconscious Dr Zivai, and spirited her out. The captain watched them leave, as she absently toyed with something she’d found in Dr Zivai’s jacket…

A small, empty syringe.

Now, as she continued watching the Symphony Spacewalk disembarkation platform, they arrived; those same six maitbots, carrying the still-unconscious Dr Zivai on their flat, black backs. They’d performed another significant duty on their way there. In the Spacewalk’s prep area, they’d deftly removed Dr Zivai’s outer clothes, relieved her of all her personal possessions, and dressed her in one of the Triple A-grade SLS spacesuits allocated to the Spacewalk attraction. Now, one of the six small, crablike droids peeled off from its counterparts, opened a panel in the platform’s starboard wall, and unfurled the umbilicom cord. It attached the cord to Dr Zivai’s spacesuit, checked the connection, and scurried back to its five counterparts. All six maitbots now adroitly maneuvered Dr Zivai into a standing position, and then froze, awaiting the the next command from Captain Singh.

“Open The Hatch.”

One of the maitbots darted to The Hatch, and entered the ‘Unlock’ sequence, followed by the ‘Open’ sequence. The Hatch slowly slid open, and Dr Zivai gently floated above the floor, now freed from the bonds of gravity. The motionless maitbots – perfectly held in place by their magnetised limbs – released her and remained still, waiting for next order.

“Put her out.”

A gentle nudge from the maitbots was all it took. Dr Zivai slowly floated out of The Hatch and away from the ship, the umbilicom cord unspooling as she went. Ten metres. Twenty metres. Thirty metres…. forty metres. Dr Zivai had now floated fifty metres out from the ship.

“Stop there.”

At the panel on the starboard wall of the platform, one of the maitbots locked the umbilicom cord release mechanism. It would extend no further until it was unlocked again.

The maitbots were again motionless.

In her ready room, Diana Singh switched her wallscreen to the video feed from Dr Zivai’s helmet. She was now looking at an enormous close up of Dr Zivai’s unconscious, oblivious face; eyes closed, breathing steadily, totally unaware of what was to come.

“Wake up, Tara.”

Captain Singh had never used Dr Zivai’s given name before, but it seemed appropriate now. This was, after all, personal. The spacesuit’s AI introduced a small burst of extra oxygen and just enough low level noise to revive the doctor. Her eyes opened, and she gasped when she saw where she was. Her breathing quickened and her pulse raced, as her head darted around, struggling to comprehend her situation. To her left and above her, an endless star-filled void. To her right, a blue green planet and its light grey moon, before another endless starfield. Directly in front of her, albeit 50 metres away, the hulking, pristine white bow of the Symphony of the Stars; her only connection to it, a thin cable leading from the front of her spacesuit to The Hatch on A-Deck, just below the ship’s bridge.

“Why did you do it?”

“What? Wait! Bring – bring me back! Please!” Dr Zivai’s breathing quickened again, as terror and panic set in.

“Why did you do it, Tara?” repeated Captain Singh, her voice even and unmerciful.

“Bring me back in, Captain! Please! Just bring me back in, then I’ll tell you everything!” Dr Zivai was petrified, terror-stricken, and illogical as it sounded, she suddenly believed she might actually die of fear.

“You’ll tell me everything now, Tara. Why did you kill them?”

Dr Zivai looked around her. She didn’t exactly have the upper hand here.

“I’ve been a doctor for 22 years, Captain – the last 12 of those, on board this ship. I hate what I do here. Symphony passengers are all the same; rich, entitled, ignorant, elderly spoiled children. 12 years of healing them, of pandering to them, of prolonging their self-obsessed, entitled existences… and for what? So they can sputter on for a few more decades, consuming resources, contributing nothing, amassing more and more riches at the expense of the downtrodden? They disgust me, the bloated, entitled, idiotic slugs. On our last cruise, I wondered; what if one of them had a life-threatening situation… and I didn’t come to the rescue?”

“You mean that man who died on our last cruise was – ?”

“Devlin J Tucker the third,” Dr Zivai drawled contemptuously. “73 years old; loud, obese, vainglorious billionaire. No humility, no curiosity, no empathy, no dignity. Built his massive fortune over half a century of exploiting people, places, things and animals… and the irony was that he treated his own flabby, corrupted body and mind just as badly as he treated everyone else’s. Fake teeth, fake tan, and that ridiculous fake yellow hair – nobody really looks like that – like any of that! I hated him, to be sure, but I also hated what he represented… and so, when I was called to attend his heart attack, I thought the unthinkable. What if I solved the problem of Devlin J Tucker? What if I made sure that the heart attack would be fatal?

Dr Zivai, paused for a moment, a faraway look in her eye.

“It was only afterwards that I felt the fear. But it wasn’t fear of retribution, Captain, and I wasn’t scared of getting caught… what made did make me afraid… was how good I felt. The power, delicious power, Captain – the total control… all these years of prolonging life… when taking it away was so much quicker and easier. So much more final. Permanent. It made my head swim with excitement. And that excitement only grew greater over time, as I realised… I got away with it.

“I couldn’t wait to do it again. To…” and here, she gave a half smile, “… to solve the next problem. But before I could, the cruise was over, all the passengers and most of the crew had disembarked, and it was just the fourteen of us, taking the ship back to dry dock. Why didn’t I start sooner? Think how many more Devlin Tuckers I could have rid us of.”

Captain Singh recoiled at what she was hearing. She was glad she’d put Dr Zivai out there, well away from the nearest human – the nearest potential victim.

“And then you decided to start killing your crew mates,” she said disgustedly.

“No, Captain; it wasn’t really a decision, as such. Mr Vickers and Ms Stuppeck were just… there. In the right place at the right time.”

“I’m sure that’s not how they saw it.”

“Haha! No, probably not. It’s a bit hard to explain. It’s an addiction, I suppose. Once you’ve had that rush, that matchless, incomparable thrill… you can’t just stop at one. Oh, but the power, Captain – the delicious power. You have no idea.”

Then a thought occurred to Dr Zivai.

“… Or perhaps you do. In all your years in the navy, you must have taken lives…”

“Yes.”

“So you’d know exactly -”

“But never for fun, Dr Zivai. Never for fun.”

“Oh well, each to their own,” the doctor said. Surprisingly smugly, given the precariousness of her current position.

“And that brings us to this morning, Tara. Two more; that pirate in the cellar and Mr Serrano. Within just a few minutes of each other.”

“And what makes you so sure they were mine, too? It could have been somebody else, copying my style.”

The use of the word “style” in this context made Captain Singh wince.

“With the pirate, you told me. In the recording of his murder, we saw him clearly. And although he was sitting on the floor, half drunk, it was clear that he was very fat. When I told you about his murder, I called him ‘scrawny’ and ‘frightened’. You hesitated before accepting that description. Why?”

Dr Zivai made no answer.

“If you’d never seen the pirate in question, you’d have accepted my description at face value. As it was, though, you hesitated – because he wasn’t scrawny or frightened, was he? Were you about to correct me?”

Dr Zivai gave an irritated nod.

“And that was all I had. But I had a hunch it was enough.”

“And on the basis of that, you shot me?”

“On the basis of that I shot you,” Captain Singh nodded. “The gun was set to stun, though.”

“I do realise that, yes. Thank you. And Mr Serrano? How did you know about him?”

“You got even sloppier, Tara. A few minutes ago, when Mr Serrano didn’t respond to our calls, we checked back through the ship’s records, and… we saw the video from the elevator. You were so busy seizing the opportunity,” she spat these words contemptuously, “that you didn’t hide your face.”

“Damn! You’re right,” Her tone was one of simple annoyance, rather than regret or repentance.

Dr Zivai looked down, and seemed to suddenly remember that she was isolated in the vacuum of space, precariously dangling 50 metres from safety, with her only lifeline a cable no thicker than her little finger.

“Erm… So what happens now, Captain? You reel me back in, throw me in the ship’s brig, and turn me over to the authorities when all this is over?”

“Not exactly.” Captain Singh replied. Then, addressing the maitbots standing by on the disembarkation platform, “recommence unspooling.”

The maitbot nearest the platform’s control panel unlocked the umbilicom cord release mechanism, and Dr Zivai began to drift even further away from the ship.

“Captain! No! What are you doing?” Dr Zivai’s yelling grew more and more panicked.

“Sever umbilicom cord.”

“No! No, Captain! You can’t! Please! You can’t just -”

Captain Singh killed the audio and changed the video feed to her ready room’s wallscreen; she didn’t particularly want to hear Dr Zivai, or have a close up view of her face, for what came next.

There was a series of fail-safes for an operation as significant as severing the cord of an occupied spacesuit. Captain Singh entered all the necessary codes as they progressed up the levels of security clearance, finally entering the password she’d chosen for the Captain’s Final Override Protocol: A-N-T-H-E-A.

The cord was cut.

The captain regarded her wallscreen. It now showed the view from the bow of the ship, which showed the hapless, drifting figure of Dr Zivai as very small – almost invisible – against the background of stars, of moons, and of endless, endless space. Willing herself to witness Dr Zivai’s final journey, yet not quite able to, Captain Singh picked out a small corner of the heavens, and concentrated her gaze there. She focussed in on a nearby constellation, trying to remember its name, as, in her peripheral vision, the small speck that was Dr Zivai silently drifted further away from the ship.

Down and to the right, further and further away, smaller and smaller in the captain’s peripheral vision. Again, she willed herself to look at the speck, but still could not. She found that she was concentrating harder on the constellation – what was its name?

The speck grew smaller and smaller and smaller until… it disappeared amongst the stars.

The Monoceros Constellation. Captain Singh realised that she had been looking at the Monoceros Constellation.
She turned on her heel and strode back on to the bridge.

 

 

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 25 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

7:01 AM

Meanwhile, inside Dr Zivai’s spacesuit…

Dr Zivai knew that these SLS (Sovereign Life Support) spacesuits were equipped with ten hours of oxygen. That’s including the emergency backup tank. Ten hours. 600 minutes. Maybe a few more, if she regulated her breathing. If she managed not to panic.

Fat chance.

Dr Zivai knew, too, exactly what would happen to her when that ten hours was up; when the oxygen did run out. She’d start to feel breathless, she might get a headache, experience some nausea or some dizziness – there could even be a little bit of euphoria, if she was lucky. She’d struggle for air, but only for thirty or forty seconds, before she lost consciousness. A bit like falling asleep, really. Falling asleep and never waking up. After that, she’d be dead within the next few minutes.

Although she wasn’t seeing it like this right now, in the scheme of things, it wasn’t such a bad way to go. Her last moments wouldn’t be overly uncomfortable, stressed, panicked or painful. The end of her life would certainly be a lot more merciful than the ends she’d inflicted upon her various victims. There was the issue of the interim, though – the time that stretched before her right now. The time between this moment… and her final moment. Dr Tara Zivai estimated that there were now only 9 hours and 58 minutes until she died.

What was she going to do in that time?

As Dr Zivai drifted out in front of the Symphony, and further away from the immense space liner, her path brought her in view of the Cheeky Albert’s pinnace. She saw that the pirates’ smaller auxiliary ship had been moving away from the Symphony very slowly, as it gingerly picked its way through the hundreds of floating gold bricks scattered nearby. She could just make out one member of their crew floating along behind the vessel, tethered to it by a long cord. He seemed to be methodically collecting the gold bricks, and storing them in a crate he was carrying.

A bolt of Hope hit Dr Zivai, with all the force of an electric shock. If she could just somehow maneuver herself over to these pirates, or at least make them see her…

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

Skarsgard closed the lid of the crate on yet another gold brick. Dangling out here in space, attached to the pinnace, he’d now collected twenty three of them since he, Evans and Fullbrook had struck out on their own in pursuit of the booty, forty minutes ago. As he scanned the area for the next nearest glint of gold, something white caught his eye. Far away, but moving closer.

Human-shaped?

Yes – there were two arms and two legs, and they were moving. This was a person! A person in a spacesuit… freely drifting – alive! A person completely disconnected from any equipment, vehicle or vessel. A person clearly in distress.

“Evans!” he said urgently calling the pinnace’s pilot. “Evans! Do you see this? There’s someone out here! Look!”

“Where?” the pilot’s voice crackled through his helmet’s receiver.

Skarsgard pointed ahead. “Right there! Maybe a hundred metres away from me – moving closer! Do you see?”

There was a pause.

“Oh, yeah…” Inside the ship, Evans manipulated its exterior cameras to get a closer look. “It’s a woman, I think.”

“Well, we have to rescue her, don’t we?” replied Skarsgard. “Take me closer! If you hurry, I might be able to reach her – we can save her. Come on!”

In the cockpit, Evans made no reply. She was thinking. The third mutineer, Fullbrook, entered and joined her at the controls, as they both squinted at the screen showing the ill-fated figure. Skarsgard’s voice filled the cockpit again.

“We’re not moving, Evans – why are we not moving? Come on – I’m sure we can intercept her.”

Evans and Fullbrook looked at each other.

“Mm, I don’t think we should,” said Fullbrook at last. “It’s nothing to do with us. And she’s probably out there for a reason.”

“What? Fullbrook, her umbilicom cord’s been cut – she’s just drifting!” Skarsgard protested. “Who knows where she’ll end up? If we don’t intervene, she’s going to die.”

“Mate, she’s one of them…” Evans intoned darkly. “…The Enemy. This could be a trap – she could be bait. Did you think about that?”

“No, come on, time’s wasting – let’s move!”

But Evans did not move. Fullbrook did not move either.

“We have to save her! We’re going to miss our chance,” Skarsgard implored.

But his two crew mates in the cockpit remained silent and unmoved.

“Well, can we at least put it to a vote?” Skarsgard growled in frustration. “I vote we save her.”

“I vote we don’t,” said Fullbrook. “this is not our problem.”

“I’m with Fullbrook,” added the pilot. “I don’t like the look of this -”

“You don’t like the look of this,” Skarsgard interrupted, “because she’s drifting helplessly. She’s in desperate need – she’s been deliberately CUT OFF from her ship! Come on, have a heart.”

“Gotta say, Skarsgard,” said Fullbrook mockingly. “you’re sounding awfully sentimental today.”

“Come on! Evans, please – she’s nearly here. We can save her, but I need you to use those brilliant skills of yours to get me closer to her.”

“No. Sorry Skarsgard, you’ve been outvoted. Two to one.”

“Let her be,” agreed Fullbrook. “She’s not our problem.”

Skarsgard gazed forlornly at the hapless figure, as she continued to glide toward him. She was flailing her arms and legs, as though she was desperately trying to gain control of her trajectory – as though she was trying to “swim” through space. The futility of this instinctive effort made her tiny, fragile form appear even more pathetic. As she sailed closer and closer to Skarsgard, he reached out an arm to her. She reached out to him too, but her path didn’t bring her close enough for them to connect. It did bring her close enough, though, that Skarsgard saw her face inside the helmet. She was indeed a woman – a woman in her forties. He saw her mouth moving – was she calling out to him? He couldn’t make out the words; he could only read her eyes. Those eyes – eyes brimming with disbelief, confusion and fear.

Skarsgard knew those eyes would haunt him from this day forward.

He looked away from her.

“This is wrong,” he whispered. “This is wrong, and you both know it.”

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Dr Zivai sailed on. She stopped moving her arms and legs; she’d realised that was a waste of energy. She held her body still now, as it sped effortlessly, silently away from the ship, away from civilisation, away from all human contact… and ever further into the blank vacuum of space.

‘Did they see me?’ she wondered. ‘They must have seen me. How could they not have seen me? I was waving my arms, my legs… he looked at me. The one on the end of the cord. He looked up from what he was doing and looked right at me; HE SAW MY FACE. Why didn’t they help me? How could they just… just… do nothing?’

She couldn’t see the pinnace or the pirate attached to it any more; she had passed by them, and they were behind her now. Then a welcome thought suddenly struck her.

‘Of course! They need to reel him in, to get him safely on board before they come and rescue me. That’s it! That makes perfect sense. It’ll take a minute or two… they’ll reel him back in, get him safely inside the ship, and THEN they’ll come and get me.’

Dr Zivai breathed a sigh of relief. She was going to be alright, after all. She blessed her good luck, and silently thanked these three pirates for deserting their crew to chase after that scattered treasure. ‘Their gold rush is my silver lining!’ she thought.

She was wrong.

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“I saw her face,” Skarsgard told his crew mates. “We could have saved her.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t,” the pilot responded. “And that’s that. She’s gone now.”

“Evans is right, mate,” added Fullbrook. “Let it go. You need to focus on the task at hand – there’s still so much more gold for us to get!”

Deep down, Evans and Fullbrook knew that their refusal to save that hapless woman had condemned her to death. What they didn’t know was that ‘that hapless woman’ had very recently murdered five innocent people, purely for her own aberrant enjoyment. Did her mortal sin of killing five innocent people overshadow their ethical breach of looking the other way? On the face of it, the pirates had failed to do what was morally right. But if they had saved Dr Zivai, they wouldn’t be rescuing an innocent victim; they’d be nullifying the death sentence that Captain Singh had meted out to a serial killer, as punishment for her heinous crimes. They’d be pardoning a mass murderer… perhaps even rewarding her. Evans and Fullbrook were blissfully unaware of all this, of course. They hadn’t given this ethical dilemma much thought to begin with, and they weren’t about to spend any time reflecting on it now, either. Fullbrook, in particular, had always subscribed to the Bard’s view on this subject;

“If you do the Right Thing when no one’s watching, that means you’ve got Integrity.
If you do the wrong thing when no one’s watching, that means you’ve got away with it.”

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

Inside Dr Zivai’s spacesuit, time ticked on.

She counted 60 seconds. Then, another 60 seconds. And another.

After six minutes of drifting at her constant, uninterrupted velocity (roughly 30 kilometres per hour), Dr Zivai was already three kilometres away from the Symphony of the Stars. The pinnace was still somewhere behind her, but she couldn’t quite twist herself around sufficiently to bring it into her field of vision.

After 10 minutes and 48 seconds (according to the spacesuit’s chronometer), any hope Dr Zivai harboured was all but extinguished.

‘They’ve had plenty of time to retrieve their crew mate, and then to come and get me…’ she thought.

‘But they haven’t.’

Just as surely and steadily as she was being dragged away from the ship, Dr Zivai was also being dragged towards the awful, inevitable conclusion…

‘They’re not coming for me. No one’s coming for me.’

There was a moment while that thought settled.

Then… she knew she shouldn’t, but Dr Zivai could not stop herself from screaming. Just one word, over and over again, as she sped further and further away from all light, further and further away from all life.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!”

 

 

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 26 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

7:01 AM

Captain Singh rejoined Mr Lebedev, Mr Sinclair, Ms LeGuin, Ms Aku, and Mr Ferrer on the bridge, where the wallscreen’s link to Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara down in Engineering was still live.

“Where’s Dr Zivai?” asked the ship’s Second Officer.

But Ms Aku knew exactly where Dr Zivai was. They all did. They’d all witnessed what had just happened; Ms Arenson had patched it all through to the bridge. The whole crew had heard the audio, they’d watched the video feed from the captain’s ready room, from the spacewalk’s disembarkation platform… they’d even been privy to the video feed from inside Dr Zivai’s helmet. Yes, they’d all just witnessed the full horror of what had just happened, from every angle.

Ms Arenson killed the feed, ending their eavesdropping, just before the captain reappeared. She figured spying on her had been an invasion of privacy, and it was almost certainly against ship’s regulations. But they hadn’t been able to resist. These were extraordinary circumstances, and each crew member was keenly aware that outcome of this encounter would affect them all. Ms Arenson had ignored First Officer Mr Sinclair’s halfhearted protestations, and from the moment Captain Singh had woken Dr Zivai up, all other members of the Symphony’s crew fell silent.

They remained silent now, as they awaited their captain’s answer, her justification for her radical course of action. Captain Singh looked sternly at Ms Aku, pausing a moment before answering.

“She’s paying the price.”

The Second Officer was stunned by her captain’s callousness.

“I cut her loose,” the captain continued. “She’s somewhere…” and here, she gestured vaguely beyond the ship’s hull, “…out there.”

“You severed her umbilicom cord?” asked Ms Arenson from Engineering. She knew the answer, but needed to hear the justification. Her feelings toward her captain seemed to be morphing from respect to revulsion.

“I did. Dr Zivai confessed to all the murders – Ms Stuppeck, Mr Vickers, Mr Serrano, that pirate… as well as one of the passengers on our last voyage.”

“But cutting her cord? Abandoning her to just… drift in space? Captain, that can’t be within the regulations” Mr Chamberlain said, gravely.

“I am the regulations,” came the bitter reply. “Technically, you are correct, Mr Chamberlain. Breaches such as this would usually be dealt with by our Chief Security Officer. He’d throw her in the brig, and when we next dock, he’d transfer her, under armed watch, to the onworld authorities. But since Mr Torrence was SHOT AND KILLED by those invading pirates just over an hour ago, I had no choice but to… improvise.”

Captain Singh addressed the entire assembly now.

“Ladies, gentlemen… we are currently under siege, and doing everything by the book is not an option today. Justice needed to be served, and the killer amongst us needed to be stopped, swiftly and efficiently.”

Each crew member stood cowed, motionless in the ensuing frosty silence.

Captain Singh said “Mr Sinclair, you are relieved,” as she moved toward the captain’s console.

“Thank you Captain. In your absence, there were no alterations to our course or velocity. Our Estimated Time of Arrival at dry dock remains the same. The bridge is now yours,” the first officer replied, stepping formally to one side.

“Thank you, Mr Sinclair.”

Despite her previous speech, it seemed there were still some things she was doing by the book.

The Chief Steward, Mr Lebedev, for whom empathy was not usually a strong suit, was now trying to imagine Dr Zivai’s predicament.

“So… Dr Zivai’s just floating out there, in space, cut off from everything and everyone?” he asked weakly.

“That is correct, Mr Lebedev, ” was the Captain’s answer.

“How much oxygen does she have?”

“About ten hours’ worth.”

“So she’ll just…” he couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

“Asphyxiate, yes.”

Mr Lebedev looked at the floor, sadly.

“With all due respect, Captain… isn’t that a bit cruel?”

“Cruel?” she snapped. “I’d suggest, Mr Lebedev, that Dr Zivai’s fate is nowhere near as cruel as those of her various victims… And do please remember that any one of us could have been next on her list. I have freed us all from the threat of being murdered by one of our own. I’ve freed us all from constantly looking over our shoulders. I’ve taken her out of commission, don’t you see? After weeks of continual suspicion, paranoia and sleepless nights, I have finally made the Symphony safe again.”

Her face broke into a rare, satisfied smile. Mr Lebedev had no response. Captain Singh surveyed all the pensive faces in the room.

“And you’re welcome,” she added.

“Excuse me, captain,” it was the voice of Mr Ferrer.

“Yes, Mr Ferrer?”

“I’m not sure we can say the Symphony is 100% safe just yet…” he said, rubbing his recently injured – and more recently, healed – arm. “There is still the matter of the eight pirates currently holed up in the Shifting Sands.”

“You’re quite right, Mr Ferrer, quite right. I think it’s high time I solved that problem once and for all, too. Ms Arenson?”

“Yes, Captain?” came the voice from the Engine Room.

“Please cut all oxygen supply to the Shifting Sands.”

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Down in the Engine Room, Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell and Mr Abara looked at each other, aghast.

“I’m sorry captain,” Ms Arenson said, in a small, disbelieving voice. “Could you repeat the order, please?”

“Please cut all oxygen supply to the Shifting Sands.”

“Captain Singh,” said Mr Chamberlain, stepping forward. “What you’re suggesting is wrong and you know it. We’ve served together in many battles, you and I. Many wars. I know you, captain. And no one knows better than me that you’re at your best in a fair fight. This is not a fair fight. Cutting the oxygen to eight people trapped in a locked room is not combat, Captain – it’s mass murder. Plain and simple.”

An agitated Mr Martell moved next to Mr Chamberlain, to address the captain. “There’s got to be another way, Captain,” he pleaded. “We just can keep them locked up until we dock, then turn them over to the authorities, or, or we could stun them all for the duration of the journey – they wouldn’t give us any more trouble then. Or we could put them back on their own ship and set them loose. We don’t need to kill them all!” Mr Martell’s head was spinning, as tears burned his eyes; in his official capacity as Cruise Director, he’d never had to deal with any conflict of this magnitude, with any dilemma this grave.

Although Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara knew there were eight pirates cornered in the Shifting Sands, he only cared about one. The one he had fallen in love with – Ariane Devereux. Overcome with emotion, he struggled for words;

“Captain, you can’t! They -they can’t get out!” His heart was racing.

“They’re trapped down there! ” He added, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Like rats in a cage, Mr Abara.” Captain Singh agreed. “I’ll simply be eradicating the vermin that’s infesting my ship. Perhaps, Mr Chamberlain, you don’t know me as well as you thought.”

“If you murder them all in this way,” Ms Arenson spat, “you’re no better than Dr Zivai.”

“Take care of the manner in which you choose to address your captain, Ms Arenson. I won’t tolerate any more such mutinous musings. Now. Please cut all oxygen supply to the Shifting Sands.

“No, Captain. I will not obey that order. I refuse. I’ve already killed one person this morning.”

She was referring to Mr Ellis – the young Symphony crew member who’d been sucked out into space earlier, when Ms Arenson closed the bulkhead doors during the skirmish in the cargo hold. Although her actions had saved the lives of Second Officer Ms Aku, and Deck Rating LeGuin (and the pirates Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard, as it happened), she couldn’t shake the image of Mr Ellis’s limp, unconscious body being swept out of the ship, through the enormous ragged breach in the cargo hold’s hull.

“You will carry out my order, Ms Arenson. Or I will have you thrown in the brig.”

Ms Arenson stood, motionless, silent, staring her captain down.

Eventually, it was Captain Singh who broke the silence. “Just so. Mr Chamberlain, please escort Ms Arenson to the brig, where she will be detained until further notice.”

Mr Chamberlain’s response was immediate.

“No, Captain. I also refuse. Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you thought.”

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

On the ship’s bridge, the five crew members eyed their captain warily, awaiting her next move. She slowly closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, stifling a curse. When she spoke, her tone was low and impassive.

“Just so.”

She turned to her console, and began accessing various ship’s systems, bypassing protocols, circumventing securiwalls, overriding infobarriers and punching in passcodes. Within a minute, she had full control of the Shifting Sands’ oxygen supply system.

“I’ll do it myself then…” she said, shutting off the first of the area’s four ventilation units.

“… Unless anyone here on the bridge has any objections?”

The fearful, ashamed silence from Mr Lebedev, Mr Sinclair, Ms LeGuin, Ms Aku, and Mr Ferrer was all the answer she needed.

“Just so,” she said again, as she deactivated ventilation units two and three. If Captain Singh had ever harboured the tiniest amount of sympathy for these pirate invaders – the smallest shred of mercy – it had evaporated now.

“I think it’s fair to say that this has been a bad morning,” she continued. “I’m bringing this disaster to an end.”

She deactivated the bar’s final ventilation unit.

“It’s over for Salazar Sharp and his merry band. They shouldn’t have messed with me”.

Just out of range of the captain’s hearing, Ms LeGuin whispered to Ms Aku “Between you and me, I’m worried about the captain’s mental health. Maybe she should talk to Dr Zivai.”

Ms Aku shot her a look.

“Oh yeah, right…”

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

Behind the locked doors of the Shifting Sands lounge, the introduction of fresh oxygen abruptly stopped, leaving its eight human occupants with only the oxygen that was already in the sealed, airtight room to sustain them.
At least Marie the Synthetic Human bartender wouldn’t be using any of it.
They weren’t aware of it yet, but the carbon dioxide concentration in the room had already started increasing.

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

While this was happening, Mr Abara quietly slipped away from the others in Engineering, and out of view of its cameras. Satisfied that he now couldn’t be seen by the captain – or by anyone else on the bridge – he crept quickly to the door of the Engine Room, opened it, and left. He raced down the corridor, towards the nearest elevator that would take him to the Shifting Sands. There was no time to lose.

“I’m coming, my love! I’ll save you!” he exhorted quietly under his breath.
“I’m coming! I’ll save you, my love – I’ll save you!”

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

Before too long, the pirates Gotmund, Lightfoot, Devereux, A.J, Richards, Jiang, and their captain Salazar Sharp were all beginning to feel light headed, and more than a little dizzy.

And this time, it wasn’t the rum…

 

 

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

Also this week, I’ve jotted down a couple of thoughts – well, seven, actually – on the occasion of reaching the HALF WAY MARK in this whole thing. You can read them here.

= CHAPTER 27 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:03 AM

“Tell me another one, Marie!”

Over the past hour, the bartender had regaled Dr Jelani with 76 different jokes. But beneath her whimsical, carefree exterior, Marie’s myriad onboard algorithms had been constantly analysing, classifying and re-classifying Dr Jelani’s responses. Using a sophisticated, lightning fast extrapolation engine, they’d been continuously building a minutely detailed blueprint and working model of the doctor’s complex, eclectic sense of humor. As a result, Marie’s repertoire was becoming ever more sharply focussed on appealing to Dr Jelani’s unique tastes.

The upshot of this was that for Dr Jelani, Marie was getting more gut-bustingly hilarious by the minute.

“Another one! Another one! Please Marie!” She entreated.

“Oh, alright then,” Marie said, grinning. “It’s late at night, you see, and these two fellas walk in to a bar. Now, they’ve obviously had quite a bit to drink already, so when the bar tender sees them come in, she calls out “Sorry fellas, we’re closed!” The two guys frown at each other, confused.
“Closed?” one says to the other. “Then how the hell did we get in here?”

Dr Jelani laughed, slapped the bar, and fell loudly off her stool, disappearing from sight. The sound of her still-giggling voice wafted up from the floor; “I’m alright!”

“You sure, darl?” Marie was on more familiar terms with her number one customer by now.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No. Actually, come to think of it,” the voice said, “I am feeling a little bit dizzy. A little light-headed, if you will. I might just stay here for a while.”

Dr Jelani was happy with this executive decision of hers. As far as floors went, this one was unusually comfortable.

“You have been getting on the outside of rather a lot of rum, darl,” Marie reminded her.

“I know, Marie, I know. Do you think I don’t know that? Because I do. I do know it. But it never usually affects me like this. Not at all. No way. Interesting…”

Marie nodded indulgently, and moved down the bar, to see if any of her other customers needed a top-up.

She passed Salazar, who was standing, staring at the wallscreen where Captain Singh’s face had recently been.

“Diana!” he was calling. “Captain Singh!” There was no response. Nor had there been, for the best part of an hour. Salazar sank, defeated, back into his bar stool. He was panting from his exertions.

“What’s going on up there? What the hell are they doing to Maggie?” he asked Jiang, although he knew full well that both questions were rhetorical.

His First Mate could only shrug sympathetically.

“I don’t know,” she sighed, breathily. “Buy you another drink?”

“No,” said Salazar. “I have to get up to the bridge. Now. Devereux?”

“Aye Cap’n?”

“Come on, we need these doors opened.”

Devereux nodded, stood, and joined Salazar on the walk to the Shifting Sands’ main entrance, taking various devices from her pockets and belts on the way. When they reached the door, they found themselves surprised by how out of breath they were; it had only been a walk of ten metres or so….

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

Up on the bridge, Captain Singh had chosen not to reopen communications with the pirates. She had nothing more to say to that scarred – and scared – ‘captain’ of theirs. She had continued to observe and listen to them all, however… more out of mild curiosity than for any tactical or strategic reasons.
And she saw that that they were now beginning to feel the effects of the rising carbon dioxide concentration in the room. She didn’t particularly need to see or hear what happened next. She was tired. Tired of it all. After a draining five year voyage, she’d finally solved the mystery of her ship’s resident serial killer, she’d eliminated the problem, and now she was swiftly and efficiently avenging the violation of her vessel by these bloodthirsty, avaricious degenerates.
Captain Singh looked forward to ending their sad little attempt at raiding the mighty Symphony of the Stars. It had cost Mr Torrence and Mr Ellis their lives – now its instigators would all pay the same price.

But she didn’t need to witness the specific details. She didn’t want to hear their desperate pleas, their frantic wails, their fearful wheezing, coughing, gagging and retching.
Nor did she want to see their frantically scrambling bodies – their terrified, convulsing figures – before they slowly, inevitably expired.
Captain Singh shut off all audio and video feeds from the bar.
In a matter of minutes, the crew of the Cheeky Albert would no longer be her problem.
They’d no longer be anybody’s problem.
She reflected that none of her crew had thanked her for any of this. Some of them even saw fit to directly disobey her orders and voice mutinous sentiments.
She was tired of them too.

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

When Devereux and Salazar reached the locked door of the Shifting Sands, she carefully laid all her tools, devices and gadgets on the floor, and scrutinised the door’s touch panel.
Salazar sat down on the floor beside her, wheezing, and addressed the room.

“Hey! Anyone else here feeling short of breath?”

Gotmund and Richards, nodded, frowning.

“Yep,” huffed A.J.

“Yes,” gulped Jiang.

“Uh-huh,” sighed Lightfoot.

From her position on the floor next to the bar, Jelani raised her hand. “I do, too” she said.

“Well, I feel fine,” offered Marie.

The pirates all glared at her.

“Yeah, but you’re a Shh,” Richards reminded her.

Marie ignored the slur.

“… but I also happen to be the only one who’s not drinking. Just sayin’.”

“But we’ve all got exactly the same symptoms,” said Jiang. “What if it isn’t the drink? Jelani!”

“Hmm?”

“We’ve all got exactly the same shortness of breath, dizziness. What’s your opinion?”

“My opinion,” the prostrate physician offered slowly, “is that I would like another glass of rum.”

“Your opinion about our symptoms,” said A.J. “Is it to do with the air in here?”

“Are they gassing us?” Gotmund asked.

Dr Jelani frowned.

“… Or have they cut off the oxygen?” suggested Richards.

“Ah, yes – that would be more likely, yes,” the drunken doctor nodded, as she folded her hands across her chest serenely. “And of course, the longer we breathe, the more carbon dioxide we produce. So, over time, if there’s no new oxygen getting in here, we’ll be breathing in mostly CO2. So in answer to your question, Gotmund, it’s not them who’s ‘gassing us’; we’re effectively gassing ourselves.”

“EEH! I TOLD YE TO LAY OFF THEM BAKED BEANS!” Marie screeched, in a comically high-pitched – yet indeterminate – accent.

“Not now, Marie,” said Jiang, quietly.

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

In the corridor just outside the Shifting Sands, Mr Abara skidded to a halt. The Love Of His Life was just on the other side of this door, and he’d be damned if was going to let her be killed! Her life was as precious to him as his own – even more precious! For deep in his heart of hearts, Chief Technology Officer Kit Abara knew that he had, at long last, found The One. The only thing holding him back from a lifetime of happiness was this single door, and as soon as he opened it, she would rush joyfully into his arms and make him complete – he just knew it. His whole life had been leading up to this.
He slammed his hand on the door’s external touch panel, desperate to liberate his Soul Mate, eager for them to begin their blissful lifelong journey together.

Nothing happened.

‘Oh, the captain’s locked it from the outside, too,’ he realised.

Fighting off his melodramatic pangs of disappointment, he told himself ‘Come on, Kit – you’ll just have to open it from this side, that’s all.’ He looked up and down the corridor, checking for cameras. If Captain Singh caught him trying to set the pirates free, this would all be for nothing. Pulling a complicated tablet device from his uniform’s breast pocket, he’d soon accessed the video feed from the corridor’s cameras. It was the work of a few moments for him to duplicate the vision of the empty corridor from five minutes earlier and thread it back into the feed, on a continuous loop. He now turned his attention to the door’s lock. ‘This shouldn’t take too long,’ he reassured himself. ‘I am the ship’s Chief Technology Officer, after all.’

“Not long now, my love…” he said under his breath, as he worked. “Not long now….”

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

“So how long do we have? In a room this size?” There was desperation in Richards’ voice.

“Well, let’s see,” began Jelani, looking dreamily at the ceiling. “There are eight people in here breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. The average person breathes 10 litres of air per minute, so that’s 80 litres of air being breathed every minute. Normal air contains about 20% oxygen, but I don’t know exactly what the deal is on this ship… but let’s assume it’s something like that. Now, when we breathe out, we breathe out 4% of CO2 in each breath. Would we say that this room is 15 metres by 30 metres?

“Yep, I guess,” said Jiang quickly.

“And the ceiling would be – what, 2.5 metres high?”

“Sure, alright,” said Richards impatiently.

“Then we just need to work out the volume of the room, in order to calculate the ratio between the oxygen being ingested and the CO2 being exhaled.”

“Marie, you’re a Synthetic Human, you’re smart!” Salazar appealed. “Can you do that?”

“Nah, sorry chief. I’m only programmed for hospitality, mixology, drollery and banter – when it comes to maths, I wouldn’t have a clue. Anyone for a top-up?”

They ignored her.

“Then,” Jelani continued obliviously, “if we knew exactly when the oxygen was stopped, we could find out how long it’ll take for the oxygen level to drop below 19%… which is generally when you’d start to feel exhausted.”

“But that’s now!” blurted Gotmund.

“Oh yeah, so it is,” Jelani replied nonchalantly. “Well, we don’t have long then.”

“But how long is ‘not long’?!” asked Salazar.

“Oh, I dunno. Maybe a few minutes?”

The pirates all gasped, then immediately cursed themselves for wasting the oxygen that gasping required.

Over at the door, Devereux hadn’t heard any of this – she was concentrating on decrypting its primary security algorithm, which was the first of what she suspected would probably be a 10-layer encryption.

Using one of her device’s more basic access code ripping protocols, she penetrated the first three layers of encryption fairly swiftly. The fourth one, she realised, would require some more sophisticated ciphershifting systems of her own design. She was momentarily distracted from opening them, however, by three loud thudding sounds in quick succession. A glance over her shoulder showed A.J, Richards and Lightfoot sprawled out on the floor, unconscious. Turning back to her work, and shaking her head in an effort to stay alert, Devereux began working on the door lock’s fourth encryption layer.

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

Less than a metre away, on the other side of the same door, Mr Abara was working frantically at picking the lock, but so far, he’d made no progress at all.

“Come on, Kit! Come on, come on,” he chastised himself under his breath, “there’s no time to lose!”

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

“Ha!” Devereux exclaimed, as the fourth encryption layer fell away before the labyrinthine complexities of her own brilliant code-busting creations.

Behind her, the formerly indomitable Gotmund gasped, wheezed, and crashed loudly to the ground, unconscious.

For encryption layers five and six, she expertly switched to yet another decryption program array she’d created, of a design even more byzantine, complex and intuitive than the last. Now she was beginning to struggle for breath, and found herself blinking furiously, trying to dispel all the tiny black spots that now danced before her eyes.

The numbers were crunched at astronomical speeds; the encryption layer was hacked, its code was copied, rewritten, re-purposed and returned. Layer five shut down. The device immediately repeated this process, and in the blink of an eye, layer six had also succumbed.

Behind her, Devereux heard the messy clatter of Jiang knocking over a barstool as she fell to the floor. Then Salazar wheezed “Keep going, Dev -” before he too ran out of air, and exhaled quietly, fainting in an untidy, breathless heap.

On her device’s screen, Devereux saw that the seventh layer had been busted open, but that the eighth required another different approach. Slowly, carefully, she called up yet another of her cryptokey analysis engines.

Though her thinking was becoming almost as blurry as her vision, Devereux still managed to spur herself on; ‘Come on, Ari! Come on, come on! If you can just crack these next three layers,’ she thought desperately, ‘the oxygen from the rest of the ship will flood in, and we’ll all be alright.’

Her fingers flew over the keyboard of her tablet, but her accuracy was waning. She bungled combinations and formulae, which she then had to delete and start again; each subsequent, more deliberate, attempt costing her valuable seconds.

The device made a reassuring ‘ding’ sound to tell her she’d successfully bypassed the eighth encryption level.

But Devereux did not hear it, as she finally, inevitably, collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

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

Mere centimetres away, Mr Abara was fighting growing feelings of desolation.

Every attempt he’d made at opening the door from the outside had failed.

 

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 28 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:03 AM

Just as Devereux hit the floor, the door to the Shifting Sands slid open.

The door lock actually only had eight layers of encryption, not ten. Devereux’s estimate had been out by two.

The air from outside the lounge flowed in, immediately changing its oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio. Slowly but surely, oxygen began finding its way in to the lungs of the eight unconscious pirates. Slowly but surely, they began to revive.

From where he stood in the lounge’s open doorway, Mr Abara saw all of this, but he barely registered it. He only had eyes for the woman right in front of him. It was her. And now, at last, here they were – together. She was close enough to touch.

He looked down at her, as she slumbered. She was even more stunning up close. Although her clothes were rough and a little scruffy – scuffed brown leather boots, faded black trousers, and a patchy, voluminous green velvet coat – to him, they looked stylish and extremely exotic. She lay on her side, breathing quietly, her pretty brown hair covering her face. He saw now that her skin was pale, delicate, and had been blessed with a few faint freckles. Her eyes were closed, but he remembered them – they were the prettiest shade of blue imaginable. Should he attempt to wake her?

“Hello hello hello, Mr Abara!”

Marie’s cheerful greeting made him jump.

“What brings you here?”

Although her question had taken him by surprise, he answered quickly.

“Love.”

“N’awwww…” said Marie.

“Aaaawuergh….”, said Gotmund.

“Eeeeurgh….”, said Richards.

Their utterances weren’t as sentimental as hers, though – they were simply groaning as they woke up.

“Araaaargh….”, added Lightfoot, drawing herself up on to one elbow.

A.J, Jiang, Jelani and Salazar were also starting to stir, and open their eyes.

Salazar looked around him, and inhaled deeply, savoring the fresh air that was now filling his lungs. “Devereux!”, he laughed, “Ha ha! You did it! You did it!”

He spotted her lying on the floor inside the open doorway, her tools, devices and gadgets strewn on the floor around her. He also couldn’t help noticing a male Symphony crew member standing in the doorway, gazing down at her adoringly.

Devereux’s eyelids fluttered, then opened. She looked around her and then up, to see the smiling face of a friendly looking man in his mid-twenties. He wore a Symphony uniform, had shoulder length auburn hair and… was that a flower behind his right ear? Yes, a Rigilian pansy, by the look of it.

Their eyes met.

“Hello,” he said quietly.

“Hello,” she returned, a little bewildered.

Tentatively, he reached out a hand to her, but before she could take it, a gruff female voice yelled across the room.

“You want I should shoot him, Captain?”

“No, Richards, that’s alright – not yet,” Salazar answered, as he got to his feet, rubbing his head. “Not yet.”

The most trigger happy member of the Albert’s crew looked disappointed at this, and lowered the rifle she’d pointed at Mr Abara’s chest.

“Well, well, well,” said Salazar as he moved across to Devereux, eyeing Mr Abara all the while. “What have we here?”

“Chief Technology Officer Kit Abara,” Mr Abara answered, raising both hands in surrender. “… erm… Captain?” (‘Was this guy even their captain?’, he wondered) “I was trying to open the door from the outside.”

“Oh really?” Jiang asked skeptically. “And why would that be?”

“I was trying to save you.”

Salazar and Jiang exchanged an incredulous look.

“And why would you want to do that, Mr… Abara, was it?”

“Our captain – my captain, the person whose orders I’m supposed to follow – just locked you all in here and tried to suffocate you. That’s wrong – that’s murder, wholesale murder. I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen. I just had to save…” and here, he turned to look directly at Devereux, “… you. But I failed; it wasn’t me who opened the door. It was this young lady.”

Smiling, he held out his hand to Devereux again, to help her to her feet.

When she took his hand and gripped it, Kit Abara felt a thrill that was almost electric course through him. They were holding hands! They were actually holding hands. ‘I’ll never leave her now. Never!’ he thought.

But as she stood up, the only thing Devereux felt was realisation; ‘Ah,’ she thought. ‘there must have been only eight layers of encryption’.

“I’m Kit. Kit Abara.” he blurted out, involuntarily squeezing her hand a little tighter.

“Oh. Erm – I’m Devereux,” she returned, looking at him with those lovely blue eyes of hers. “But my first name’s Ariane. Ariane Devereux.”

The words came to her more awkwardly than she’d expected; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually had to introduce herself to someone new.

“I’m very, very, very pleased to meet you, Ariane Devereux,” he gushed, savoring saying her name for the first time.

“Well, Mr Abara,” Salazar said, interrupting again, “what are we going to do with you?”

“Take me with you! Wherever you’re going, I want to be there. Whatever you’re doing, I can help. I’m the Chief Technology Officer here; I can help you, I’m sure of it!”

“Swapping sides, eh?” Jiang looked askance at him.

“How do we know you’re not a spy?” Richards chipped in.

Salazar agreed. “How can we be sure that she hasn’t sent you here to infiltrate my crew? To report back to her with inside information?”

“All I can give you is my word. And my loyalty. Captain, the past few days here have been horrific. Before you arrived, one of my crew mates had been killing other crew members. It continued right up until this morning, when Captain Singh caught her. It was… Dr Zivai!” he said significantly.

The pirates exchanged blank looks. A little crestfallen, Mr Abara continued.

“But then the captain threw the rulebook away, and set Dr Zivai adrift in space… While she was still alive! And then, for an encore, she’s tried to suffocate all of you…. I tell you, I think there’s something wrong with Captain Singh – she’s snapped. I don’t feel safe here any more. This is not what I signed up for, She didn’t need to do that! You were already incarcerated,she could have just kept you locked up in here – she didn’t have to kill you! She’s lost control. She has to be stopped. For her to think that she could kill Ariane,” – he corrected himself – “that she could kill all of you, just like that… I just want to get out of here. I want to join you. And I want to be with you and help you in any way I can. Whatever I can bring to your crew, please let me bring it. Please! I’ll serve you well, and I know most of this ship’s systems better than anybody else. You need me. And I…” he addressed the next three words specifically to Devereux. “I need you.”

Mr Abara’s earnestness and passion seemed sincere. Salazar looked him up and down, then called out “Marie, get this man a drink! I need to discuss this with my crew.”

“Right you are,” said Marie, as she beckoned Mr Abara over to the bar.

Jiang called AJ, Lightfoot, Richards, Gotmund and Devereux into a huddle in one of the bar’s plush booths, with her and Salazar. They didn’t bother dragging Dr Jelani away from the bar, where she’d now progressed from lying on the floor drunk, to sitting on her bar stool again, slightly more drunk.

“So… What’s your poison, Mr Abara?” Marie asked him pleasantly, as he sat next to Dr Jelani.

Spotting the panicked look in his eye, Marie rephrased the question.

“What would you like to drink?”

“Oh,” he chuckled, relieved. “I’m not sure. I think it might be a little early for -”

“You know, I can recommend the rrrum,” slurred Dr Jelani. “Very hhhhhighly.”

Blinking at the fumes of Dr Jelani’s breath, Mr Abara was about to place his order when Salazar’s voice suddenly cut through the moment again.

“It’s decided, then! Mr Abara, you will join us on our mission. However, you will be kept under close watch at all times, and if you communicate with your old crew, or show any hint of loyalty to them, or any hint of betraying us, Richards has her orders to shoot you. Is that understood?”

Mr Abara gulped. “Yes, captain.”

“A simple ‘aye’ will be fine, Abara. Now!” he clapped and rubbed his hands together as he changed tone, “None of us have taken too kindly to being locked in a room and left to be slowly poisoned by our own breath… even a room as magnificently inviting as this.”

Salazar climbed up and stood on the couch, as he warmed to the subject of his speech…

“So we will all have our revenge. I will face Captain Singh on the ship’s bridge, and we will take her precious ship from her. I will make her understand why I’ve brought us all here, and I will rescue my beloved Maggie from her while I’m at it. Abara, are you able to find out where all the Symphony crew members currently are?”

“Aye captain.” And Mr Abara noticed that Devereux was looking admiringly at him. A ball of pride and excitement swelled and burned in his chest.

“Captain, you’re not planning to… to kill them, are you?” he asked uncertainly.

“No, Abara. I am not.”

Gotmund and Richards looked disappointed.

“We don’t want to kill anybody. Take them hostage? Yes. Throw them in the brig? Yes. It’ll only be in the worst case scenarios that we’ll use our weapons. All of which have now been set to stun. Right, Richards?”

“Aye, cap’n,” Richards replied sulkily.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have our revenge, take this ship and rescue our mascot without bloodshed. So… Abara! All Symphony crew members’ current whereabouts, if you please!”

Using his personal tablet, it just took a few seconds for Mr Abara to access the relevant ship’s schematics and pinpoint all his (former) crew mates.

“Aye, captain. Chief Engineer Ms Arenson and Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain are down in Engineering with the Cruise Director Mr Martell. And everyone else – that is, Captain Singh, First Officer Mr Sinclair, Second Officer Ms Aku, the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev and the Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin – are all up on the ship’s bridge.”

“Right,” said Salazar. “We’ll split up. Abara, you’re with Gotmund, Richards –

“And Devereux?” he asked eagerly.

“And Devereux, alright. The four of you will take Engineering. Jiang, Lightfoot, AJ and Jelani – you’re with me. We’ll be heading for the bridge. Let’s go!”

The pirates checked all their weapons, ensuring they were set to ‘stun’.

“But captain, don’t I get a gun?”

“No Abara, you do not. I’m not sure we can trust you with one just yet.”

“But what if I need to defend myself?”

“Use that big brain of yours,” he grinned. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Come on, let’s move out.”

Seven of the eight pirates – and Mr Abara – started toward the door. Dr Jelani, however, did not move.

“Um, excuse me, Cap’n,” she drawled, “if you don’t mind, I’d prefer to just stay here with Marie, if that’s alright.”

When Salazar looked at her, he noticed that she was having trouble focussing on him.

“Ah. Yes, on reflection I think that would probably be wise, Dr Jelani.”

She nodded, slowly.

“I think it would probably be wise too” she agreed, and fell off her bar stool.

 

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 29 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:07 AM

The Symphony crew members on the bridge were still processing their captain’s most recent order, and its impending consequences….

First Officer Mr Sinclair was still stunned at Captain Singh’s heartlessness. Yes, he knew that her naval background had required her to make life and death decisions in the past, and yes he knew the pirates were violent trespassers… but for her to imprison them and asphyxiate them en masse… on a whim? ‘I don’t wanna be here anymore,’ he thought. ‘I never signed up for this. This is a cruise ship. I only ever wanted a nice, easy, well-paid life. I only ever wanted to be a good husband to Amira and a good dad to Marguerite… I don’t wanna be an accessory to mass murder! Oh, I hope I survive this, I hope I survive this! I have to make it back home, and see them again. Must keep humouring the captain. Mustn’t show her my fear.’

Second Officer Ms Aku’s overwhelming feeling, however, was professional admiration. ‘Now that was a tough response,’ she thought. ‘The captain’s so bold, so ruthless! I wish I was that tough. I should remember this, I should learn from it. There’s no place for sentimentality – or even mercy – at a time like this. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And what did those stupid pirates expect, anyway? If you mess with Diana Singh, you’ll live to regret it – or rather, you won’t live to regret it. You’ll, erm, die to regret it. Does that make sense? Hm. What was it that the bard said? Oh, that’s right – “If you’re trying to get honey by sticking your hand in a beehive… you’re a frickin’ idiot.”

In the corner behind her, sitting on the floor and hugging himself, was the Symphony’s wretched Chief Steward Mr Crispin Lebedev. ‘When will this all be over?’ he wondered desperately. ‘It’s a nightmare, a horrible nightmare! Last night, when I went to bed, I thought I’d have an easy day today – a sleep in, a leisurely breakfast, maybe some time in the VR suites… these skeleton crew runs are supposed to be easy. Now I’m in danger of being killed… not by the bloodthirsty pirates any more, but now by our callous, inhuman, homicidal Captain! She’s completely lost it. Oh, what did I do to deserve this? When will it all be over? I don’t want to be here anymore…’ and he began to sob, quietly.

Next to him stood Deck Rating Mr Ferrer, thoughtfully rubbing his left arm. ‘So if she’s just gonna suffocate all of the pirates at once, why did I even bother catching the fox? What was the point? Dead people tend not to care all that much about hostages, as a rule. So I climbed that water slide, fell all that way down into that freezing water, and staggered all the way back here, losing blood from my arm being clamped in the vice-like jaws of that flea-ridden, verminous little beast… all for nothing. That sucks.’

Standing next to him was Deck Rating LeGuin, who simply thought ‘That little fox is soooo cute!’

Of course, Captain Singh was completely oblivious to all of these thoughts, feelings, judgements and internal monologues. She was sitting in the captain’s chair, pensively sipping a cup of coffee and eating a slice of lemon sponge cake. She hadn’t had time for breakfast today, after all. And Maggie the fox, her hostage, seemed content enough, sitting on her lap. Captain Singh finished her slice of cake, slowly and deliberately wiped her mouth, checked the time, and opened a channel to the Engine Room.

“Ms Arenson, how are we for time? Will the pirates in the Shifting Sands have been neutralised by now? I’d like to be sure before we look in on them again; I don’t think any of us particularly need to witness their final moments.” She looked to her crew, who didn’t appear quite as grateful for this as she’d expected them to.

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

Down in the Engine Room, Chief Engineer Ms Arenson didn’t hear Captain Singh’s question at first.

She was thinking ‘They’re people. They may be invaders, thieves and… yes, even killers. But they’re people. And she’s just slaughtering them all in cold blood. What is wrong with her? This is not justice. This is not who we are. She’s not my captain any more. As soon as we get to drydock, I’m gone. I have to get away from… all of this. I am no mass murderer. Even if she is.’

Her second in command, Mr Chamberlain, had known Captain Singh for decades, and they were close friends. Over the years, he’d seen her in countless stressful, high pressure, life-and-death situations, but she’d never reacted like this before. ‘Something’s snapped,’ he thought. ‘Something’s snapped, and I’m worried for her. This is sociopathic, this is megalomaniacal. Wonder if she’s off her meds. I have to help her; this is so much worse than any of her previous mental health episodes.’

And it was.
Well, worse than any of the ones he knew about.

The third crew member in the Engine Room, the Cruise Director Mr Martell, was overwhelmed by the Captain’s extreme behaviour, too. ‘She’s never done anything even remotely like this before,’ he thought. ‘She’s always been a bit stitched up, a bit formal. She’s always been a strict stickler for the rules, but this?! I don’t even know how to begin…’
At this, his mind didn’t just wander off; it sprinted. ‘I wish I was running a shore excursion right now. Yes, a jaunty day trip to the Feather Jungles of Rigel III. Or organizing a passenger concert in the ship’s theatre. Or a games night on the Sunset Deck. Hell, I’d even rather be singing show tunes in the Brasserie’s Lido lounge than be stuck here in Engineering, waiting for our crazy captain’s murderous plan to come off. Then again, I’m sure it’s safer in here than it is wherever Kit’s got to….’

He had noticed that Mr Abara had slipped out of the room just after Captain Singh gave the fatal order. Mr Martell hadn’t tried to stop him, nor had the others. They’d all assumed he was off to the Shifting Sands in an attempt to rescue that pirate he was infatuated with. “I’ve got half a mind to join him,” Mr Chamberlain had said….

“Ms Arenson?” Captain Singh repeated, rousing the Chief Engineer from her reverie.

“Sorry Captain. Yes, captain?”

“You haven’t answered my question. The pirates – has enough time passed for us to be rid of them?”

Ms Arenson checked the nearest chronometer. “Yes captain,” she answered, barely disguising her disdain. “Yes, by now you will, most definitely, have asphyxiated them all.”

“Just so. In that case, please re-establish all AV links to the Shifting Sands.”

Ms Arenson patched the feed from the Shifting Sands through to the wall screens in Engineering and up on the bridge, hardly daring to look at the collection of corpses that would inevitably be strewn all over its floor. But when the screens flickered back to life, all they revealed was a liquored-up Jelani, slouching on her barstool as she leaned unsteadily on the bar, listening to the joke Marie was telling.

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

“Now there’s this young newlywed, you see, and it’s been three weeks since her wedding day, when she calls the vicar who married them, and she’s all upset and agitated.
‘Oh vicar,’ she wails, ‘what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? John and I have had a terrible fight!’
‘Calm down now,’ he says. ‘Calm down; I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that. After all, every marriage has to have its first fight.’
‘Oh, I suppose you’re right, vicar…’ she sighs. ‘But what am I going to do with the body?’”

Jelani exploded in a throaty guffaw that launched her off her barstool yet again.

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

… while from the bridge, Captain Singh watched, wide-eyed.

“Wha – Where are they all? I mean, where’s the rest of them?” she demanded, of no one, and of everyone.

“It looks like they’ve gone, Captain,” volunteered her First Officer.

“Thank you Mr Sinclair, I can see that… but WHERE?!” The last word was yelled – she hadn’t been able to contain her anger. “Ms Arenson,” she continued, “All eyes, please. Let’s find them.”

“Yes Captain,” the Chief Engineer responded, her voice awash with relief. They hadn’t ruthlessly annihilated the pirates after all.

But when she attempted to call up all the AV feeds on A Deck…

“I’m sorry Captain, all the cameras on A Deck seem to have been deactivated.”

“Then reactivate them, Ms Arenson.”

“Of course, Captain.”

But this was easier said than done.

“I’m sorry Captain, but their shutdown has been heavily encrypted. I can get them back – it’ll just take time, that’s all.”

“Time is currently in short supply, Ms Arenson.”

“Yes Captain.” Then she noticed… “And I’m afraid there’s more bad news – all cameras on Decks B to F have been shut down as well.”

“All of them?”

“All of them. Also heavily encrypted.”

Captain Singh exhaled in frustration, scratching Maggie’s right ear a little more vigorously than the fox would have liked.

“Just so. Well, it appears we’ll be flying blind for the time being. Ladies, gentlemen, I want you to get out there now and neutralise these loathsome invaders. I will stay here with their precious mascot; I’m sure Captain Sharp will be up here any time now, keen to rescue her from my ‘evil clutches’. Won’t he, Maggie? Yes he will….”

She cooed to the fox, as she stroked the top of its head. It blinked at her suspiciously.

“Mr Sinclair, make your way down to Engineering, team up with Mr Chamberlain, and from there, the pair of you can start sweeping B Deck.” She suspected that her callow First Officer could use the experience and hard-headedness of Mr Chamberlain, if he was to stand any chance of success. Or any chance of survival, come to think of it. Mr Sinclair and Mr Chamberlain both nodded their assent.

“Ms Aku, please take Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin with you, and patrol A Deck, please – I suspect they’re making their way up here now, so let’s see if we can ambush them.”

The Second Officer and the two Deck Ratings all uttered their “Yes, Captain”s, and ensured that their rifles were primed.

“Ms Arenson, I need you to stay at your post in Engineering, and Mr Martell, please remain there with her and provide support.”

The Chief Engineer and Cruise Director nodded.

“And finally, Mr Lebedev,” she glanced over at her Chief Steward, trembling fearfully in the corner of the room, desperately trying not be noticed. “You’ll stay here on the bridge with me, because…”

He heaved a sigh of relief so big it made his shoulders drop.

“Well, just because. Now ladies, gentlemen; I have grown heartily weary of these reckless marauders riding roughshod over MY ship – of their violation of MY home. We will end this absurd, futile operation of theirs, and we will end it now. Are there any questions?”

“Just one, captain,” said Second Officer Ms Aku as she moved toward the door, “Are we shooting to kill or to stun?”

Gently stroking the fur on the fox’s back, Captain Singh replied “Surprise 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 30 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:10 AM

“Follow me…” said the Symphony’s Second Officer Ms Aku, as she led the two Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin cautiously sternward along A Deck, “and stay sharp…”

The corridor they crept along was one of the ship’s main thoroughfares, and it ran the entire length of the vessel – from the Symphony Spacewalk attraction at the bow, all the way to the Shifting Sands lounge in the stern. It was, unsurprisingly, extravagantly decorated – from the dense, plush navy blue carpet underfoot, to the rare and exotic potted plants at regular intervals along the wall, to the spectacular ceiling. A ceiling that had been painstakingly hand painted by a team of artists, over several months, to show a panorama of the night sky, as seen from earth. The fact that any passenger could see a night sky a thousand times more intricate, interesting, real and immediate – simply by looking at any one of the ship’s thousands of wallscreens was a fact that had entirely escaped the lead artist. Until exactly twenty nine minutes after the painting was finished.

That realisation had made him cry.

A Deck’s other most noticeable feature for anyone who looked up was the stretch of water slide snaking through it, two and a half metres above the floor. When the ship was full of passengers, this open-topped section of the Mad Maelstrom often rang with the sound of whooping bathers, as they sped noisily and joyously down through all its watery twists and turns. Anyone walking along this corridor was liable to be splashed, sprayed or spattered by the bucketloads of water sloshing over the slide’s edges, displaced by the (usually obese) thrill seekers hurtling through it, above their heads.

The water slide overhead was dry now, of course, and the usually obese thrillseeking passengers had disembarked weeks ago. Right now, the only people in this stretch of darkened corridor were this rather gung-ho ship’s Second Officer (Ms Aku), and two of her subordinates; the recently fox-bitten Mr Ferrer (who’d had quite enough of water slides for the time being, thank you very much), and the eternally chirpy Ms LeGuin.

“I think it’s actually quite nice in here,” Ms LeGuin observed aloud, to no one in particular.

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

50 metres further along the corridor, and around a couple of corners, Salazar, Jiang, Lightfoot and AJ stalked along, rifles drawn. They were heading forward, making for the elevator that would take them up one level, to the ship’s bridge. As AJ scouted ahead of them, Salazar and Jiang were listening to Lightfoot, as she held forth on her favourite subject: money.

“I’m telling you Cap’n, even though the gold’s gone, we can all still get rich here…” she enthused. “Filthy rich.”

Salazar looked sceptically at the crew’s self-appointed “computer genius and investment expert.” She’d always been driven, there was no doubt about that. And her stocky, athletic frame belied a mind as masterfully encyclopedic and practical as it was dexterous. But he was focussed on rescuing the ship’s mascot – his beloved Maggie – and wasn’t currently interested in ineffectual tilts at grand larceny.

“We’re not following Evans, Fullbrook and Skarsgard out there,” he said dismissively, gesturing to the starscape drifting by, on the panoramic wallscreen they were passing.

“The cap’n’s right” said Jiang. “Right now, we don’t have time to go flying around, trying to pluck random gold bricks out of deep space.”

“No, no, no,” Lightfoot grinned. “Nothing as drastic as that. You’re not thinking laterally. You really think the ‘secret cargo’ was the only wealth aboard this ship? I’m talking about all the little, ‘inconsequential’, amounts virtually secreted all over the ship. The money that passengers hide in their in-room safes, the money in the registers in the six bars, in the tills in the three restaurants; the takings from the Wellness Centre, from the VR suites, from the theatre’s bar, from the gaming machines – anywhere those bloated, loaded sightseers could be fleeced for additional extras. When you consider how much money must change hands on this ship during an average cruise -”

“But the ship’s empty,” Jiang interrupted. “Its last cruise ended weeks ago. There are no passengers here – just a skeleton crew, remember? And all the takings from that last cruise would have been transferred back to FrontierLine Corporation headquarters, the moment it ended.”

“Probably,” Lightfoot conceded. “But what if I could track down all those transfers, reverse them, and get all those amounts back on board?”

“Surely that’s not possible,” said Jiang.

“No, no it’s not…” she answered.

Jiang, Salazar and AJ looked at her, irritated.

“… Unless you’re me!” She smiled.

“And,” Lightfoot continued, “let’s not forget all the cash that’s behind the scenes on a vessel like this: the ship’s onboard bank, the crew’s payroll, all their tips and gratuities, any cash that’s in lost property… and the contents of the ship’s safe, up on the bridge. That’s where they always keep a decent pile, specifically to pay off any pirates they run into!” She clapped her hands, and rubbed them together, laughing. “Loving the irony of that one! Cap’n, it all adds up. If I transferred all those totals across from the Symphony’s drives to the drives over on the Albert, we’d be on the receiving end of a pretty tidy sum.”

Salazar, Jiang and AJ exchanged glances.

“Why didn’t you mention this before?” asked Salazar.

“You have been pretty quiet until now…” AJ nodded, as all three of them looked at Lightfoot.

“I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, could I?”

“You think you can actually do it?” asked Jiang. “You think you can access and transfer all these various… stockpiles?”

“No,” Lightfoot replied. “I don’t think I can.”

“Oh.”

“I KNOW I can!”

Salazar stopped walking and looked to Jiang. She nodded.

“Sounds good, Lightfoot,” the captain said. “What do you need?”

“Well first of all, I’ll need to get – ”

BLAM! She was cut off by a loud explosion, as an energy bolt slammed into the wall just above her head, sending sparks and chunks of hot metal raining down upon her.

“Take cover!” yelled AJ, half a second too late, as Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot looked up to see three Symphony crew members pointing close defence plasma rifles in their direction. Instinctively, Salazar and Jiang dived right and into a doorway, while Lightfoot plunged to the left, seeking cover behind an ornamental potted plant, as another bolt hit the floor where she’d been standing, filling the corridor with a hot yellow flash and a plume of grey smoke.

AJ returned fire at their assailants – two women and a man – but missed all three of them, as they all ducked into a doorway that he hadn’t noticed before.

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“Ms LeGuin? Mr Ferrer? You alright?”

Both Deck Ratings nodded.

“Good,” said Ms Aku, “that was close.”

Ms Aku felt her adrenaline surge as she took aim at the pirates again. ‘Now this is more like it!’ she thought.

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

“Cap’n, you should retreat – I’ll draw their fire!” AJ yelled over his shoulder, as he frantically scanned his surroundings. Lightfoot and Jiang both looked to their captain. This was an uncommonly selfless offer from their ship’s mechanic; surely one that Captain Sharp would refuse, in order to stand by his loyal crew member and support him, outnumbered as he was, in this deadly firefight.

“Okay!” yelled Salazar. “Thanks, AJ!”

Salazar darted down an adjoining corridor, beckoning for a bewildered Jiang and Lightfoot to follow him. They did.

AJ fired off a few more loose shots at the Symphony crew members – he wasn’t aiming at them, he just wanted to pin them down in their bolt-hole, while he furiously examined his options.

Then he saw it. Just above his head, snaking through the corridor, just below its ceiling, and back out into the ship’s central atrium. A section of the Mad Maelstrom water slide. If he could somehow hoist himself up and into the open-topped chute, he might be able to escape… maybe if he stood on that broken plant pot, and used one of the longer tools in his tool harness to reach up and grip on to the lip of the chute, then he might be able to –

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

Three explosions on the floor in front of his feet turbocharged AJ’s decision-making. In one fluid movement, he leapt up onto the pot, as he pulled the catalytic isolacerator from his tool harness and deftly extended its telescopic shaft. Before the smoke from the shots had cleared, he’d used it to swing himself up, and into the water slide. But the moment he landed flat on his stomach in the dry chute, gravity took over, pushing him slowly sliding down the opaque duraplastic shaft, as it stretched down and beyond the walls of the corridor. He’d evaded his attackers, but AJ now found himself sliding down the uppermost section of 150 metres of sharply descending, twisting, turning half pipe.

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

Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer peered down the corridor, through the smoke.

“Where did he go?” asked Ms LeGuin, “The one at the front, the one with all the tools?”

“Dunno,” said Mr Ferrer, as he spotted Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot bolting off down an adjoining corridor, “but the others are getting away!”

“After them!” barked Ms Aku, and the three of them sprinted after the retreating pirates.

Well!” said Ms LeGuin as they ran, “This is good exercise, isn’t it?”

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

AJ tumbled faster and faster down the empty slide, helpless to stop gravity’s cumulative effects, he took a little comfort when he thought ‘Well, at least I’ll have a soft landing’.

He kept rolling, bouncing, bumping, tumbling – faster, faster…. Faster and faster again.

What he didn’t know was that the pool down on F Deck – the pool that would be receiving him when he shot out the end of the slide – did not have a drop of water in 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 31 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:10 AM

Richards, Gotmund, Devereux and Mr Abara had descended one level from the Shifting Sands, and were now heading along B Deck, toward the Engine Room. Richards, the trigger happy weapons expert, was well out in front, feverishly searching for any moving targets for her two drawn and primed augmented photon pistols. Her brawny best friend Gotmund jogged alongside her, also on the lookout, carrying his heavy tachyon pulse rifle as though it weighed nothing at all.

Twenty metres ahead of them, a maitbot scuttled into view. The little droid halted and lowered itself to the floor, neatly folding its crablike legs underneath itself. A section of its black carapace opened and a complex repair tool emerged, on the end of a spindly metal arm. The tool immediately started repairing a small hole in the carpet, just in front of the maitbot.
Then the maitbot loudly exploded.

“Got him!” Richards proclaimed, as she smugly blew across the end of her pistol’s barrel.

“Hey, what’d you do that for?” asked Devereux.

“For fun!” Richards announced, as Gotmund laughed, cruelly.

“Yeah. Fun.”

Just then, a second maitbot promptly arrived to clean up the remains of the first one. Following Richards’ lead, Gotmund quickly took aim and blasted it. It also exploded loudly, sending fragments of black metal and computer parts flying into the air.

“Whoo-hoo!” Gotmund enthused, as Richards nodded approvingly.

When the third maitbot arrived to clean up the first two, Richards shot that one as well. Another one arrived almost immediately, and Gotmund shot it.
It was his turn, after all.

A fifth one arrived, only to be gleefully dispatched by Richards.

“How are they getting here so quickly?” she wondered out loud. “Where are they coming from?”

Gotmund and Richards both looked in the direction the maitbots had been coming from. A sixth one was now heading for them, on its mission to clean up what was left of its comrades. Richards and Gotmund walked past it, and toward the room it had emerged from. When they rounded the corner, their eyes lit up. They had wandered into the maitbot control centre; a warehouse-sized space where dozens of maitbots were housed on rows of rotating racks that stretched all the way up to the ceiling, four meters above.

The maitbot closest to the door dutifully removed itself from its rack and lowered itself to the floor; it was next in line for the clean up job.

Richards spotted it, pointed both pistols at it and fired. The two energy bolts hitting it simultaneously produced an even bigger explosion this time – yellower sparks, redder flames and more plumes of blue smoke dramatically erupting from the unfortunate droid.

“Whoa!” laughed Richards, intoxicated by the spectacular destruction she was causing. She shot another maitbot. And another. Within seconds, Gotmund had joined in, copying his friend and indiscriminately blasting away at the hapless, harmless little robots. Time and again, they fired, cruelly laughing as they decimated maitbot after maitbot, from the floor to the ceiling, sending showers of sparks and chunks of torn metal raining down upon them.

Mr Abara watched, open mouthed. ‘These two are mental…’ he thought.

But he decided not to give voice to that thought.

It was only Devereux’s frightened entreaties from the doorway that eventually made the shooting stop.

“Guys, Guys, Guys!” she cried. “What are you doing? Stop it! You’ve got to stop it! You’re putting us all in danger!”

Gotmund snapped out of his violent, frenzied state first. He stopped firing, and stood there panting and blinking. Richards followed suit, a second later.

“Sorry,” she lied. “Don’t know what came over me.”

She did know what came over her. It had happened many times before – the Red Mist, the thrilling attraction of destruction, of shooting, of doing harm, of making pretty explosions. It was something that had got the better of her many times over the course of her 36 years. There had been many occasions when it had made her a valuable asset to the Albert‘s crew.

“Me neither,” said Gotmund. This too was a lie. He knew full well what had come over him; Richards had started a fight that he thought would be fun to join.

Mr Abara smiled weakly at them, as he made a mental note; ‘Never get caught alone with either of these homicidal thugs.’ He looked back at Devereux, who was beckoning the two shooters to leave the maitbot control centre. Mr Abara sighed as he gazed at her. ‘She’s so commanding,’ he thought, dreamily.

They all continued on their way to the Engine Room, leaving the maitbot control centre behind them. As the smoke cleared, and the small spot fires slowly burned themselves out, the full extent of the damage became clear. Of the 96 maitbots housed there, 52 had been completely destroyed and another 15 were irreparably damaged. There were another 23 that had been significantly damaged. Just six maitbots had escaped the manic outburst unharmed. These six maitbots now scurried out of their housings and began industriously repairing the 23 significantly damaged ones. During these repairs, however, one of the six functional maitbots suddenly shuddered without warning, ground to a halt, and fell over. For the damage to the maitbot control centre wasn’t just confined to the bots; Richards and Gotmund’s little shooting spree had also unwittingly destroyed some key infrastructure here. With the creeping damage they’d caused to the maitbots’ core directive transmitter banks, and their centralised command engine, it was only a matter of time until the Symphony’s entire fleet of the little maintenance droids became all but useless.

As Gotmund and Richards stalked ahead, Mr Abara deliberately hung back, matching his stride to Devereux’s. She was even more beautiful up close. Even more purposeful, even more strong, and yet, fine-featured…
He needed to break the silence.

“Um,” he said.

She looked at him.

“Um,” he said again.

He cleared his throat. Finally he thought of something to talk about.

“Yeah, so I’ve knocked out all the cameras along here,” he said, gesturing to the CCTV cameras embedded in this corridor’s ceiling.

“Oh? When did you manage to do that?” Devereux asked.

“Just before I started working on the door upstairs,” he said, gesturing to his personal tablet.

“That’s good – so none of the Symphony crew will have eyes on us?”

Mr Abara’s next sentence only took shape as he was saying it. As he heard each word come out of his mouth, he wanted to stuff them back in. But once he’d started the sentence, he felt he had to commit to it; he had to follow it through to the bitter end. Afterwards, he would fervently wish he hadn’t said it.

“No, they won’t have eyes on us,” he agreed, “… which is ironic. Because… I … only have eyes, for you…”

It was supposed to be charming and clever and smooth and romantic, but it effortlessly managed to be none of these. And all at once.

Devereux smiled politely at the floor. They walked on in silence.

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

On the ship’s bridge, Captain Singh was mid-conversation.

“None of them? Is that what you’re telling me?” she barked.

“I’m afraid so, Captain,” came the reply from Ms Arenson in Engineering.

“There are no feeds from any of the corridor cameras on A Deck, on B Deck or on the bridge level.”

“And you can’t restore them?”

“No, Captain – if Mr Abara doesn’t want them to be restored, I certainly won’t be able to crack his encryptions.”

Captain Singh exhaled heavily.

“Just so.”

She looked from the fox, who nestled contentedly on her lap, to her Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, who still sat on the floor in the corner. ‘About as useful as each other,’ she thought bitterly. The Captain tapped her uniform’s insignia badge and hailed her roving crew members.

“Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin. I’ve just been informed that all corridor cameras between the pirates and the bridge have been disabled. As such, I will only be able to hear the pirates on their approach; I will not be able to see them. So please keep your communications channels open. I need as much information as possible at this time; if I’m forced to fly blind, I don’t want to be flying deaf as well.”

First Officer Mr Sinclair tapped his uniform’s insignia badge as he nervously stalked along B Deck. “Yes, Captain.”

And on A Deck, Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin did the same, without breaking their stride, as they continued chasing Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot.

“Just so,” Captain Singh said, patting the fox, pensively.

She tapped her insignia badge again.

“Mr Abara, please state your current location.”

No answer came.

“Mr Abara, please respond.”

Mr Abara did not respond.

“Mr Abara?”

Captain Singh knew then that Mr Abara was not going to respond. Where the hell had he got to?

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

He had got to the corridor just outside the Engine Room, where he’d been tagging along next to Devereux, and deliberately ignoring those repeated calls coming through on his communicator from Captain Singh. He didn’t want to talk to her. She had tried to kill his beloved. He wanted nothing to do with Captain Diana Singh. Or with any other members of the Symphony’s crew, for that matter. Ever again. He was a lover now! And he was an honorary pirate! He grinned, as he thrilled to the prospect of both vocations. He would help the pirates now… and of course he would always, always help her. For the rest of his life, he hoped.

Walking alongside Mr Abara as she was, she’d also heard Captain Singh attempts to reach him. He had put his finger to his lips, warning Devereux to be quiet, in case she said anything that Captain Singh could hear. After the call ended, he made a minor adjustment to his insignia badge, and told Devereux.

“There! Now we can hear all of their communications,” he explained, “but they can’t hear us.”

“That’ll be handy,” Devereux said approvingly, looking him in the eye and smiling. Mr Abara’s heart swelled with excitement and pride, and he suddenly felt ten feet tall.

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

Meanwhile, at the bar in the Shifting Sands, Marie made sure that Jelani’s glass was full before she started her next joke.

“It’s very late at night, you see,” Marie began, “when this guy stumbles through the front door of a bar, staggers up to the bartender and orders a beer. The bartender looks at him and says,’I’m sorry sir, I can’t serve you – you’ve already had too much to drink.’ The guy swears and walks out of the bar.”

“Sure,” slurred Jelani.

“Five minutes later,” Marie continued, warming to her story, “the guy comes back. This time, he bursts in through the side door, and yells for a beer. Again the bartender says,’I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t serve you. You’ve already had too much to drink.’ He stomps off again, angrily.”

“Fair enough,” said Jelani.

“Ten minutes later,” Marie continued, “the same guy comes falling through the back door of the bar, stomps up to the bartender, and demands a beer. Again, the bartender says ‘I’m really sorry, sir, but you’ve had too much to drink. You’re gonna have to leave!’
The guy squints at the bartender and says ‘My God, man! How many bars do you work at?!!’

Jelani exploded in laughter, fell off her bar stool again.

Sitting there on the floor, she wondered vaguely if there might be something unusually wobbly about this particular seat. She tried to examine it, but her unpredictable balance and blurry eyesight made it all but impossible.

“Ah nah, don’t worry, I unnerstand, I get it…” she eventually slurred to the stool. “It’s not you, it’s 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 32 =

473 years in the future.
A Saturday morning.

10:40 AM

This particular Saturday morning was an especially climactic and emotional one for 25 year old Diana Singh. For on this particular Saturday morning, at twenty to eleven, Diana Singh gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Tim, who’d been her devoted and loving husband for five years now, was by her side in the birthing suite, holding her hands, gently mopping her brow, speaking soft words of encouragement.

The boy was born first, and the moment he appeared, he let loose a hale, hearty howl to announce his arrival; “Waaaaah!”
Both parents laughed to hear it, their eyes filled with tears of joy.

But when the girl was born moments later, there was no such raucous, robust sound.

There was no sound at all.

Tim and Diana’s horror grew, as the two doctors in attendance worked hard to save the baby. Another doctor was called in to assist. And another. Then three medibots, as Tim called “Why can’t I hear crying?” They ignored him. “Why can’t I hear crying? Why can’t I hear crying?!” Diana put her hand on her husband’s arm – to comfort him, to silence him and to stop him from distracting them from their vital task…

None of the doctors answered him, as they tirelessly fought to revive the baby – quickly and deftly doing everything they could to save her tiny, fragile life.

Time dragged on, silently, agonisingly. For the terrified new parents, each minute was an eternity.

Three minutes.
No sound.

Four minutes.
No sound.

Five minutes.
No sound.

Six minutes…
As Diana and Tim watched the doctors’ backs, they saw all their quick, busy activity slow, and then come to a stop. The senior doctor’s shoulders drooped as she turned to look at Diana. She sadly shook her head.

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In the time that followed, the chronic postnatal depression that Diana suffered was compounded by the profound and crippling grief over the loss of her daughter.
“My heart is not broken…” she would say to Tim, who faithfully tried everything he could think of to help ease her pain,“… it’s gone.”
Counseling, medication, therapy; nothing seemed to help. As the months dragged into years, Diana became more and more distant from the husband she loved, and from the baby boy who would never know his twin sister. They reach out to her, they hug her they talk to her they try to play with her, but she’s a shadow, a wraith.

After three years of this, and with no end in sight, Tim makes an agonising decision; a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his days…

He gets up very early one morning, packs a bag for himself, and a bag for the boy. He accesses the money he’s been saving for this, and he leaves the family home, taking his sleeping son with him. Tim tells himself ‘it’s for the best. The boy deserves better than this,’ but leaving – actually leaving – is still the most heartbreaking, distressing thing he’s ever done.
They’re both at the spaceport, in one of the offworld boarding lounges, when the boy wakes up and mumbles “Where’s Mummy?”
“Mummy’s gone away to live somewhere else,” Tim lies. “It’s just you and me now.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” he lies, his voice cracking.
It’s a bit too much for the sleepy toddler to process, and he nods off again, as Tim carries him aboard the transport bound for Rigel II. Diana won’t find them there. Tim doesn’t want them to be found.

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

In the missions of the Third Offworld Navy, there are sometimes civilian casualties.

477 years in the future.
A Wednesday morning.

11:47 AM

The ‘uprisings’ on various equatorial settlements on Rigel II were a case in point. The ‘insurrections’ (the use of words such as ‘uprising’ and ‘insurrection’ was hotly debated by the original inhabitants) had been in progress for seven weeks now, and both sides were depleted, battleworn and desperate. The fighting had turned dirty.

As happened all too frequently, the modicum of power given to some anonymous middle rank commander had gone straight to his head. The light armoured gunboat under his command was swooping low over the city, slicing through the clouds of acrid black smoke rising from the burning buildings below, and loudly strafing the supposed bolt holes of the insurgents.

One of the unassuming buildings caught in this all-too-indiscriminate barrage was a simple domestic dwelling; cheaply constructed, of poor materials, and already crumbling with age. It was small and dark, but it was warm and surprisingly clean. And for the past six months, it had been home to Tim and the boy, who was now a burly, boisterous four year old.
They had been sitting on the floor, playing a card game, when the barrage of bolts from the gunboat’s plasma cannons ripped into the walls and roof of their home. Huge chunks of concrete and debris exploded into the room, and all was dust, noise, fire and daylight. Overhead, the gunboat jetted noisily away, as quickly as it had arrived, to wreak more thoughtless devastation.
Tim was killed instantly – crushed by an enormous chunk of concrete dropping directly onto him. The boy’s left foot was pinned under the ragged corner of this broken concrete slab. If they’d been playing their card game at the table, they both would have been killed.

In fact, weeks later, that was the official finding of the Third Offworld Navy’s casualty report…

Domestic domicile:
1 male adult, age 29, deceased.
1 male child, age 4, deceased.

… accompanied by the compulsory DNA sample of both victims, collected by the solddroids sent in for mopping up operations.

But the boy was tough, he was strong, and his injuries, although bloody, were more superficial than they had any right to be. He managed to pull himself out from under the slab, and escape the ruins.

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This report came to Diana Singh’s attention a month later, as she wearily continued her obsessive scouring of the system, for any trace of her husband and her son. It was the report she’d been looking for, all these months; the report she never wanted to find.

Dead. Both dead.

Diana had been clinging desperately to the faint possibility of finding them for 52 weeks now. The last fragile strand of her hope was now severed. She crumpled to the floor, as she realised that her search for her husband and son was now at an end.

She was now utterly alone. In just four years, she’s lost her daughter, her husband and her son.
She is 29 years old. Mentally, physically and emotionally, she collapses. Again.

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

Her recovery took months. Therapy, drugs, counselling – every facility that the navy could offer was at her disposal. This time around, though, these methods eventually ‘worked’… as well as they ever can. Diana was grateful for them when she returned to active duty. More than grateful – the navy’s care for her had formed a cornerstone of her new philosophy; her new purpose.
For Diana Singh had vowed to devote herself to her career, and only her career, from that day on. She was determined that she only be ruled by her head, never her heart. Although it was the navy that robbed her of her husband and son, she still believed in its values and principals. She had to. The Navy was now all she had, and she had to believe in something… the alternative was too bleak to contemplate. She would continue to fight the good fight through her work in the navy. Diana Singh would now cling to the odd belief that the key to her own personal peace… would be in war.

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

There are sometimes civilian casualties.

When it came to diplomacy and sensitivity to indigenous populations, the Third Offworld Navy had not entirely escaped the worst practices of the First and Second offworld navies. Over the previous three centuries, advances in earth’s technology had made it possible for terrans to finally visit their closest sentient neighbours in the galaxy. Sadly, though, the advances and increased sophistication in offworld travel did not seem to bring any advances or increased sophistication in basic human attitudes. And the bard’s cynical observation rang true yet again; “People will be people… unfortunately.” Earth’s official approach to its newly accessible neighbouring worlds had been all too reminiscent of some of the darker periods of its history, and this interplanetary neocolonialism claimed countless lives. After widespread backlashes and various newly discovered planets cutting off all contact and trade with earth, bestowing it with pariahworld status, earth’s united governments finally took the hint. They demobilised and dissolved the First Offworld Navy in May 2169.

The following week, they announced the establishment of the Second Offworld Navy, which the powers behind the scenes had been assembling, even as they dismantling the old one. Some of the galaxy’s more cynical citizens feared that this ‘fundamental overhaul’ would be little more than an enormous publicity stunt. And those suspicions weren’t exactly helped when the buffoonish new Chief of Operations, Admiral of The Fleet Lucille P. Avakian, took to the stage at the new navy’s official launching ceremony, blinking and squinting into the cameras that beamed the event to 86 billion viewers across the system;

“My friends! Terrans. Rigelians. Betelgeuseans. And others…”

Millions of sharp intakes of breath from the various species she’d just snubbed.

“I stand here before you all today proud to usher in a glorious new era. When the First Offworld Navy was established some fifty years ago, it was an entirely new type of navy; a navy in its infancy, and as such, yes, I am the first to admit that there were some teething problems.”

She paused and smiled in a way that she hoped would come across as honest, trustworthy and self-deprecating.
It didn’t.

“There were times when the First Offworld Navy exceeded its authority, times when it most certainly overstepped the mark. Times when, instead of serving as a deterrent to would be aggressors, the First Offworld Navy veered dangerously close to being an aggressor itself. Its approach was, oftentimes, authoritarian, callous, and I’m sure some would say… in some instances, even bordering on brutal. Amiright, Beteguese VI?!”

She smiled, figuring that ‘comedy equals tragedy plus time.’ She figured wrong; none of the Betelgeuseans watching her speech laughed. The fact that Betelgeuseans weren’t biologically able to laugh (not having mouths, noses, throats or lungs) was beside the point. They were offended, is what I’m saying.

She continued her speech, as oblivious to her audience’s reaction as she was dazzled by her own importance.

“… But I’m here to assure you all that we, as a vast, sophisticated, inclusive, modern fighting force, have learned from those mistakes, and today, I am deeply honored and humbled to be here with you at the birth of A New Era In Peacekeeping. Spearheaded by the Second Offworld Navy! A force for justice, a force for order… the Second Offworld Navy is an interplanetary fighting force for our times; a more compassionate, thoughtful and considerate peacekeeping organization!”

There was a smattering of unconvincing applause. The Admiral’s staff, who’d been nervously watching from the side of the stage, all breathed a sigh of relief. She’d got to the end of the speech without too many faux pas. It would take a little while, but they’d probably be able to patch up the interworld diplomatic damage their fearless – and feckless – leader had just caused.

But she hadn’t finished.

“… And that’s a guarantee! In fact… I don’t have the exact figures on me, but if you were to ask me…”

Her staff members all gulped. They hated it when their boss went off script.

“… I reckon this new version of the Navy now has 80% fewer tyrants, despots and homicidal maniacs. Got rid of a lot of the Rigelians, you see.”

She strutted off the stage, smiling, waving and acknowledging the applause that she assumed was there. She swaggered past her team who stared at her, their mouths agape.

Within two days, the Admiral had been relieved of duty, ambassadors had been dispatched to the dozens of offended parties and the Second Offworld Navy had been completely dissolved, before its first mission.

Work began on the Third Offworld Navy, and in another fortnight, it was ready to be launched.

Admittedly, the restructure was mostly cosmetic, and consisted largely of changing the word from ‘Second’ to ‘Third’ on uniforms, labels and letterheads…
But the entire operation was undertaken with such discipline and ruthless efficiency that military historians would later call it “the most brilliantly co-ordinated, skilfully executed, and devastatingly powerful rebranding exercise of all time.”

The Third Offworld Navy officially commenced operations a week after that.

Their ethos was embodied in the pledge sworn by every new recruit:

“The Third Offworld Navy keeps the peace. We maintain order, we preserve freedom.
We stand, ever vigilant, as a deterrent to would-be aggressors.
Though forged on earth, we serve the greater system with pride.”

Although tellingly, there was no mention of the compassion, thoughtfulness or consideration mentioned in the ex-Admiral’s speech.

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

There are sometimes civilian casualties.

With an armed and battle ready force of 1.5 million drawn from 26 different races, stationed on 84 bases across 13 planets, and a fleet of over 2000 vessels, the law of averages dictated that there was no way that all behaviour was going to be exemplary, all the time.

And sure enough, during one particular skirmish on one particular Sunday afternoon, 482 years in the future, in a remote settlement just north of Betelgeuse III’s equator, the official naval directives were being comprehensively ignored.

The T.O.N’s suppression of a Betelgeusean ‘uprising’ there had been raging for ten days now, and the conflict had become exceedingly messy. The organised campaigns had degenerated into guerrilla warfare: cities had been destroyed, desperate pitch battles were being fought everywhere, traitors and turncoats abounded, and the original carefully planned action had descended into hellish, violent chaos. Indiscriminate fighters with improvised weapons made casualties of men, women, children, and animals. Military or civilian, rebels or loyalists; all lines were blurred now. The Navy had sent wave after wave of Human soldiers, Synthetic Human soldiers, and were now deploying the solddroids. These killing machines were the most brutal, violent, and basic of the Navy’s battle troops. They were grotesquely over-armed; looking at them, it was hard to see where the arsenal ended and the robot began. And they were surgically efficient, untroubled by anything as messy as ethics.

On this Sunday afternoon, just after 3:00, one particular solddroid – K27093A – was chasing a Betelguesean insurgent down the remains of the town’s main street, firing a relentless barrage of deadly energy bolts at it, when two civilians stumbled onto the road.
It didn’t occur to the solddroid to stop firing on their account; its simple ‘pursue and destroy’ protocol didn’t feature such subtleties. The two hapless humans – a man and a woman, both in their late thirties – were instantly mown down, before they had any idea what was happening. They collapsed to the ground, as the solddroid ran on, vaulting over them to follow its target around the corner and out of sight.

The 9 year old boy who’d been struggling to keep up with the two humans suddenly stopped. He stared, stunned, at their two bodies lying in the street.

‘Mum?’ he whispered. ‘Dad?’

But he already knew they were dead.

Salazar Sharp knew that his parents were dead.

 

 

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 33 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.

8:10 AM

The Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair had dutifully made his way down two levels from the bridge, was now heading through the curving corridors of B Deck to Engineering, where he’d soon be teaming up with Mr Chamberlain.
He was scared.
His mind wandered to his wife Amira, and their four year old daughter Marguerite.

‘I need to keep myself safe, for their sake’ he thought.

‘I never signed up for this. I only ever wanted a career working on cruise ships. And I’ve worked hard, I’ve climbed the ladder – I’ve made First Officer, and that’s not a position they just give away. I’ve supported my family, I’ve made them proud… but I never signed up to be a rifle-wielding vigilante, facing off against bloodthirsty pirates! I’m a pacifist! If I can just make it through this, if I can just survive and get back to dry dock… I want to go home. I want to kiss Amira, to pick Marguerite up and spin her around and around and around… She loves that.’

As he smiled fondly at the memory, he felt a lump in his throat, and tears welling in his eyes. Then, realising this was no time to succumb to mawkishness, he tried to snap himself out of it.

‘Come on, Sinclair – be a man!’ he thought. ‘The sooner I get to Engineering, the sooner I can team up with Mr Chamberlain, and not be wandering these creepy, dangerous, pirate-infested corridors all alone. Mr Chamberlain will look after me. He’s ex-Navy; he knows his way around a gun. I barely know which end the trigger’s at.’

He glanced down at his plasma rifle. Yes, he was pointing it in the right direction.
He knew that.

He continued nervously creeping along the corridor, towards the engine room.

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Some twenty metres ahead of Mr Sinclair, around a couple more bends in the corridor, the pirates Richards, Gotmund, and Devereux – and their lovestruck new recruit, Mr Abara – were crouching behind a row of lush ornamental potted plants.

“Alright,” whispered Devereux, “Richards? Gotmund? Ready to take the Engine Room?”

“Yes M’am,” said Richards, smiling.

“You bet!” enthused Gotmund.

“Wait, wait,” said Mr Abara. “Are you absolutely sure that you need to – I mean, that we need to – do this?”

All three pirates frowned at him.

“Yes, we’re sure.” said Devereux. “It’s our Captain’s Orders… and besides, whoever controls the Engine Room has the rest of the ship in the palm of their hand. You, of all people, should know that, Mr ‘Chief Technology Officer’. Now, can you tell us exactly who’s in there?”

Mr Abara gave a worried nod. “Usually, it’s just the Chief Engineer Ms Arenson and the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain…. But listening in to the crew’s chatter, it seems the Cruise Director Mr Martell’s in there with them now, too.”

“Alright, so just the three of them – ” Richards began.

“Can we at least try to do it without anyone getting hurt?” blurted Mr Abara.

“Oh, of course we can!” Richards snorted derisively.

“Yeah, of course!” Gotmund echoed, attempting to copy Richards’ snort, but only succeeding in dribbling on himself.

“Why don’t you let me talk to them?” Mr Abara offered.

Richards and Gotmund shook their heads vigorously; they’d always preferred violent confrontation to negotiation. But Devereux rolled her eyes and nodded, reluctantly.

“Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain, Mr Martell!” he shouted. “It’s Kit Abara. I’m here with three of the pirates. They want to come in to the Engine Room and… relieve you of duty. I’m very much hoping we can make that happen without anyone getting hurt.”

“Mr Abara! Are you alright?” came a voice from inside. It was the Chief Engineer. “Have they hurt you?”

“I’m fine, Ms Arenson,” he said, glancing at Devereux. “Actually, I’m better than fine.”

Inside the Engine Room, Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell exchanged puzzled looks.

Ms Arenson beckoned to Mr Martell and Mr Chamberlain, and they both leaned down, as she whispered “We have to fight them off. If my Engine Room falls into their hands, they’ve won.”

Mr Chamberlain nodded gravely, but Mr Martell said “Personally, I don’t have a problem with letting them come in here, if they’re really keen to. To be honest with you, I see myself as more of a lover than a fighter, and it was the part about ‘nobody getting hurt’ that really caught my – ”

But Mr Chamberlain’s booming voice cut him off.

“YOU’LL HAVE TO TAKE THIS STATION FROM US BY FORCE! WE’RE NOT AFRAID OF A FIGHT!”

‘Technically, I am,’ Mr Martell thought, sadly.

Out in the corridor, Richards was quick to take the bait. “NEITHER ARE WE!” she yelled, slapping Gotmund on the shoulder. And with that, she and Gotmund both fired volleys of energy bolts at the door’s access panel, and the door to Engineering slid open.

It was on.

At that moment, nobody noticed Mr Sinclair arriving in the corridor some ten metres behind the pirates. Figuring discretion would be the better part of valour right now, he ducked behind a potted plant to watch proceedings unfold…

The ensuing gunfight between Richards, Gotmund and Devereux in the corridor and Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell in the Engine Room was as intense as it was chaotic. The three Symphony crew members missed more targets than they hit, and the wayward energy bolts from the pirates’ various terrifying weapons caused significant damage to a number of systems in the Engine Room; four critical pitch and roll control terminals and three secondary navigation modules were hit by intense blasts. Several ancillary guidance and stabilization backup systems were destroyed, and even some of the emergency override matrices were severely compromised.

Mr Sinclair watched it all, petrified behind his potted plant.

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Up on the bridge, Captain Singh observed it too, but (having been deprived of the corridor’s visual feed) all she could do was listen to the audio…

“Mr Lebedev,” she asked her Chief Steward, “Who’s down there? I know Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell are in Engineering, but those other voices… two women and two men?”

“Yes Captain,” said the Chief Steward, who’d also been struggling to hear. “One of the men is Mr Abara, I think.”

“Ah yes, of course,” she responded, “So, my Chief Technology Officer has now joined the other side. Duly noted.”

Mr Lebedev gulped. Even when he wasn’t in trouble, Captain Singh made him feel like he was.

“But the other man?” she continued. “And those two women?”

“Don’t know, Captain. Sorry Captain,” Mr Lebedev answered. “Must be three of the pirates.”

“Just so,” she said, nodding grimly, and grimacing as the next barrage of explosions, gunshots, screaming, shouting, and sizzling damaged electrics came over the speaker. She was able to make out a few words among the cacophony…

“I NEED THAT DOOR CLOSED, MR CHAMBERLAIN!” Ms Arenson was yelling, between dozens of pulses of gunfire.

“Working on it!” came the gruff response.

“Now would be good!”

“Yaaaaaaah!!” Was that Mr Martel? Captain Singh guessed that her Cruise Director’s yelling was his way of forcing himself to fire his gun at the pirates.

She couldn’t make out anything the pirates were saying, but that wasn’t surprising; the sheer volume and frequency of gunshots – from both sides – drowned out all but the loudest voices. Then…

“AARGH!” A woman’s voice screamed, although the gunfire, static and shouting made it hard to tell which one.
Another voice broke through the static.

“She’s hit! Shrapnel!” it was Mr Abara. “Quick! Help her!”

There were sounds of shuffling, grunting and groaning. Then someone was panting – clearly working hard, trying to revive her? – and feverishly whispering “Come on! Come ON! Don’t do this – come on!”

Then silence.

Total silence.

Captain Singh looked at Mr Lebedev. Their ears were ringing, and they both wondered if the connection had been lost.
It hadn’t; a voice came through quite clearly. A female voice.

“It’s too late. She’s dead.”

Captain Singh looked to Mr Lebedev, to see if he recognised who’d said that; to see if he knew who’d just been killed.

He shrugged, timidly.

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Gotmund and Devereux had both dropped their guns when the shrapnel hit Richards. They’d worked feverishly to revive her, but nothing could be done.

The three Symphony crew members in The Engine Room took advantage of this ceasefire, and managed to get the door closed again, and locked, with as many layers of encryption as possible.

Gotmund lifted his tear-streaked face from Richards’ body, and roared at the ceiling.
He staggered to his feet, blinking and frowning, his overwhelming, intense feelings of grief and anger making him spin around, as he ran his fingers through his hair. Half way through spinning, he saw something move behind a potted plant – it was a Symphony uniform.

Whoever was wearing it was one of them. They had killed her. They killed his best friend.

As the red mist of rage blossomed behind his eyes, Gotmund bolted towards the uniform, searing hot revenge burning through his confused mind…

Mr Sinclair stood frozen, peeping through the fronds, as this enormous, furious, musclebound berserk warrior thundered towards him.

“Um,” he stuttered.

“RAAAAAAAAAARRRRRR!!!!” came the response, as the enraged man-mountain bore down on him.

With trembling hands, Mr Sinclair raised his rifle, anxiously pointed it at this rapidly moving target (which, to be fair, was getting bigger and easier to hit by the second) and squeezed the trigger. Gotmund jolted as the bolt hit him, and instantly crashed loudly to the ground. Mr Sinclair looked dazedly at Gotmund, lying there on the floor. Mr Sinclair made sure the brute was breathing – yes, his back was rising and falling, he’d only been stunned – before promptly, and very skilfully, running away.

Devereux and Mr Abara saw Mr Sinclair retreat, but neither of them were inclined to chase him. They stood near the scorch marks in the still-smoking wall, looking down at the bloodied corpse of Richards and the enormous, unconscious form of Gotmund.

“You could have told us your Chief Engineer was a little person,” Devereux said.

“What?”

“Your Chief Engineer; she got the drop on us. We didn’t see her at first. We were looking at the other two, and that gave her the element of surprise. That shrapnel was from one of her shots. And now Richards is dead.”

“Sorry,” said Mr Abara, lamely. “I just… forgot.”

“Your forgetfulness just cost Richards her life.”

“Sorry,” Mr Abara said again, softly, mortified at the prospect of displeasing Devereux. There was a pregnant pause of half a minute before Devereux spoke again.

“That’s alright, I didn’t like her much anyway.”

They looked over at the Engine Room’s door. It was pock marked and blast scorched, but it was still in one piece, it was closed, and it was locked.

“So, do we still want to ‘take’ Engineering?” Mr Abara asked.

“No,” Devereux sighed, sitting down on the slumbering Gotmund’s back. “Not now.”

Mr Abara sat next to her, on Gotmund’s bottom, and they both looked pensively at Richards’s corpse. As they did, the ship’s five remaining functional maitbots scurried into the corridor and toward them. Devereux jumped up and aimed her gun at them. But the little black droids paid her no attention, as they deftly surrounded Richards, smoothly lifted her up off the floor and carried her down the corridor and out of sight. Devereux looked to Mr Abara, puzzled.

“They’re taking her to the morgue,” he explained.

“Oh,” said Devereux, lowering her weapon and regarding the insensible Gotmund again.

“And what are we going to do with him?” Mr Abara asked.

“Maybe we should just get him back to the Shifting Sands,” she offered. “He’d be safe enough there for the time being. You could lock him in, with Jelani and that bar tender, Marie.”

“Brilliant! You’re brilliant… as well as everything else,” he said adoringly. “I’ll get the maitbots to take him there, as soon as they’ve taken Richards to the morgue.” He made a few entries on his personal tablet, putting that plan into effect.

“But right now,” said Devereux, looking around her, “we should get out of this corridor. It’s a bit too public for my liking.”

“This way,” Mr Abara nodded, grabbing Gotmund’s feet and beginning to drag him to a discreet alcove that led to another hallway, lined with numbered doors.

Using his tablet again, he opened one of them, and laboriously dragged Gotmund inside, motioning for Devereux to follow. She did, he closed and locked the door behind them, and turned on the lights.

Devereux gasped at the opulence, luxury and indulgence all around her. The plush, deep carpets, the enormous soft bed, the elegant and inviting furniture, the jacuzzi, the fully stocked bar… even the sweet, floral aroma that greeted her here; it was all First Class. And she marvelled at the floor to ceiling screens that showed the boundless starfield outside the ship serenely gliding past – after her years of travelling in the grimy, dingy cramped berths of the Cheeky Albert, this room was nothing short of a revelation.

Mr Abara noted her reaction and smiled.“ And this is just the basic, entry level cabin,” he said. “You should see some of the suites up on A Deck.”

Magnificent though the room was, Devereux couldn’t relax yet.

“But won’t they find us in here?” She asked. “Can’t they track you, through your communicator’s signal?”

“Oh, no,” Mr Abara smiled. “I deactivated that, the moment I decided I wanted to join your crew.”

She grinned. She was warming to him. He was obviously very smart, he was sort of good looking (in an underconfident, nerdy way), and he also seemed quite… what was it? Devereux struggled to pinpoint the attribute; due spending the last couple of decades as a pirate, she hadn’t encountered it very often. After a while, it came to her.

Kindness.
Mr Abara was kind.

 

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 34 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday afternoon.

2:12 PM

The hapless space-suited figure continued hurtling through the cold, limitless depths of space. It was completely disconnected from anything or anyone, its deliberately severed umbilicom cord trailing behind it, like a long, thin tail. It was utterly isolated. Utterly, utterly alone.

After drifting at exactly the same velocity – 30 kilometres per hour – for 7 hours and 10 minutes, Dr Zivai had now travelled 215 kilometres away from the Symphony of the Stars.

Further in fact, since the Symphony’s continuing course was taking it ever further away from the point of her disembarkation (and subsequent abandonment).

There was still 170 minutes’ worth of oxygen in her suit’s tanks.

She’d given up making any physical exertions. Any movement of her arms and legs – no matter how fast or frantic – did nothing to alter or slow her path in this totally frictionless vacuum. It was just a waste of energy. So she stayed still now, arms and legs splayed like an adult-sized gingerbread man floating forever forward, in a perfectly straight line, at a perfectly stable velocity.

She floated through star fields speckled with white smudges, smears and streaks, as though someone had wiped the velvety black backdrop with a sponge soaked in pure light, and left billions of droplets behind.
She sped past dazzling intricate, frosted coronas of purple, green, blue and white, that stretched millions of light years from north to south.
For want of a better term – for who was to say where North was, all the way out here? Or South? Or up, down, front or back, for that matter. It was all… one.
Bizarre and magnificent nebulae ranged into her field of vision; a horsehead nebula, a crab nebula, a pineapple shaped nebula.
A nebula that was shaped like a horse’s head with a crab sitting on top of it, eating a pineapple.
Which then had another crab sitting on top of that.
‘There are more things in heaven, Tara,’ thought Dr Zivai, paraphrasing the other bard, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Inside Dr Zivai’s helmet: her breathing rate was elevated – 20 breaths per minute. Her body temperature was stable at 38.9 degrees Celsius and she was lightly perspiring. Her pupils were dilated, as here eyes drank in the endless magnificence of the spacescape all around her.

But inside Dr Zivai’s head:

‘I’m hungry. When did I last eat? That’s right, it was last night. Dinner. No wonder I’m starving; I haven’t had any breakfast, any lunch… so… I guess I haven’t eaten for 20 hours. And now that I’m thinking about this, my stomach hurts. That’s because it’s empty. Damn! Why don’t they equip these suits with emergency rations?
You know why, Tara – because these suits are set aside for passengers taking amusing, indulgent little walks tethered to the ship, that last no longer than 20 minutes – not for being cast adrift and LEFT TO DIE IN THE INFINITE COLD REACHES OF SPACE!
That’s why.
Oh, but last night’s dinner was good; that pasta… don’t think about it! And the wine. Don’t think about that either! Oh, now I’m thirsty, too. Great – why did I have to think about that? Now I’m hungry and thirsty.
And I’m also lost, I’m completely isolated, alone and helpless, with two and three quarter hours until I die of asphyxiation.

I hate Captain Singh for doing this to me; she’s taken everything from me. EVERYTHING; my home, my career, my friends, my freedom… MY LIFE! I don’t think I’ve never hated anyone this much before.
Even when I was killing.
I mean, sure, I hated all the passengers on that ship.
And I hated the job.
But this – this is like a whole new level. This hatred is so powerful, so desperate, so – I dunno – elemental.’

She felt the anger bubbling through her and she wanted to scream. She clenched her fists, instinctively. She wanted to kick something, to hit something, to break something, to kill someone all over again. She thrashed and flailed her arms and legs furiously; an action that had no effect whatsoever, apart from making her feel breathless and tired. If you’d been observing Dr Zivai from outside the ship from a nearby fixed point in space, she’d have presented as a tiny, crazily jerking figure, impotently wriggling as she continued to speed, weightlessly, along her predestined path. Again, Dr Zivai stopped all her exertions.

‘Ah, what’s the point of wearing myself out? But on the other hand, what’s the point of saving my energy? What am I saving it for? For this rich, full sumptuous existence that’s all mine for the next… two hours and forty minutes?’

And then she saw something.

‘Is that a ship? It’s white, it’s rectangular – it’s moving against the background… Oh, please let it be a ship! PleasePleasePleasePleasePlease! Let it be a ship. If it is a ship, and if I can get them to rescue me, I’ll never kill anyone ever again. Ever. No, even more than that; I’ll never do anything bad – anything at all – ever again. Ever! I swear! I promise. Wait, who am I swearing to? I don’t believe in any god, in anything supernatural… so who am I asking? Who am I promising? Me, I guess; I’m promising me. Oh alright then, that’ll do. If this is a ship, I promise to me that I’ll never ever, ever do anything bad again. Ever! I’ll lead a life of kindness and decency, and doing unto others, and –
It’s coming closer. Over here, over here, over here!’

She began to wave her arms and legs again.

‘If I’m moving around, they’re more likely to spot me – more likely to see that I’m alive. I’m not just detritus – I’m a PERSON! A LIVING PERSON! I’m alive! I’m stranded! I NEED RESCUING!!! Over here! Can you see me? Here – I’m right here! Oh please see me, please see me, I’ll never do anything bad ever again, I promise, I promise..
Over here… Over…
Here.’

It moved close enough for her to see it clearly now. It was small – not much larger than her.
And it was not a ship.
It was a flat metal panel. It was just debris; a piece of worthless space junk.
Dr Zivai’s mood instantly plunged from ecstatically, frantically hopeful to utterly bereft and desolate.

‘Of course it’s not a ship. Why would it be a ship? What are the odds out here? How ridiculously unlikely and improbable would it be… how small would the chance be…
Stupid, Tara – stupid. Why’d you let yourself get your hopes up like that?
Stupid.
There isn’t any hope. There never was. The minute the captain cut me loose, the one and only chance I had was those pirates collecting the gold. If they’d taken pity on me, then maybe…
Alright, that’s it. I’m done. I’m ready to die now. Chronometer, what can you tell me? Oh. No such luck.
Another 150 minutes of oxygen – another 150 minutes of life – left.
How can I speed things up? Can I tear the suit? That’d do the trick – any suit breach would kill me instantly.’

Dr Zivai tried hard to tear a hole in the suit’s legs, then its arms… but the suit was too sturdy, and her gloves too stiff and clumsy to do any damage at all.

‘What about the umbilicom cord? Maybe its severed end will have sharp wires or bits of metal sticking out of it – I could use that to rupture the suit! Come on, come on…’

She pulled the free floating cord in toward her, reeling it in, hand over hand, for its full length of 60 metres. Finally, she greedily grabbed the cord’s sliced end and held it in her left hand, where she could see it closely.

‘Damn. It’s a clean cut – surgical, almost. And it’s also been sealed with some kind of rubbery plastic. Damn maitbots! Why’d they have to be so efficient, why’d they have to make everything so safe? Because, Tara, we don’t want people accidentally cutting themselves when we condemn them to a slow, agonizing death in the desolation of deep space.’

She continued to glide on and on…
And on.

There was only the sound of her breathing.

‘Out here, I’m tiny. I’m minuscule, insignificant. What does being 167 cm tall mean out here? Look at that over there – what is that, a planet? And its moon… and the stars; they never end. They never end. They just never end.
I might as well be an atom. And not just in terms of space, but time as well…
I’ve only been alive for 43 years. How old’s the universe? 14 billion years? Was that what they taught us in school?
Might as well be an atom, there, too. 43 years behind me. Nothing. And what about the time ahead of me? Two and a half hours. Ha! Less than nothing. Less than an atom. Time. Ha.’

She drifted on.

‘And then there’s the time I took from my victims – all those years they would have had, if I hadn’t cut their lives prematurely short. But did I get to keep all those years that I stole?
No Tara, you did not.
No Tara, I did not.
In fact, robbing them of the rest-of-their-lives also robbed you of yours. Thanks to Captain Singh’s sentence.
Yep, turns out it’s not exactly a zero sum game, time theft.
Quite the opposite, in fact; if I hadn’t killed them, she wouldn’t have killed me. I’d still be alive, I’d still be back there on the Symphony…
probably having something to eat. Damn, I’m hungry. If I were there now, I’d order up some thick cut white buttered toast with, fried eggs, pork sausages and rashers and rashers of crispy bacon.
Strange to think that they actually used to kill animals in order to get meat. What would it be like to kill a pig? Guess I came pretty close when I killed Devlin J Tucker the third… No, no – that’s not fair.
To pigs.’

She drifted on.

‘Out here, I’m nothing. Physically, temporally, morally… I’m nothing. The universe doesn’t care about me. And why should it? People don;t care about me either. No one is coming for me. And I;m not going to just happen across a miraculous rescue.
Chronometer? Hmm… 145 minutes left.
Two hours and twenty five minutes.
I
am
truly
doomed.’

 

 

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 35 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:15 AM

The third swimming pool on the Symphony of The Stars, low in the ship’s forward keel, was completely empty. It had been empty for over two hours now, since a gigantic ragged hole had been blasted in its side by Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ellis during the gunfight in the Cargo Hold. This pool was the final destination of anyone who rode the Mad Maelstrom water slide, and usually, it would reward the slide’s thrill seekers with a bracing plunge into its two metre depths; an exhilarating culmination of their screamingly speedy 150 metre descent. This morning, however, anybody unfortunate enough to be dumped into it at the usual breakneck speed would…

Well, they’d break their neck.

As the Cheeky Albert’s resident mechanic AJ continued hurtling down the slide toward the pool, he had no idea that it was empty. Since he’d leapt in to the slide up on A deck, it had already plummeted him through the centre of the Tranquility Forest, dropped him into (and then rapidly out of) the library, skidded him down past the VR suites and sent him tumbling behind the Wellness Centre and spa….

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In the cabin on B deck, Mr Abara was staring at the beefy pirate Gotmund, who lay insensible on the deep carpet.

Should we put him on the bed?” he asked.

No way – the bed is for ME!”, Devereux enthused, as she took a flying leap onto it. “He wouldn’t appreciate it anyway – he’s unconscious.”

Mr Abara nodded, admiring her pragmatism.

Oh yeeeeah,” she added, as she sank into the bed’s cozy, enveloping softness.

He looked at her fondly, admiring how easily she could forget the siege, the skirmishes and the shooting just outside the door… and surrender to the here and now, and let herself be totally present, in the moment.

Now that they were alone together, and she was talking to him, and she was on that enormous bed, looking at him, he felt himself blushing. He cleared his throat.

Um. Well, we should be safe for now, anyway. I’ve locked and encrypted the door, so no one but the maitbots can get in. I’ve deleted my tech signature, we can monitor all the Symphony crew’s communications, and of course I’ve killed all the cameras out there.”

You’re pretty handy with all that stuff,” Devereux said, drawing herself up to lean on an elbow.

Well I am the Symphony’s Chief Technology Officer,” he responded, and then instantly felt embarrassed by this boast. “That is, I was the Symphony’s chief technology officer.”

Mm. Hey, you never told us why you decided to switch sides…”

Mr Abara looked at her.

What he thought was;

Because I’ve fallen madly and passionately in love with you and I want to be near you every minute of every day, because you excite me and you fascinate me and you captivate me and you make me feel scared and excited and bold and strong and lighter than air – all at the same time – and when I’m with you, I feel that my life has finally, finally BEGUN! I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.’

What he said was;

Our captain’s a megalomaniac. She’s lost control, completely gone off the rails. She tried to lock you all in the bar and asphyxiate you! That’s not ‘defending your territory’ – that’s cold blooded mass murder. I want nothing to do with her, or this crew, or my old life. And anyway, I was getting bored in my job,” he added, vainly trying to sound nonchalant. “I was ready for a change. What you do seems much more exciting!”

Exciting?” Devereux drawled. “I suppose that’s one word for it…”

There was a pause.

Um, So. Anyway,” Mr Abara said, crossing to the cabin’s stylish kitchen, “would you like a cup of tea?”

No I would not like a cup of tea. I would like a shot of rum,” Devereux answered.

Rum? It’s a quarter past eight.”

Is it? Oh. Champagne, then.”

Mr Abara shrugged and smiled. “Why not? Mind if I join you?”

Be my guest,” Devereux said grandly, with a magnanimous weep of her arm.

From the floor, Gotmund produced a faint snoring sound.

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

The five remaining functional maitbots were currently in an elevator, with Richards’s corpse, patiently waiting as they were all delivered down past C deck, D deck, E deck and F Deck, to the stern of the ship, where the morgue was located. The little droids stood completely motionless, expertly holding the prone corpse exactly 30 centimeters above the floor. Although there were currently no passengers on board, gentle, saccharine instrumental music was still being piped in to the elevator. Technically, the maitbots were not able to actually “enjoy” this sort of music, but then again, neither were at least 90% of the passengers. The five maitbots regarded their payload; the recently deceased Richards. She was the one who’d gone on a frenzied and catastrophic destructive shooting spree in the Maitbot Control Centre, just five minutes ago. She – along with that lumbering sidekick of hers – was responsible for the destruction of 68 of the maitbots there, and for the serious damage to another 23. The five maitbots now conveying her remains to the morgue were the only entirely intact survivors of her berserk rampage. As such, they had every right to hold a grudge against her.

No one would have blamed them if they’d just left her where she fell.

People probably would have looked the other way if they’d decided to “bury” her up a tall tree in the Tranquility Forest.

And surely no one would have batted an eyelid if the maitbots just left her in the Wellness Centre – on a massage table, covered with a towel – as a surprise for the next unwitting masseur…

But they didn’t. The maitbots were programmed to perform a multitude of tasks, but holding grudges was never one of them. Although Mr Vickers, their programmer, did have a fondness for practical jokes, they were never vengeful.

Boorish? Sure, like the time he made 58 maitbots play thrash metal air guitar at the ship’s formal launching ceremony.

Tasteless? Perhaps, like that other time, when 46 maitbots synchronized to form an enormous, perfectly proportioned pair of buttocks beside the captain’s table, just as the chocolate mousse was being served.

It really was quite the assembly (or in this case, ass-embly) from the maitbots (or in this case, bot-bots).

But for all that, the bots’ practical jokes were never mean-spirited or nasty. The late Mr Vickers did have some standards, after all.

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Meanwhile, up on the top deck, the Cheeky Albert’s captain Salazar Sharp, its first mate Jiang and its computer expert Lightfoot were running from the Symphony’s First Officer Ms Aku and Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin. They’d evaded them a couple of times by ducking and weaving down obscure passageways, and moving up one level, but the three Symphony crew members were still hot on their heels.

As Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot reached the half way point of a long corridor that ran the entire length of the ship, Jiang looked over her shoulder behind them.

They’re gaining on us, Cap’n…” she panted.

I know, Jiang – I know…”

Salazar was out in front, frantically scanning the corridor for escape options as he ran, when he suddenly remembered one of the items he was carrying. Of course! How could he have forgotten about that? He pulled it out of a breast pocket and showed it to Jiang and Lightfoot.

I’m gonna use a smoke bomb.”

Jiang and Lightfoot nodded.

When I throw it, we all stop running, alright? I’ve got an idea.”

They nodded again.

Salazar looked ahead down the corridor, to five large numbered doors along its outer wall. As soon as they reached the first one, Salazar stopped, turned and lobbed the smoke bomb in the direction of their pursuers.

The smoke bomb hit the floor and exploded, instantly releasing an enormous cloud of thick, white opaque smoke that filled the corridor from floor to ceiling.

Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin rounded the corner and ran straight into the smoke, stopping instantly as they inadvertently breathed in gobfuls of it.

Can you see them?” Ms Aku wheezed to her crewmates, between wracking coughs.

No,” coughed Mr Ferrer.

No,” hissed Ms LeGuin.

Ms Aku cursed, and, covering her hand with her mouth, strode forward into the smoke, squinting in an attempt to spot the pirates, or indeed any trace of them.

Further along the corridor, Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot were coughing and wheezing too, but their smokescreen had at least bought them a few valuable seconds. And Salazar knew when he spotted those large numbered doors that they had at least a couple of options….

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The Symphony of the Stars was equipped with 20 lifeboats, as pointed out in the ship’s manual that was issued to each crew member:

LIFEBOATS

The Symphony of the Stars is equipped with 20 lifeboats

See?

each of which has a capacity of up to 150 persons. There are 10 lifeboats located on the port side of the ship; 5 amidships on the top deck, and 5 amidships in the stern. Another 10 can be found in the corresponding locations on the starboard side of the vessel. Each lifeboat has been assigned a designated safety officer, who is responsible for the efficient embarkation and subsequent welfare of passengers and crew. After passengers and crew members are safely aboard the lifeboats, they may be jettisoned remotely (from inside the ship), or manually (via the controls of the lifeboat itself). Once jettisoned, the lifeboat’s emergency distress beacon will be engaged, as it begins to scan for the nearest ship, station or outpost.

If none are found within viable travel time parameters, it will then commence a sweep for the nearest habitable planet or moon, and once found, lay in a course.

Each lifeboat is equipped with SPR, and so has a theoretically infinite range. The lifeboat’s onboard computer features scaled down versions of the Symphony’s navigation, communication and entertainment systems, with additional survival information.

The lifeboat features 10 water synthesizers and four toilets. Seven days of A-rations are supplied for each person on board, to be utilised after the 10 replicators have been depleted.

Other equipment includes:One C-level SLS spacesuit for each person on board, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, blankets, multipurpose tool kits and additional distress beacons, and of course, towels.

For further information, see Chapter 16 of this manual: ‘No, You’re Not Going To Die; It’ll Probably All Be Fine’.

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Devereux and Mr Abara were sitting side by side on the cabin’s gigantic luxurious couch, looking at the floor to ceiling wallscreen that showed the infinite starscape gliding majestically by. Their shoeless feet rested on Gotmund’s back, as it gently rose and fell.

War is hell,” Devereux declared, draining her second glass.

Hear, hear,” agreed Mr Abara. “Bloody awful. More champagne?”

She held out her empty glass. “Oh, just to the top thanks, darl.”

You’re funny,” he said, as he poured the refill.

She smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time someone paid her that compliment.

She stretched comfortably and took a sip.

Mr Abara wanted to tell her how he felt. He needed to tell her how he felt. He took a swig of champagne and put his glass down.

Ariane, there’s something – ”

Call me Devereux,” she interrupted.

But Ariane’s your name, isn’t it? And it’s a beautiful name.”

Only one person calls me Ariane,” she said quickly.

Oh. Alright then. Devereux…”

But he was interrupted this time by the cabin’s door swishing open. The five maitbots scurried into the room and directly across to where they were sitting. They both hurriedly lifted their feet off Gotmund, as the maitbots swiftly maneuvered into place around him.

Oh good, the maitbots are here,” Mr Abara said in a deflated tone.

The little droids deftly raised the sleeping pirate from the floor, took a moment to steady themselves beneath his enormous bulk, and started slowly marching toward the door, on their mission to deliver him to the Shifting Sands.

Devereux stood up, clapped her hands and said in a loud, decisive voice “Right! Now that they’re gone, we can get back to what we were doing!”

She started to put her shoes back on. “Oh, and thanks for the drink,” she added.

You’re welcome,” Mr Abara responded quietly.

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

Meanwhile, AJ continued rolling, crashing and slipping through all the Mad Maelstrom’s twists, loops and hairpin bends – faster and still faster, bumping roughly around in the open-topped chute as it hurled him down through the Shopping Promenade, down through and past D Deck, down through and past E Deck, before it straightened out for its final dramatic drop through F deck and into the the waiting pool below. AJ happened to be scudding along on his back for this last straight stretch, and he glanced between his feet, looking for the pristine chlorinated water that would bring a welcome end to this excruciatingly painful, bone-rattling, high velocity ordeal.

Instead, all he saw was the dry white tiles of the pool’s floor. No water.

There was no water in the pool. As he sped down the chute toward it, accelerating all the time, a single thought flashed across his mind; ‘I’m gonna die.’

Now the slide dramatically fell away from underneath AJ, for the ride’s ‘big finish’, and he began to fall – free fall – toward the pool’s cold, hard concrete floor.

 

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 36 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:18 AM

As AJ plummeted toward the cold hard floor of the pool, his survival instinct kicked in to full throttle. In one swift movement, he reached both hands into his tool harness, pulled out two exospatial magnoclamps, hitting the button on each one to extend its thin, strong metal cable. Flicking both wrists away from him, he whipped the clamps outward and away from the chute, hoping against hope that at least one of them would catch on something, get tangled up in something…

He fell.

He fell through the ceiling of the room where the pool was, his feet speeding closer and ever closer to that concrete-hard, bone-breaking floor. Suddenly, the cable from the right magnoclamp caught on one of the metal struts supporting the water slide and wrapped around it. AJ dropped the left magnoclamp and grabbed the right one – the one that just might save him – with both hands. He felt ligaments and tendons in his shoulders tearing, but he held on, for all he was worth. The clamp at the end of the cable acted like a grappling hook, and stuck fast, yanking AJ with almighty force up and over the lip of the water slide. He kept holding on tight, as he was dumped roughly on the floor next to the empty pool; a drop of only about two metres. As he landed flat on his back, he felt all the air being pushed out of his lungs… and was that the sound of a rib cracking? He lay there for a moment, groaning in pain and struggling to catch his breath, before finally, slowly, gingerly releasing the tool from his vice-like grip. He looked down at his palms, where the imprints of the magnoclamp’s handle were starkly embedded, the pattern white against his brown skin.

Knew they’d come in handy one day,’ he thought.

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Eight levels above AJ, on the ship’s top deck, Jiang and Lightfoot were awaiting their captain’s orders, as they struggled to breathe amongst the thick white smoke filling the corridor. Salazar’s smoke bomb had hidden the three of them from their pursuers, but it had also obscured their vision, and was burning their noses, eyes and throats.

Salazar slammed his fist into the access panel of the large red door next to him. It slid open immediately, and he shoved Jiang and Lightfoot inside.

Come on! In you go – quickly! Before the smoke clears.”

Jiang and Lightfoot half stumbled, half fell inside. Salazar followed and closed the door behind them.

It was dark. But the sensor lights slowly came on, and as they gratefully inhaled the clean air and rubbed their eyes, Lightfoot and Jiang realised that they were now in one of the Symphony’s lifeboats. This low-ceilinged vessel had multiple rows of seats and storage lockers, and a couple of doors leading to kitchen and toilet facilities. And although it was designed as a purely functional escape craft, they spotted some extravagant touches – purple velvet seat cushions, gold plated clasps on the storage lockers, and deeply unnecessary golden tassels hanging from the door handles. This was the Symphony of the Stars, after all.

So,” asked Lightfoot, “what are we supposed to – ”

Ssh! Keep your voice down!” Salazar interrupted in a whisper. “If I timed that smoke bomb properly, those three who were chasing us will have no idea we’re in here; they’ll have assumed we kept on running towards the bridge…”

“… And that we just threw the smoke bomb to slow them up a little,” Jiang added, also in a whisper.

Right,” nodded Lightfoot. “So how long do we stay in here?”

Just til our path to the bridge is clear,” Salazar answered. “It’s on this level, just a couple of minutes in that direction.” He pointed forward. “So if you can monitor their communications…”

Lightfoot nodded.

“… then as soon as we know they’ve passed, we can finally get to the ship’s bridge.”

He fixed Jiang and Lightfoot with a look that morphed from determined to obsessive in the space of a sentence;

Where I’ll get Maggie back, and I’ll settle things with Captain Diana Singh. Once and for all.”

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Down in the Shifting Sands, Jelani had now virtually melted into the bar. She was slumped over in her stool, her chin in her hand, as she struggled to remain focussed on Marie, as she launched into her next joke;

There’s this fella goes into the pub, you see, and he sees a mate of his, who’s sitting at a table drinking by himself. So he goes up to him and he says “Mate, you look terrible. What’s the matter?”

“Oh, my dad died back in June,” his mate says, “and left me $10,000.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he says.

“And then in July,” his mate says, his voice becoming more emotional, “my mum died, leaving me $20,000.”

“Oh no,” he says. “Both parents gone in two months? No wonder you’re depressed.”

“And then last month,” his mate goes on, fighting back the tears, “my aunty died as well, and she left me $30,000.”

“Whoa!” the other fella says. “You lost three family members in three months? That’s so sad.”

His mate nods sadly and looks into his beer.

“And then… this month… NUTHIN’!”

Jelani’s laugh this time was not so much an explosion as a long, exhaled syllable; “Hhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa….”

She still found the joke funny, it’s just that she was getting tired. So tired; she’d now been here for a bit more than two hours. And for a lot more than two drinks.

Just then, the lounge’s main door swooshed open, and Jelani looked agog as she watched her crew mate Gotmund floating into the room, flat on his back.

Wha – ? Marie! Do you see that? Is he…”

Jelani’s voice trailed off as, somewhere amongst all her pickled thoughts, she remembered what she’d seen earlier in the morgue. He wasn’t actually floating after all – he was being carried by those funny l’il robots.

Hullo ‘ullo ‘ullo!” Marie exclaimed, echoing her thoughts. “Look what the bots dragged in!”

Then a new thought hit Jelani hard, as she remembered why those robots carried people like that. 

Marie! He’s not… he’s not dead, is he?”

No, no, no, gawd luv ya!” the bartender chided reassuringly. “He’s just out cold. Still breathing, see? Look at his chest going up and down.”

Jelani squinted until she could see it.

Oh yeah,” she said, watching the maitbots gently lay the sleeping giant to rest on one of the lounge’s many comfortable couches.

Aha! Now THAT is a really good idea,’ Jelani thought, and she staggered over to one of the unoccupied couches and slowly and deliberately lowered herself onto it. Within a minute, she was fast asleep.

“Phew!” observed Marie. “You dropped off quicker than a toupee in a tornado. Eh? Eh?”

Zzzzzzzzzz,” Gotmund snored.

Zzzzzzzzzz,” agreed Jelani.

Marie looked around and tweaked her collar. “Sheesh, tough room…”

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Just outside the lifeboat, in the top deck’s smoke-filled corridor, Second Officer Ms Aku walked slowly; searching, squinting, straining for any sign of the pirates, through the choking white cloud.

See anything?” she asked Deck Ratings LeGuin and Ferrer, who were walking either side of her.

No.”

No. I reckon they’ve probably just -”

There!” Ms Aku interrupted Mr Ferrer. “Just there! See that swirl in the smoke? They’ve just closed one of the lifeboat doors! Ha!”

She tapped her insignia badge, opening a channel to Engineering. “Ms Arenson, this is Ms Aku up on the top deck – please lock the door to lifeboat #7 and jettison it now!”

But static was plaguing the connection; an unusual occurrence.

Ms Aku? Say again please,” came the crackly response from Ms Arenson. “Repeat, say again.”

Please lock and launch lifeboat #7 NOW!”

Lifeboat #7, did you say? But what for? And I should tell you that there’s actually been quite a bit of damage to quite a few of the systems down here, so I’m not sure if – ”

No time to argue, Ms Arenson! There are three pirates in that boat – lock and launch! Do it now! That is an ORDER, Ms Arenson.”

Yes, Ms Aku.”

Ms Arenson moved to the console, disengaged the relevant safety protocols, and activated the lock and launch sequence for lifeboat #7.

In the top deck corridor, Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer heard the lifeboat’s alarm siren, followed by the metallic clank of its release and the short burst of a propulsion blast. They turned to one of the wallscreens to see it jetting out and away from the ship. As the smoke slowly cleared around them, they watched the lifeboat hurtling into open space, growing smaller and smaller as it sped off on its pre-programmed trajectory, further and further away from the Symphony, never to return.

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

On the bridge, Captain Singh, who’d been monitoring events through various audio feeds, was pleased with this latest development. It gave her three fewer pirates to worry about. And one of them happened to be their captain. Things were finally starting to go her way.

At that moment, First Officer Mr Sinclair arrived back on the bridge, breathless after his run-in outside Engineering with Richards, Gotmund, Devereux and Abara.

First Officer reporting to the bridge, Captain,” he panted.

Mr Sinclair.”

Another pirate has been killed, captain,” he reported. “Richards, I think her name was. And I managed to stun the big one they call Gotmund.”

Just so. Thank you Mr Sinclair,” Captain Singh replied. “Ms Arenson tells me that the maitbots have taken that stunned one to the Shifting Sands; Mr Abara’s idea, I think. He’ll be harmless enough there. Excellent work, Mr Sinclair. Rest easy now – you’ve earned a break.”

Thank you Captain.” Mr Sinclair looked around the bridge and saw the Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, still sitting on the floor in the corner. He walked over and sat down next to him.

Now, as she thought out loud, Captain Singh addressed Maggie the fox, still curled up on her lap; “Now then Maggie, let’s you and I see if we can work this out. Six of the pirates are now off the ship, and drifting around somewhere out in space. And that includes their so-called captain Salazar Sharp, just now. And he’s your owner, isn’t he? That was naughty of him to leave you, wasn’t it? Yes it was. So you’ll just have to stay here with me now, Maggie, won’t you? Hm?”

Mr Sinclair had never seen the captain this clucky before. He looked at Mr Lebedev, who only shrugged.

“… and we know that two pirates are in the Shifting Sands; one of them dead to the world and the other one dead drunk. And there were two more of them who are just actually, technically dead. So that means there’s only… two of them left on the ship for us to worry about!”

And shouldn’t we also count Mr Abara?” asked Mr Lebedev, who’d been listening from across the room. “Hasn’t he defected to their side?”

The captain nodded curtly. “Yes, yes. And Mr Abara, yes – but honestly, how much damage can a lovestruck systems analyst do?”

She raised her head and looked staunchly into the middle distance…

Taking my ship back from those sorry dregs will be child’s play.”

before returning her attention to the fox.

Won’t it, Maggie? Hm? Oh yes it will. Yes, yes, yes. Aren’t you a good girl?

Yes.

You.

Are.”

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

Lifeboat #7 flew away from the ship at an impressive, perfectly constant, velocity. Before five minutes had passed, it was already more than four kilometres away, with long range sensors engaged and sweeping the area for the nearest ship, station or outpost. Not including the Symphony, of course; since the lifeboats were generally only deployed if the main ship was doomed, that was, quite literally, the last place in the universe they’d go.

 

 

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 37 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:23 AM

Five minutes had passed since Lifeboat #7 was launched, and it was already kilometres away from the Symphony, rocketing further and further into deep space. Its scanners had pinpointed the nearest location capable of sustaining life; a moon with a breathable atmosphere, but only half the gravity of earth. The lifeboat adjusted its course and began its journey. It would take eight days to get there.

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

Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot opened the door of Lifeboat #6 and stepped back out into the top deck corridor. It was empty.

So those three have definitely gone?” Salazar asked.

Yep, they’re somewhere up ahead, on their way to the bridge,” Lightfoot responded. “The senior one’s looking forward to being praised by their captain… for getting rid of us.”

Salazar and Jiang smiled at this. The three of them began the short walk to the bridge; they’d be there in a couple of minutes.

I’m on my way, Maggie,” Salazar muttered under his breath. “I’m on my way. Coming to save you…”

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

Maggie couldn’t hear him, of course. And even if she could, she wouldn’t have understood what he said. Despite all the humanizing affection that Salazar had constantly showered her with, she was still only a fox. She couldn’t understand commands, she couldn’t answer questions, offer opinions or make even the most basic small talk. And yet…

Oh, you are a good girl, aren’t you?” Captain Diana Singh asked her. Maggie briefly looked up, while she repositioned herself on the captain’s lap.

Yes you are!” Captain Singh answered on Maggie’s behalf.

A very good girl,” she added, scratching the fox under her chin. “Such a good girl! A very, very good girl indeed! Aren’t you?”

Across the room, the Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair and its Chief Steward Mr Lebedev both rolled their eyes – in unison, as it turned out. Although they were concerned for their captain’s mental health, that concern was outweighed by their embarrassment at the way this animal had turned her into a gibbering, soft-headed twerp. What had happened to their steely, authoritarian, by-the-numbers, naval veteran leader?

I think this morning’s events might be starting to take their toll on the captain…” Mr Lebedev whispered.

You may have something there,” Mr Sinclair nodded. “Should I offer to relieve her of duty?”

I – er – I don’t know! That’s not my department…” said Mr Lebedev, looking scared. But then, he’d been looking scared a lot this morning.

They glanced over at the captain again, and saw her holding Maggie’s two front legs, making them do a little dance.

If you do,” Mr Lebedev reassured the First Officer. “I’ll support you….” He gulped. “But I gotta say, I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

Mr Lebedev was still rather frightened of Captain Singh. So was Mr Sinclair, in truth.

Just then, the door swooshed open, and Second Officer Aku strode onto the bridge, followed closely by Deck Ratings Ferrer and LeGuin.

Second Officer Aku reporting to the bridge, Captain…” Ms Aku announced.

Captain Singh nodded her welcome.

I’m also pleased to report the successful jettisoning,” Ms Aku continued rather smugly, “in Lifeboat #7, of two of the invading pirates and their captain, Captain.”

She blinked self-consciously. She probably should have rephrased the end of that sentence; “captain, Captain” did sound a bit odd, and she couldn’t help thinking it slightly dampened the impact of her triumph. Damn. Still, the damage was done now.

Just so,” Captain Singh responded. “I did hear about that development, Ms Aku. Excellent work – quick thinking, decisive action. Nicely done.”

On receiving such high praise from her hero, Ms Aku swelled with pride. She mattered! She was a potent, vital, essential warrior for the cause, and her captain saw and acknowledged that! Ms Aku’s resulting joy was slightly dulled, though, by the fact that the captain had now returned her attention to the fox, and was kissing its paws.

Yeah, they put up a hell of a fight,” Ms Aku offered, attempting to regain the captain’s interest. “Smoke bombs, stun grenades….”

Behind her, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer exchanged an incredulous look. “Stun grenades?” they mouthed to each other, silently. Ms Aku was laying it on a bit thick, wasn’t she?

And of course,” Ms Aku continued, “all three of them kept blasting away at us – relentlessly – with goodness only knows what kind of weapons. Yeah, they outgunned us for sure, but we gave a good account of ourselves, Captain…”

Mm,” Captain Singh said in acknowledgement. Although not quite enough acknowledgement to tear her gaze away from Maggie the fox, whose belly she was now affectionately scratching.

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

Ms Aku was right; the Symphony crew definitely couldn’t compete with the crew of the Cheeky Albert, when it came to guns and ordnance.

The close-defence plasma rifles used by the Symphony’s crew were straightforward antipersonnel firearms, designed purely for their effect on humans. When aimed at a new target, these rifles measured its size, weight and body mass index, and delivered a ‘custom made’ energy bolt, its intensity meticulously calculated to provide the required effect. It was an efficient way to kill people; not a volt was wasted. On their ‘stun’ setting, however, they delivered a bolt that only rendered the target unconscious. The severity of the shock – and therefore the number of hours they’d be out cold – could naturally be dialled up or down by the rifle’s user. When they missed their intended target (as they so often did, when wielded by the Symphony’s crew), the damage these rifles did to the surrounds was moderate; they were designed to disrupt and destroy human tissue, not metal or machinery. They could still create significant and dangerous structural damage, to be sure – as had been the case in the Cargo Hold – but these rifles were nowhere near as good at annihilating electronics as some of the handheld EMP weapons available these days.

The arsenal of the Cheeky Albert’s crew was, predictably enough, more of a mixed bag. Guns were the tools of their trade, and so they were well-stocked with all the deadliest ones. There were augmented photon pistols and thermal rifles, antimatter pulse blasters, refined gravity fusion muskets, PPPs (Plasma pulse pistols), chaos-class proton disruptors, and even a couple of reforged hadron flux mini mortars. They also carried various grenades, bombs and portable booby traps, and most of the pirates had various throwing and stabbing knives – and brass knuckles too – secreted about themselves, for when things got a bit more ‘up close and personal’.

Of all the members of the Cheeky Albert’s crew, though, the big bruiser Gotmund and the recently deceased weapons expert Richards were the most well armed and destructive. These two violent berserkers loved hunting, shooting and wholesale destruction more than anything else, and they only ever used the very deadliest firearms. Accordingly. just one hit from any of their less-than-perfectly-aimed shots would do three times the damage of any stray shot from a plasma rifle. On this raid, they’d both chosen chaos class proton disruptors as their pistolet du jour, and because of this, the ship’s supply of maitbots had now been decimated, the maitbot control centre had been demolished… and Ms Arenson still hadn’t ascertained exactly how severe all the damage to the Engine Room was.

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

Oh, look at this! Look at this!” She wailed miserably, as she moved through all the burned and blackened consoles and instrument panels in Engineering. Although the gunfight was brief, and Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Martell had escaped unscathed, dozens of the Engine Room’s major systems hadn’t been quite so lucky.

They’ve blasted the voyage planning AI mainframes,” a tearful Ms Arenson said. “They’ve completely fried the bow thrusters and the ion turbocharger arrays… and I haven’t even got to the navigation and PYR systems yet. What a disaster, what a disaster!”

She slumped to the floor and held her head in her hands.

But it can all be fixed, right?” asked Mr Martell.

Oh, it can all be fixed… eventually,” she responded.

Eventually?” Mr Martell repeated.

We’re running a skeleton crew, remember? I don’t have my full engineering staff of 16; right now, it’s just him,” she jerked a thumb toward Mr Chamberlain, “and me.”

But you’ve got the maitbots to help you…” Mr Martell suggested.

What maitbots?” said Mr Chamberlain. “As far as I can work out, there’s only five left that haven’t been damaged, disabled or blasted into smithereens. And the few of them that are left are going to be run off their spindly little feet trying to repair everything -”

And trying to repair each other,” Ms Arenson added.

Well, at least we’re all still in one piece,” Mr Martell offered. Despite everything, the Cruise Director was still feeling cheerful, flushed with the heady exuberance of a man who’s just escaped certain death.

You know what, Mr Martell? You’re right,” said Mr Chamberlain. “We held our ground. Let’s not forget that. We fought bravely – we fought them all off! Haha! And you even killed one of them!”

He’d said this to Ms Arenson in a spirit of congratulation, but she did not receive it that way.

I killed one of them, yes,” Ms Arenson whispered, suddenly pensive. “I never killed anyone before, Mr Chamberlain. I’m just an engineer.”

Feeling for his friend, he lost his triumphant tone immediately. “How do you feel?” he asked.

Sad,” she said. “Tired. And very, very old.”

Mr Chamberlain nodded, and looked at the floor, as he struggled to come up with some words of comfort.

You’ll get used to it.”

Ms Arenson slowly raised her head and regarded Mr Chamberlain with something approaching disgust. “I don’t want to get used to it.”

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

On the ship’s bridge, Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Mr Lebedev, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer all eyed the captain’s chair, expectantly, and a little incredulously. Captain Diana Singh seemed almost unaware of their presence, as she continued to tickle and play with Maggie the fox, who was currently rolling around on her lap. Mr Sinclair and Ms Aku exchanged a glance.

Ms Aku cleared her throat.

Ahem.”

Captain Singh did not look up.

Captain?” The First Officer’s voice managed to lift her out of her reverie.

Ah. Yes, Mr Sinclair?”

Your orders?”

Mm?”

We await your orders, Captain.”

Ah yes, of course. Orders.” She stood up, carefully lifting the fox off her lap and depositing her in the captain’s chair. “Well, I think our job from here on is fairly straightforward. Considering that only two pirates remain at large on the ship -”

She was interrupted by three pirates striding on to the bridge. Salazar walked up to Captain Singh, and stood eye to eye with her, as Jiang and Lightfoot came up behind him.

Hello, Diana,” he said.

 

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 38 =

498 years in the future.
A Sunday afternoon.

2:38 PM

Felicity DeRosier is a 46 year old woman emerging from an extremely bitter divorce. After months of painful and expensive legal wrangling, this week, she and her ex-husband finally reached a settlement… and now she is free. Free of that neglectful, absent, self-interested, odious bore. Free to live her best life and to kick up her heels. Free – finally – to have a little fun.
Dressed in a simple silk robe, she smiles as she stands at her bedroom’s floor-to-ceiling window, gazing out at the bustling spaceport below. Felicity’s apartment is luxurious; situated on the 87th floor of a tower soaring high above Muvaliv, the largest and busiest spaceport city on Thotiria II.

“Come back to bed,” says the 25 year old man, as he rolls over to face her.

She looks at the scars on his face. There are six of them, but he’s handsome enough – and still young enough – to make them appear interesting. And sexy.

“Come on, come back to bed,” Salazar repeats.

Smiling, she steps out of the robe and goes to him. He kisses her…

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

Later, Felicity told Salazar about her ex-husband; about his infidelity, his irritating habits, his petty-mindedness, his relentless vindictiveness…
Salazar listened attentively, but was confused – why did she smile as she said all this?

“…But now,” she finished, triumphantly, “none of that is my problem! I’m free! Free, free, FREE!”

Ah. That’s why.

“What did he do?” Salazar asked.

“I just told you.”

“No, I mean for a job.”

“Oh. Well, he liked to call himself ‘an independent long haul interstellar consignment and shipment contractor for the FrontierLine Corporation’, but I liked to call him ‘a stinkin’ freighter jockey’.”

Salazar smiled.

“Hey,” Felicity continued. “I don’t s’pose you want to buy a beat-up old interworld cargo freighter? I got it as part of the settlement, on this weird condition that if I sell it, I give any profits to him.”

Salazar’s eyes lit up. A ship of his own? That would mean mobility, independence and increased earning power. It’d mean an end to schlepping around the galaxy on whatever ride he could talk his way onto. It’d mean a permanent roof over his head. If he had his own ship, everything would change for him.

If he had his own ship, Salazar would be free too.

But wait – what was he thinking? There’d be no way he could afford an actual ship. Even a beat-up old one. Oh well, it was a nice daydream, however fleeting.

“How much d’you want for it?” he asked resignedly.

“From you? One dollar.”

Salazar stared at her – was she serious? She smiled as she nodded.

“… And I’ll be absolutely sure to pass that entire dollar on to him!” she laughed.

“Really?” asked Salazar, incredulous and wide-eyed.

“Really.”

Salazar extended his hand and she shook it.

“Deal!” he said.

“Deal. This is your lucky day.”

“Oh, don’t I know it?” he growled, as he scooped her up in arms. She squealed happily, and they kissed again…

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

Ten days later, on landing platform #8302 of the city’s vast spaceport, Salazar explored his new (although technically very old) ship, with the nine members of his crew.

“So, what do you think?” he asked, as they all congregated in the ship’s dingy communal area, for the very first time.

“It’s not much to look at,” sniffed Fullbrook.

Skarsgard nodded in agreement with his friend.

“I reckon I can do something about that…” the mechanic offered.

“Good, AJ – good!” Salazar enthused. “See, that’s what I like to hear. Positive suggestions!” Salazar turned his attention to the pilot. “Evans, can you fly it?”

Evans looked insulted. “With one arm tied behind my back, Cap’n. It’s a FrontierLine 3183 interworld freighter; they’re set-and-forget. Anyone could fly this thing; flying this thing is gonna be boring.”

“It could use a little souping up, that’s for sure,” offered Lightfoot. “I could make some improvements that’ll make it a bit more interesting for you, Evans.”

“Thank you!” said Salazar. “Constructive contributions – that’s what we need.”

“I got a constructive contribution, Cap’n.”

“Yes, Richards?”

“Ship’s got no weapons. I say we fit it out with plasma cannons – four should do it.”

“Good idea,” said Salazar.

“And three destroyer class energy mortars,” Richards continued. “On each side. Plus we’ve gotta have some SPR seeker missiles; three – no, four. On the port side, and then another four on the starboard side.”

“And we don’t need all that space in the cargo hold,” added her pal Gotmund. “We could convert some of it into a bomb bay.”

“Yeah!” said Richards. “And torpedo tubes. We need torpedo tubes as well. Four. No, five. No six! Six torpedo tubes! And we should also – ”

“Great, great,” said Salazar, holding up his hands to stop them. “Lots of good ideas there. Thank you.”

He looked happily around, as his First Mate Jiang stepped forward.

“So, although it seems structurally sound,” she said, “this ship is old, it’s dark, it’s dingy and dirty, and it desperately needs updating in pretty much every area.”

Salazar beamed. “Yeah! Perfect, isn’t it?”

“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice, coming from somewhere outside the ship.

“Aha! She’s here!” exclaimed Salazar, as he pulled two bottles of Betelgeusean Firewater from somewhere inside his overcoat. “Come on!”

His crew followed him, as he bounded down the gangplank, holding the two bottles aloft.

“Great! You made it!” Salazar said, strutting across the landing platform and handing Felicity one of the bottles.

“Of course,” she smiled.

“Everyone, this is Felicity,” Salazar announced to his crew. “Felicity, this is… everyone.”

All parties nodded politely.

“Felicity will be doing the honors of christening our ship with its new name… ”

He paused for effect.

“… The Cheeky Albert!”

Each crew member shot an underwhelmed look at their captain, as they produced shot glasses from their pockets.

“‘Albert’? Why ‘Albert’?” asked First Mate Jiang.

“Don’t know, really – it just came to me in a dream,” Salazar said, opening his bottle and trying to recall if he’d ever known anyone called Albert. “It just somehow felt right.”

Felicity shrugged and walked toward the ship, as Salazar poured each crew member a shot of the potent liquor. Standing before the ship’s bow and brandishing her bottle above her head, Felicity proclaimed “I hereby name this ship… The Cheeky Albert!” She shut her eyes tightly, smashed the bottle on the hull, and laughed as booze and bits of broken bottle rained down upon her.

“The Cheeky Albert!” echoed the pirates in unison, downing their drinks.

“Ooh, that’s nice,” Fullbrook murmured appreciatively, savouring the drink’s burning aftertaste.

As the pirates started to lug all their bags on board, Salazar moved closer to Felicity.

“Hey, I just wanted to say…” his voice low, his tone intimate, “these last couple of weeks we’ve spent together have really meant a lot to me.”

Felicity smiled, unsure where he was going with this. She felt faintly embarrassed on the young man’s behalf.

“I have to go now; to round out my crew, there’s a couple more people I want to recruit…” Salazar continued. “but one day, I’ll return.” He looked earnestly into her eyes. “I promise.”

There was a polite pause.

“Why?”

“Sorry?”

“Why do you want to return?”

“Oh. Erm. I thought that you might want – ”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Oh. Right.”

Salazar was a little nonplussed.

“Well…” he said, now squinting over his shoulder at the ship, with an expression that he hoped looked tough and manly, “I’d better go. I won’t forget you, Felicity.”

She nodded. “And I won’t forget you, Salvador.”

“Salazar.”

“ – Salazar.”

“Good. Alright then…” and he gave her a hug that was more awkward than he’d expected it to be.

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

He hoped his crew hadn’t seen that. He bounded up the gangplank with a slightly overplayed air of raucous excitement, booming “So, Evans! Let’s see what the Cheeky Albert can do!”

 

498 years in the future.
A Sunday afternoon.

2:38 PM

Somewhere on Betelgeuse III, a platoon of ten Third Offworld Navy ground troops moved stealthily through a vast stagnant swamp. Up to their thighs in the water, they waded between the enormous grey gnarled tree trunks and sharp blades of long blue grass, absently swatting at the ubiquitous stinging insects. Their steps were measured, wary, as they tried to avoid the predatory fish and reptiles lurking on the everglade’s muddy bottom.

They were being led by Lieutenant Commander Singh and her two offsiders – Lieutenant Torrence and Midshipman Chamberlain – on their mission of “quelling an uprising” by a group of “insurgent” Betelgeuseans. So far today, none had been spotted.

“You know you don’t have to be here, Ma’am.”

“I’m leading a platoon of ground troops, Mr Torrence. Good women and men, each prepared to give their all for our cause. I will not ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. You know that.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

The stench of rotting vegetation and swamp gases assailed their nostrils, despite the multi-layered air filters built in to their psi helmets.

Psi helmets were essential equipment for fighting the telepathic Betelgeuseans, who could transmit devastating thought energy to any sentient being, telepathic or not. Evolving without the means for vocal communication, the Betelgueseans had mastered psionic attack techniques millennia ago, and it was a mode of combat that humans were particularly ill-equipped for. The first encounters between Betelgeuseans and their would-be colonists them were massacres, resulting in hundreds of thousands of human casualties. All the most sophisticated guns, bombs, grenades and missiles were useless against an instantaneous blast of concentrated mental energy. An angry Betelgeusean could penetrate and devastate any human psychic defences in a split second, reducing even the toughest soldier to an idiotic, brain-scrambled mess, whimpering and cowering on the floor. It had taken the boffins in the Third Offworld Navy over a century of trial and error to develop a helmet that masked and protected the vulnerabilities of the human mind, and these psi helmets were now standard issue for all ground troops. However, they weren’t 100% effective, and any campaign pitting humans against the Betelgueseans (or  ‘the psycho killers’, as the grunts called them) was still dreaded by any sensible soldier.

As such, any platoon going up against the Betelgeuseans was also automatically assigned a complement of solddroids. Today’s sortie was no exception, and six enormous and intimidating solddroids were accompanying this group, three taking point on each rear flank.

“Enemy alert!” Lieutenant Commander Singh hissed, as she spotted a dozen Betelgeuseans ahead, just beyond the largest gnarled tree trunk.

Betelgeuseans are a metre tall, and bipedal. Their torsos are pear-shaped, and they have two bulbous eyes protruding from their neckless heads. They don’t possess mouths or noses; all the nutrients they require are ingested by two rows of fleshy slits between their eyes. Their feet are webbed, and they have four arms, each of which ends in a hand of three fingers and an opposable thumb. They are amphibious, and so move swiftly through the marshy shallows. Their soft, leathery skin is well camouflaged, ranging in colour from rusty brown through to verdant green.

The cohort of them up ahead looked to be a family group – they ranged in sizes, colours and ages – and did not appear to be on a battle footing. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Commander Singh, Mr Torrence and Mr Chamberlain immediately dropped to their knees, and motioned for the troops to do the same. The ten soldiers dropped, each putting a hand to their head as they did so – they needed their psi helmets to stay securely in place.

The solddroids, however, showed no such caution. Instantly roaring into attack mode, they spewed missiles, energy bolts and small grenades forth from their huge intimidating chassis, as they ran towards the unsuspecting creatures. ‘What are they doing?’ thought Lieutenant Commander Singh. ‘I didn’t order them to attack.’ As the solddroids barged through the platoon in their rash, reflex-action frenzy, they pushed her over, knocking her psi helmet off her head and into the murky water.

As Lieutenant Commander Singh desperately searched for it in the brackish shallows, the beleaguered Betelgeuseans began defending themselves, the only way they could.

Their broad scope psionic attack didn’t affect her comrades – all their helmets remained firmly in place – but for Diana Singh, this was an onslaught like no other. She fell, instinctively grabbing her skull as she felt her brain begin to burn. But it wasn’t just physical pain – not just the sensation of a thousand hot needles piercing her grey matter; there were intense, pin-sharp pangs of emotional pain, too. Blasts of long-buried despair, loss, anger and bitterness. Jolt after jolt of hatred, doubt, insecurity and self-loathing, all pinpointed, all amplified… and all directed back in.

It was, as always, an extremely effective form of attack. Just as an aikido master’s most effective weapon was their enemy’s physical strength, the Betelgeuseans’ most effective weapon was their enemy’s psychological weakness. Diana Singh screamed in agony, still clutching her skull, trembling, as the solddroids continued their merciless strafing of the aliens. As the sound of her scream was drowned out by gunfire and explosions, Diana Singh reached her limit. She toppled over, unconscious, into the stinking, murky swamp.

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Betelgeuseans don’t have mouths, but Diana Singh had vivid, fitful dreams of them screaming. Hundreds of them, thousands of them – a deafening, ceaseless caterwaul of distress, of agony, of misery.

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She jolted awake and upright, sweaty and panicked.

“Relax, Ma’am.” It was Mr Torrence. He was sitting at the side of her bed. “You’re back on board,” he explained. “You’re in the sick bay.”

She looked around her, blinking, adjusting, orienting herself. Wiping her brow, she asked “What time is it?”

“It’s eleven in the morning,” answered Mr Chamberlain. He was standing behind Mr Torrence. “On Tuesday. You’ve been out for nearly two days.”

Lieutenant Commander Singh was unsure how she felt about this. How should she have responded? She felt… blank. She wondered exactly how much damage the psionic attack had done not just to her synapses, but to her ability to feel emotions.

“Did we win?” she asked eventually.

“We did,” said Mr Torrence.

“How many casualties?”

“Twelve. All of them.”

“All of them?” she repeated. “The… young ones, too?” She couldn’t bring herself to use the word “children.”

“Them too.”

“You should know, Ma’am,” said Mr Chamberlain, “that if it wasn’t for Mr Torrence, you wouldn’t have made it. He was he one who dived into the water and found your helmet. Then he got it back on you, and carried you all the way back to the drop ship. At great personal risk. You’re lucky to be here.”

She regarded Mr Torrence, who nodded modestly in response.

“Lucky to be here…” Lieutenant Commander Singh repeated, thoughtfully.

Was she, though? She didn’t feel especially lucky. She tried to pinpoint exactly what she was feeling right now… Emptiness. Emptiness was as close as she got to defining her current state. Might things have been better if Mr Torrence hadn’t saved her? ‘After all,’ she thought. ‘What am I doing all this for? I have no children, I have no husband… we’ve just annihilated a dozen more Betelgeuseans, whose only crime was -’ she stopped herself.
What was their crime, anyway? She had no answer.

“All I have is this… career,” she said quietly, dejectedly.

Mr Chamberlain and Mr Torrence exchanged an uncomfortable look. Neither of them had ever suffered a psi attack; they had no idea what their superior was feeling, or even what to say, in an effort to cheer her up…

“Well, if you need a change, you could always go into civilian life,” Mr Chamberlain offered, uncertainly.

She looked at him, puzzled. She didn’t realise she’d vocalised her last thought.

“I’ve got a friend who works on a cruise ship – you could always go and be a captain on one of those!” he continued.

Mr Torrence nodded approvingly, hoping he was being helpful.

“Now that would be a cushy job,” he agreed.

Diana Singh stared at her two friends. Despite everything, the incongruity of their asinine suggestion did bring a sad half-smile to her face.

“Maybe,” she said bemusedly. “It couldn’t be worse than this.”

 

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 39 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:25 AM

Hello Diana,” Salazar repeated.

He was standing on the bridge of the Symphony of the Stars, finally face to face with its captain.

There was silence.

The Symphony crew members here – Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Mr Lebedev, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer – hardly dared to breathe, as they awaited their leader’s response to the shabby, scarred invader.

Behind Salazar, the pirates Jiang and Lightfoot also waited nervously, their hands hovering above their holsters.

Captain Sharp,” Captain Singh responded eventually. “We meet at last!”

Salazar’s glare was cold as he corrected her. “We meet again”.

Captain Singh scrutinised his face, but showed no sign of recognising him. “I’m afraid you might have the advantage of me there. I don’t seem to recall our paths crossing before, and I’m usually pretty good at remembering faces. Perhaps if you didn’t have quite so many scars, then I – ”

I’m your son.”

Quiet gasps emanated from several Symphony crew members.

Behind Salazar, Lightfoot looked at Jiang in amazement. Jiang nodded; she was the only person on the bridge – apart from Salazar – who’d known this.

There was heavy silence, as a stunned Captain Diana Singh stared deep into Salazar’s eyes. For two seconds. Then five seconds, then ten… And that’s when she saw him. That’s when she saw her boy.

Suddenly, Diana’s knees felt weak, and her breathing was shallow and laboured. She staggered to her chair and sat down heavily, just missing Maggie, who leapt off when she saw her coming. As the fox ran over to Salazar, Diana continued to stare at him.

At this defiant, disheveled, disfigured pirate.

At her son.

Happily reunited with her owner, Maggie the fox rubbed herself against Salazar’s legs… but he didn’t acknowledge her. All his attention was focussed on the 64 year old woman in the captain’s chair. Eventually she spoke, making a concerted effort to keep her voice calm.

Is that what all this is about?”

Salazar gave a small nod. “That’s what all this is about.”

Diana nodded in return. She glanced at her assembled crew, anxious to avoid any further erosion of her authority, acutely aware of her agitation, and painfully aware that she was… beginning to blush?

In that case, Captain Sharp,” she offered, “perhaps you and I should adjourn to my Ready Room.”

No!” Salazar snapped. “Anything you have to say to me you can say in front of my crew. They’re my family.”

Just so,” she said, reverting to her usual disciplined demeanor. “What can I do for you?”

What can you do for me?” Salazar snorted derisively. “You can tell me why you left. You can tell me why you decided to abandon me and my father when I was three years old.

Behind Captain Singh, her First and Second Officers exchanged an uncertain glance. They knew almost nothing of their captain’s personal history; could this be true?

Diana stared at her son, weighing up her options, pondering her next move. 

I did not abandon you,” she said. “You were taken from me. Taken without my consent, and without my knowledge. If your father told you otherwise, I am sorry. But there’s not much I can do about that.”

Salazar was astonished. Despite rehearsing this day of reckoning a hundred times, he’d never considered this possibility. His first thought was that she was lying; she had to be. ‘But then’, he thought, ‘what would she gain by that?’

As he struggled to process this revelation, he heard himself feebly asking “I was taken from you? Why?”

Diana’s brow furrowed, and she sighed deeply. “I was unable to look after you properly. I was…” she searched for a word to convey the crippling, leaden weight of her depression back then, of the anguish of her bereavement, of the bitter shame of her shortcomings.

“… I was unwell.”

Unwell?!” Salazar spat incredulously.

Your father did the right thing,” Diana continued, her voice cracking. “But in time, I did recover, and I tried to get you back. I searched for you and searched for you. You’ll never know how far and wide I looked… but your father didn’t want to be found. He didn’t want you to be found.”

But your precious Third Offworld Navy did find us, didn’t they?” Salazar asked sourly.

Diana nodded, sad yet slightly confused.

The day I received the report that you’d both been killed was…” her energy drained away as she relived that moment, and she slumped in her chair, unable to finish the sentence.

“You shouldn’t believe everything you read.” Salazar said. “Turns out your almighty navy is fallible, after all; that report was only half right. I was only injured…” his voice trailed off, as the few memories he had of his father began to impinge upon his thoughts.

But you were four years old,” Captain Singh said incredulously. “Where did you go? What did you do?”

Whatever it took. I ran and hid. I fought, I stole, I grew tough. I survived in those blasted, broken streets; the streets your beloved navy had destroyed. I lived off my wits, scavenging, always running, always hiding… until a young couple found me. They showed me kindness. They adopted me. He was my new father. She was my mother…” he spat, his defiance returning. “… Until they were also killed by the Third Offworld Navy. This time, I was nine years old.”

Diana opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.

How do you sleep, Captain Singh? All those lives lost under your command. All the innocence destroyed. The countless defenceless souls just… extinguished. Including the man you loved, the father of your son. And for what? What was it all for?

Diana was holding her head in her hands. The only response she could muster was small and unconvincing.

We kept the peace, we maintained order, we preserved freedom.”

Don’t spout your slogans at me. This navy of yours was nothing more than an enormous, industrialised slaughterer of the innocent. You were OPPRESSORS! You were murderers. And you, Diana Singh, will have blood on your hands for the rest of your days.”

All the Symphony crew members on the bridge looked to their captain. 

She stood slowly, taking a deep breath and drawing herself up to her full height. Standing tall, almost standing to attention, she fixed Salazar with a look that was weary, yet compassionate and earnest. 

I’m sorry, Albert”.

Behind Salazar, an incredulous whisper came from Jiang; “Erm – Albert?”

That’s his name – Albert Singh,” the captain explained quietly. “Tim and I named him after Tim’s grandfather.”

Her lower lip began to tremble, but she sniffed, frowned and regained her composure.

Salazar broke eye contact with Diana, and gazed somewhere far away. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, pensive… and distant.

I remember… I remember now. Albert Singh. That’s who I was, before I named myself. I was only little; I loved the name ‘Salazar Sharp’ back then. I thought it sounded cool, dashing, adventurous…”

A faintly embarrassed half smile played across Salazar’s lips. Behind him, Jiang and Lightfoot stared at their captain, suddenly imagining him as a three year old boy called Albert. At length, Lightfoot piped up; “So you still kept the five letters in your surname, then.”

All eyes looked at her. 

“… and it also starts with ‘S’, like your original surname did, so…”

Lightfoot had thought these were both points worth making, until she became aware of the seven puzzled faces squinting at her. Maybe they weren’t as fascinated by this as she was.

“… that’s, um, kind of… interesting, isn’t it?”, she finished lamely.

Salazar hadn’t heard her. “So,” he whispered, mystified, “I named my ship after myself?”

Diana Singh nodded, surprised to find tears burning her eyes. “Looks like it. Somehow, deep down, you’ve remembered the name we gave you. Such a happy little boy.”

But I was three years old when you left,” Salazar countered. “How could I remember that?”

Smiling sadly, Captain Diana Singh shrugged. Should she offer to embrace him? She hadn’t embraced anybody – anybody real – in years.

She tentatively took one step closer to him, as she started to raise both her arms. ‘Am I doing this?’ she thought, an unfamiliar sensation coursing through her veins. ‘Am I actually going to hug him?’

Diana took another step closer to her son, raising her arms slightly higher.

Don’t you dare!” he growled, his eyes flashing with a mix of anger and confusion.

Right, fair enough,” she said quickly, dropping her arms to her sides.

The two captains eyeballed each other. What were they supposed to do now?

Their awkward silence was broken by the Symphony’s First Officer Mr Sinclair.

What I don’t understand, Captain… erm… Sharp,” he said as he stepped forward, “is that if all this is true – ”

It is true,” Salazar and Diana snapped in unison.

Mr Sinclair continued; “… then why are you only doing this now? Why haven’t you tracked Captain Singh down before today? Surely you’ve had plenty of opportunities.”

There are two reasons for that,” Salazar answered. “Firstly, until now, I’ve never -”

I’m sorry to interrupt, Captain, but this is extremely urgent.”

Due to the static on the audio feed, it took Captain Singh a moment to recognise the voice as that of her Chief Engineer.

Yes Ms Arenson, go ahead.”

The damage to the ship from the pirate attack is far more extensive than I anticipated.”

Go on…” Captain Singh muttered, fixing Salazar with an angry glare.

Well, apart from the ten small hull ruptures from their initial attack, and the enormous breach caused by the gunfight in the Cargo Hold, there’s also that big chunk that they cut out of the Docking Bay when they boarded.”

But those events happened a while ago,” said Mr Sinclair, coming up alongside Captain Singh. “Surely the maitbots would have their repairs well in hand.”

The maitbots are gone!” Ms Arenson snapped. “Or as good as gone. From our original cohort of 96, there are now only five left, thanks to those lumbering, brain dead, trigger-happy buffoons using them for target practice!”

She means Gotmund and Richards,” whispered Lightfoot.

Shh,” said Jiang.

And they shot up the maitbot control centre pretty good too,” Ms Arenson added.

The First Officer was determined to put an optimistic spin on things; “Alright, so repairs will take longer if we all have to chip in help, but I’m sure that we can still – ”

I haven’t finished, Mr Sinclair.” Ms Arenson cautioned. “Quite apart from the fact that the person who can best co-ordinate those repairs – our Chief Technology Officer – is now one of them, the damage to the Engine Room from our last little skirmish is far worse than it originally appeared.”

Get to the point please, Ms Arenson,” Captain Singh commanded.

All secondary navigational modules have been destroyed; this has overloaded the primary modules, and now they’ve all crashed. The ship’s command pitch and roll terminals have been fried, and the ancillary guidance and stabilisation backup systems were also blasted to bits. That wouldn’t matter if the emergency override matrices were working, but as luck would have it, they’ve overridden themselves and gone into emergency shutdown; I’m not sure why.”

On the bridge, Chief Steward Mr Lebedev and the Deck Ratings Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer looked confused. They weren’t following any of this.

All of which means,” she concluded, “that we’re now on a different course, and I haven’t been able to pull the ship out of it, or even slow us down. We’re headed for the nearest planet – Liphigantu. Our ETA is 57 minutes from now.”

Alright, so a slight change of course? That doesn’t sound so bad!” offered Ms LeGuin.

The thing is, though,” said Ms Arenson. “when we reach the planet’s atmosphere, we won’t stop. We’ll just continue along the straight line we’re currently travelling in. Right up until the moment we crash into the planet’s surface.”

“We… crash into the planet’s surface?” Mr Sinclair repeated, dumbly.

In 57 minutes?” Captain Singh asked.

Ms Arenson checked the time.

Actually 56, now.”

 

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 40 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:31 AM

55 minutes until impact.

Are you sure?” asked Ms Aku, desperately hoping there’d been some miscalculation.

Deadly sure,” Ms Arenson responded grimly.

What if we jettisoned some cargo, to lighten our load?” asked Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, panic rising in his voice. “Would that make a difference?”

Ms Aku’s response was swift; “All our cargo has been jettisoned, thanks to that gunfight in the Cargo Hold… remember?”

Bloody pirates…” grumbled Mr Ferrer.

That wouldn’t have made a difference, anyway,” Ms Arenson added, from her post down in Engineering. “Losing what was in there wouldn’t have changed the trajectory of a ship this size.”

Ms Arenson, can we escape in the lifeboats?”

I’m afraid not, Captain,” came the answer from Engineering. “They were all locked down, when the emergency override matrices went offline.”

“But I don’t understand,” said Second Officer Ms Aku. “isn’t this whole thing something that the maitbots could fix?”

Well, yes they could…” Ms Arenson responded, “But since there’s only five of them left now, it’d probably take them three to four weeks.”

And we have…?”

Right now, Captain, we have 54 minutes. And 29 seconds.”

All the Symphony crew members on the bridge fell into a deflated silence.

“But the solution’s simple,” suggested Salazar. “Why don’t we all just escape in the Albert? I can take us all to safety.”

I hardly think so,” growled First Officer Mr Sinclair. “You’re pirates; murderers! You think we haven’t noticed what you’ve been doing here for the past few hours?”

You’ve killed two members of our crew!” agreed Mr Ferrer. “I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”

There was another frosty pause, as all eyes turned to Captain Singh.

“No, Captain Sharp,” she said. “Leaving aside the question of the enormous value of this ship to the FrontierLine Corporation… I happen to be its captain. The ultimate responsibility for this vessel, and for everyone aboard it, is mine. In cases of extreme emergency, I have vowed to save every person aboard this vessel – and the vessel itself – or die trying. My crew may choose to come with you, but I will not. That’s the vow that every captain in the Third Offworld Navy makes, and it’s a vow that I intend to keep today.”

Salazar’s indignation was punctured by a sudden stab of helplessness. This is not how he envisaged today unfolding. “But you’re not in the navy now…” he entreated.

It is the vow made by any captain worth a damn. If this ship goes down, Captain Sharp, I will be going down with it. You may be sure of that.”

Salazar felt it all slipping through his fingers – all the work, all the planning, the long journey, the successful quest… the long lost mother he’d finally found again.

Don’t do this,” he implored, feeling suddenly small. “You don’t have to do this. Come with me. Let me save you.”

No.”

Please. We’ve only just found each other – ”

Irrelevant,” she snapped. “My duties are to the Symphony and my crew; or what’s left of them both, after your catastrophic assaults this morning. You have all but destroyed my ship and brutally murdered two of my people! How dare you?!”

Unusually flustered, Salazar lashed out. “I’ve lost two of my people today too, you know – Suarez and Richards. Both killed by members of your crew.”

And you think that makes us even?” Captain Singh snorted derisively, as she turned away from him, to face her crew.

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

Leave her be, Cap’n,” said Lightfoot into Salazar’s ear, impatiently. “If they want to stay here and get killed, I say we let them. Should I round up the rest of our crew and get ’em onto the Albert?”

Salazar thought for a moment.

No. We’re staying.”

Are you insane?” Jiang whispered urgently, as she spun him around to face her. “There’s nothing here for us but certain death.”

Oh, I wouldn’t say ‘certain death’; death’s never certain…” Salazar grinned. “And besides, we have plans to take this ship, remember? We can still do that. If there’s a chance we can help them save the Symphony, I say we should. Then once that’s done, we’ll take it from them. Look around you. This ship is such a magnificent prize, and we’ll never get this chance again…”

Jiang and Lightfoot regarded their captain doubtfully. “Are you sure about this?” Lightfoot asked.

He nodded.

I don’t like it, Cap’n,” Jiang intoned. “I don’t like it at all.”

Salazar frowned at her, considering his options. “Well, how about this, then? We stay and “help them” for as long as it’s safe. But the moment – the very moment – that it isn’t, I’ll give the order to abandon ship, we sprint back to the Albert and get the hell out of here. Sound fair?”

Aye Cap’n,” Jiang agreed cautiously, unsure exactly how much she could trust her old friend, given his current emotional state…

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

Gentlemen, ladies of the Symphony – both here on the bridge and down in Engineering,” Captain Singh announced, pointedly ignoring the three pirates behind her. “You’re all aware of the peril of our current situation, and of my intended course of action. I do not have the right to ask any of you to stay, and so I won’t. I do, however, wish to know your intentions at this time. If you choose to evacuate, to go with Captain Sharp in his ship, while the going is good, I will not think any less of you…”

Mr Sinclair was the first to respond. “I will stay, Captain. I am First Officer of this vessel, and I will do my duty.” (‘And,’ he thought but did not say, ‘if I deserted my post now, I could never face my family again.’)

Just so,” Captain Singh responded. “Thank you, Mr Sinclair.”

She turned to her Second Officer, and the two Deck Ratings, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer. “I will stay too,” Second Officer Ms Aku volunteered. “I am – and always will be – at your service, Captain Singh. Always.”

Thank you, Ms Aku.”

I’m staying,” Mr Ferrer said. He found himself feeling excited about this adventure, although deep down he knew that probably wasn’t the smartest way to look at it. Next to him, Ms LeGuin was also enthusiastic “I’m staying too, Captain – I’m quite keen to see what happens next!”

Just so. Thank you. And Mr Lebedev? What say you?”

Well Captain, I’d certainly like to thank you for giving us all the option…” said the sweaty Chief Steward, wringing his hands together. “And I’m off.” Without another word, he sprinted out of the room, as fast as his fat little legs would carry him, and down to the Docking Bay.

There was a moment, while all eyes on the bridge watched Mr Lebedev’s speedy retreat, before Ms LeGuin piped up again.

Oh well, Captain – you can’t win them all.”

And all hands in the Engine Room,” Captain Singh continued, raising her voice slightly. “What say you?”

The Second Engineer, Mr Chamberlain, was the first to answer; “Captain, you and I have known each other a long time. I never deserted you before, and I’m much too old to start now.”

A fond half smile briefly played across Captain Singh’s features.

Cruise Director Mr Martell’s response was next; “I’m sorry Captain, but I’m just not cut out for this. I’m with Mr Lebedev.”

Mr Chamberlain watched Mr Martell disapprovingly as he slunk out of the Engine Room, and headed for the Docking Bay.

Hopeless,” Chief Engineer Ms Arenson mumbled, as she too watched him leave. “I’m staying, Captain,” she continued. “I’ll be damned if I abandon my ship in its most desperate hour. But can I remind everyone that we all need to actually DO SOMETHING if we want to avoid being killed? And while you were all busy up there making touching pledges of allegiance, I think I might’ve worked out a way we can get the ship to change course. But I’m gonna need as many hands down here as possible. And I’ll need them here NOW, if not sooner.”

Just so. Thank you, Ms Arenson. You heard the Chief Engineer,” Captain Singh declared. “All hands, please report to Engineering. Now, if you please. Mr Sinclair, the bridge is yours.”

Yes Captain,” said the First Officer, and made his way to the captain’s chair as the remaining Symphony crew members jogged off.

Wait!” Salazar said, blocking Captain Singh’s path. “Captain, I’ve decided we’re going to stay here and help you and your crew, in any way we can.”

No thanks, we don’t want you – you’re bloody pirates!” Mr Ferrer yelled angrily, before Captain Singh had a chance to respond.

I know, I know. But I’m calling a truce,” Salazar continued. “Effective immediately. We’re all in this together now. No one will attack you; you have my word.”

Your word… Pah!” Ms Aku spat.

Again, Captain Singh raised a hand. Ms Aku looked mildly chagrined, as Captain Singh scrutinised Salazar’s face, trying to decipher his true intentions….

I will be staying here on the Symphony, and so will my crew,” he said. “We’ll do all we can to assist you, and if the Symphony can’t be saved, then any of you who wish to escape with us on the Cheeky Albert are welcome. Of course, whether you choose to accept our help is entirely up to you… but you’d be pretty silly not to, wouldn’t you?”

 

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 41 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:37 AM

49 minutes until impact

Captain Singh glowered at Salazar. She had no time for this nonsense.

Just so,” she snapped. “You three come down to Engineering too, then. I suppose we need all the help we can get.”

Salazar grinned at Jiang and Lightfoot, then raised his hand to his head, in a mock salute to Captain Singh.

Yes ma’am.”

The unamused cruise ship captain marched off, with Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot following close behind, and Maggie the fox scampering along after them.

From his position in the captain’s chair, First Officer Mr Sinclair watched them leave.

Bloody pirates,” he muttered.

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

The Symphony’s former Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara and the Albert’s resident codebreaker Devereux had left their luxurious cabin, and were heading for the bridge. But as they listened in on the conversation there, and heard Ms Arenson’s announcing that the Symphony would be smashing into the nearest planet in a matter of minutes, killing everyone on board… well, they paused.

Devereux looked at Abara “So… do you still want to stay?”

His response was instant. “What do you want to do?”

Are you kidding? Nice though this has been, I don’t especially love the idea of nosediving into a planet, three quarters of an hour from now. I think I’d rather get the hell out of here.”

Then I’d rather get the hell out of here too,” he said.

He just wanted to be wherever she was; simple.

Good. You heard what Salazar whispered to Jiang?”

You mean when he said that the pirates would only stay here and help for as long as it was safe, but that the moment it wasn’t, they’d abandon the Symphony and all escape in the Albert?”

Yeah.”

Yeah, I heard him say that.”

Well, I say we wait for them there; I’m sure they won’t be long. To the Cheeky Albert!” she exclaimed, running to the elevator that would take them down to the Docking Bay.

To the Cheeky Albert!” the lovestruck Mr Abara repeated, and followed her excitedly.

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

When Second Officer Ms Aku and Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer & Ms LeGuin arrived in the Engine Room, the extent of the damage shocked them. As they squinted through the acrid smoke from the countless blast marks on the walls, they could make out the scaffolding, beams and rafters behind them – the very bones of the ship laid bare. They moved further into the room, dodging bursts of sparks raining fitfully from the severed wires that hung from blackened holes in the ceiling. Captain Singh, Salazar and his two crew members all came in behind them, wrinkling their noses at the caustic fumes of melted plastic and burnt metal.

Maggie the fox was the first one to spot the two engineers, Ms Arenson and Mr Chamberlain. They were crouching beneath one of the smashed consoles, diligently attempting to resurrect various banks of scorched nanocircuitry. Ms Arenson stood up as she heard them enter, and turned to face them, wiping her hands. Mr Chamberlain continued working.

Ms Arenson, we are all here,” Captain Singh said, casting a suspicious glance at the three pirates. “And we are all at your service. Your suggested course of action, please?”

Thank you Captain,” the Chief Engineer responded. “After surveying the damage – and there’s probably more that I haven’t found yet – I think that if I can reboot the Primary Navigation Modules, I should be able to regain control of the ship and change its course. But for that to happen, there are two other things we need to do. And I’m gonna need everybody’s help, because we have to get them done in…” and here, she checked the time, “46 minutes.”

Captain Singh nodded, listening carefully, as Ms Arenson continued.

As I mentioned before, when the Secondary Navigation Modules were destroyed, the Primary Navigation Modules were overloaded, and they shut themselves down. So the first thing we have to do is clear the overload on the PNMs. Once that’s done, I need to bring them back online, so I can use them to change course. But – ”

Lightfoot, the Cheeky Albert’s self-described computer genius, interrupted.

But didn’t you also say that the Emergency Override Matrices have shut down? You won’t be able to do anything until they’re back online too.”

Captain Singh and the other Symphony crew members glared at her in annoyance.

I know,” Ms Arenson responded testily. “That’s the third thing. And I’ve already started on it, but it’s complicated. I still haven’t worked out why they’ve gone into emergency shutdown, right when they’re needed most.”

Just so,” said Captain Singh. “Thank you, Ms Arenson. Now please… assign us our roles.”

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

By now, Devereux and Abara had reached the Docking Bay, and they could see the Cheeky Albert’s main hatch, just beyond the large ragged hole that AJ had cut in the Symphony’s hull. Two Symphony crew members had beat them here, and were standing by the pirate ship, waiting politely. Mr Abara recognised them as the ship’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev, and the Cruise Director Mr Martell, but before he could greet them, he heard something through his communicator that stopped him dead in his tracks.

Wait!” said Mr Abara, holding up a hand to Devereux, as he suddenly skidded to a halt. “Did she just say they need to clear the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules?”

Devereux looked at him blankly. “I dunno.”

I know how to do that!”

Devereux shrugged at him now.

So?”

Mr Abara exhaled heavily.

I’m really sorry, Devereux,” he said, looking at her longingly. “But I think I have to go and help. I’ll be able to clear that overload quicker than anybody else. If there’s a chance it could help save the Symphony, I – I think I have to try.”

But we’re gonna leave on the Albert anyway, aren’t we?” she looked toward the pirate ship, now just twenty metres away. “If you come with me, we can both get away safely. Guaranteed. And hey, if you’re worried about the others giving you a hard time, they won’t; I’ll see to that.”

He smiled. He couldn’t have cared less what the pirates thought of him; but he couldn’t have cared more about being with her.

Kit, come with us.”

Her plea threw him into turmoil. Despite his feverish passion for this exotic, headstrong piratical beauty, some of his old loyalties – to this crew, and to this ship – did still linger…

Bugger,’ he thought.

I’m sorry, Devereux…”

Sorrier than you realise,’ he thought.

“… But I think I have to go and help. It’s the right thing to do.”

She looked at him, puzzlement in her eyes. It took her a moment to understand – selflessness wasn’t a big among most of the people she dealt with. But she decided she liked it, and she made a decision.

Alright,” she nodded. “… then I’ll come with you. Maybe I can help.”

Not for the first time today, Mr Abara couldn’t believe his luck. He beamed, and again his heart beat faster. Again, he felt ten feet tall.

Great!” he said, gesturing, not quite daring to take her hand. “This way!”

And they both left the Docking Bay and headed for the Engine Room.

Mr Martell looked at Mr Lebedev, as if to say “What was all that about?”

Mr Lebedev looked back at him, as if to say “How would I know?”

Mr Martell shrugged, and put his hands in his pockets, as if to say “Fair enough.”

They both continued waiting politely.

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

In the Engine Room, Ms Arenson had put Captain Singh and Second Officer Ms Aku to work clearing the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules. It was a convoluted and arduous task, calling on all their half-remembered, and infrequently used, programming and coding skills, but they did seem to be making gradual progress. Ms Aku was thrilled to get this chance to work so closely with her mentor, and repeatedly had to remind herself now was not the time for sucking up…

The Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin had been tasked with putting out spot fires and making what small physical repairs they could to the Engine Room, with a little help from the remaining functioning maitbots.

Ms Arenson and Mr Chamberlain were engrossed in the Emergency Override Matrices. This was perhaps the most essential of the three tasks; if these matrices couldn’t be rebooted, then clearing and restarting the PNMs would all be for naught.

Meanwhile, the pirates Salazar, Jiang and Lightfoot were following their very specific instructions from the Chief Engineer (“Stand in the corner over there and DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!”)… by sheepishly standing in the corner over there, and not touching anything.

Salazar also cradled Maggie tightly in his arms, as per Ms Arenson’s subsequent request “And keep that bloody fox away from me!”

The pirates looked at each other uncomfortably, powerlessly, as all the Symphony crew members continued working away.

Salazar cleared his throat. Maggie wriggled a little in his arms, and he patted her, to calm her down.

This industrious silence was suddenly shattered by a shout from Ms Arenson. “DAMN! Damn, damn, damn! We can’t do it.”

What do you mean?” asked Mr Chamberlain, moving alongside her.

Gesturing to the ruptured innards of the console in front of her, Ms Arenson said “Look – the JSI’s been melted. I’m not gonna be able to even access the ancillary revocation protocols, let alone modify or repair them.”

She sighed dejectedly, and looked up to see that her crew mates had gathered around, each wearing a puzzled expression.

The Janus Sapience Interface,” she said, in a slightly condescending tone. All the looks generated by this clarification – with the exception of Lightfoot’s – were blank and uncomprehending.

She can’t give instructions to the computer,” Mr Chamberlain explained. “The component that lets people talk to it has been destroyed.”

Unable to contain her curiosity, Lightfoot stepped away from her pirate crewmates and peered over the Chief Engineer’s shoulder.

Oh yeah, so it has…” she said with academic interest. “But that doesn’t mean you’re completely sunk.”

The Symphony’s engineers both frowned at her. No?

A decommissioned JSI does mean that the computer can’t receive instructions from people. BUT…” Lightfoot continued, “with some clever hot-wiring, a bit of jury-rigging and a dash of computer genius…” and here, she pointed both thumbs at herself, “… there’s no reason why it couldn’t receive them from a Synthetic Human.”

The Chief Engineer and the Second Engineer looked at each other as they thought about this. Then they looked away from each other, as they thought about it a bit more. In fact, they thought about it for longer than their captain would have liked.

Ms Arenson?” Captain Singh asked her impatiently, “Is the pirate right? Could that work?”

In theory, I suppose it could,” Ms Arenson answered, as a flicker of hope returned to her voice. But then her shoulders sank again, as she remembered; “But all our SHs are powered down. And considering all this,” she gestured to all the damage, “there’s no way I could bring any of them back online.”

I think I may need to correct you there, Ms Arenson,” the captain returned, with a glint in her eye. “I can think of one Synthetic Human currently on board that’s up and about…”

 

 

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 42 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:43 AM

43 minutes until impact.

Up in the Shifting Sands, Marie stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and waiting for another opportunity to serve her two couch-bound ‘customers’; the pirates Jelani (currently enjoying an alcohol-induced slumber) and Gotmund (not particularly enjoying a weapon-induced unconsciousness).

Marie? This is Chief Engineer Ms Arenson. Can you hear me?”

The voice coming through the ambient speakers was a little interference-laden, but it was clear enough.

Yes, Ms Arenson.”

Marie, please report to the Engine Room immediately. We need a Synthetic Human to help us talk to the Emergency Override Matrices, and you’re the only functional one aboard right now. If we can patch the EOMs into your primary auditory cortex, using you as our human-to-machine translator, we can repair the EOMs, reboot the Primary Navigation Modules, regain control of the ship, and stop it crashing and killing everyone on board.”

Marie’s usual cheerful, amused expression drained away from her face.

I’m sorry, Ms Arenson – I’d like to help you, but I can’t.”

Down in Engineering, Ms Arenson and Mr Chamberlain exchanged an uneasy look.

Excuse me?” Ms Arenson barked irritably.

I belong here. I was made for this place, and I can’t leave it.”

What?!

I was custom-built, programmed and equipped only to serve here in the Shifting Sands. Tending bar and telling jokes are the central tenets of my primary algorithm, they’re the truths on which all my software was built; I serve drinks, therefore I am. Stands to reason that I won’t be able to function anywhere else.”

Ms Arenson looked around her, agog. “Don’t be ridiculous, Marie. Do you understand what’s at stake? You get down here now.”

Well, I suppose I can try,” she responded. “But I don’t see the point. I’ll just automatically shut down as soon as I leave here, and someone’ll have to come and collect me and bring me back inside.”

The next voice Marie heard over the speaker was that of Captain Singh; measured, polite, but unmistakably furious.

“You will report to the Engine Room NOW, Marie. That is an order!”

For the first time in her many years of service, Marie suddenly found herself unable to come up with a joke. Her vast databanks of jokes, riddles, puns, one liners, wisecracks and quips were all suddenly inaccessible; jammed by synthetic emotional interference…

She knew she that wouldn’t technically, actually “die” if she left; she’d just shut down. It’d only be blankness, a void… until someone brought her back inside and rebooted her. Marie had never felt this particular sensation before. Slowly, very slowly, Marie realised that she was frightened.

Yes, Captain,” she said softly.

She trundled out from behind the bar and past the two prone figures on the couches.

Sorry to leave your here on your ownsome, guys,” she called, in an exaggeratedly hardy tone. “Hopefully I shouldn’t be too long. Now, no sneaking behind the bar and helping yourselves…” she chided, waving a mocking index finger at them.

ZZzzz” said Jelani.

ZZZnphlphlphl, ZZZZZzzzzz,” added Gotmund.

Righto,” said Marie nervously, as she rolled toward the door.

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

In the Engine Room, Captain Singh and Ms Aku’s work on the Primary Navigation Modules was proceeding, but frustratingly slowly; the Captain estimated that they’d only completed about 10% of it so far. She was about to ask Ms Arenson for assistance when she was interrupted by a new arrival.

Begging your pardon, Captain. Chief Technology Officer Abara reporting for duty. May I be of assistance?”

All the Symphony crew members glowered at the defector and his pirate companion, but the Second Officer Ms Aku was the first to speak.

Abara, you got a lot of guts coming here after what you pulled. You deserted us. You turned your back on this crew, so you could team up with this pirate scum, and now you suddenly just waltz in here offering your services, and expect us to act like nothing has happened? You’re a back stabber, a turncoat and a double crosser! You, sir, can go to hell!”

Mr Abara nodded thoughtfully. “Alright. So, Ms Aku, I’m actually sensing a lot of anger from you right now – ”

DAMN RIGHT YOU’RE SENSING A LOT OF ANGER!” she yelled, as she turned incredulously to the two Deck Ratings. “Is this guy for real?”

Again, the Captain held up a quieting hand.

Mr Abara took his cue. “Captain, please. I can clear the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules. I can get it done in no time. I’m offering to help.”

Captain Singh stared at him, frowning. After a moment, she gave a very small nod. “Just so, Mr Abara. Please get to work.”

Oh come on!” protested the Second Officer. “Captain, are you serious?”

Ms Aku,” said Captain Singh. “Please! The clock is ticking. Just let him do the job. There’ll be time for recriminations later.”

Yes, Captain,” grumbled Ms Aku.

Thank you Captain,” said Mr Abara. “And it’ll be even quicker with the help of my friend,” he said gesturing to Devereux.

Captain Singh turned her head very slowly to the pirate, and scowled at her. It was the kind of scowl that made Devereux feel examined, scrutinised… even violated. It was as though Captain Singh was peering into her very soul…. and not liking what she saw.

Desperate to move on from this, Devereux said “I’m Devereux… erm… M’am.”

Captain Singh continued staring at her.

Erm…” added Devereux. “… Pleased to… meet you?”

After what seemed like a frosty, withering eternity, Mr Abara rescued the hapless pirate.

Well, let’s get to work, shall we?”

She nodded, and they both took up position at the eviscerated PNM console. Mr Abara opened his toolkit, and neatly laid its contents on the floor. Devereux did the same with hers.

Peering in to the mass of wires, circuit boards and info modules, Mr Abara said “Now, let’s see…. What have we got? Hmm… I see. Right!”

He clapped his hands and rubbed them together.

Devereux, would you pass me my gravitic uncouplers, please?”

She did.

Thank you… and hey, would you have a vanadium laserdrill?”

I have…” she said, looking over his shoulder, “but don’t you think a thorium nucelolathe might work better there?”

Yes! Actually, I think you’re right.”

She passed it to him, adding “Particularly if you use it in conjunction with an axionic particle splitter.”

Brilliant!” He used the two instruments together, and handed them back to her. “Now, would you have a pyrocyclic isostapler?”

Yes, it’s in here somewhere…”

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

Salazar stood next to Captain Singh, as they watched Mr Abara and Devereux work. “This is good,” he said quietly. “This is gonna work, you’ll see; her specialty is codebreaking.”

Codebreaking? That’s the opposite of coding” Captain Singh returned flatly.

Well… it’s a similar principle.”

No it isn’t.”

Salazar opened his mouth to protest, but Captain Singh cut him off before he had a chance.

Be quiet.”

They silently watched the two technology experts working for another moment.

They do seem to be working well together,” Salazar offered.

Captain Singh only grunted in response.

Maybe our two crews aren’t so different after all,” Salazar went on. “Maybe we can work together. Maybe we can even learn from each other.”

Oh shut up.”

Yes Ma’am.”

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

“… Because I’m thinking,” Mr Abara continued, “if I use that with a parabolic torsion vice, then I can magnosever the optronic nadion microfilaments, which would enable the three-phase singularity probe to thermopolarise the bi-axial nanostabilisers.”

Right, right.” Devereux said, nodding. “Then you’d do a simple tertiary warp dilation on the chronopolar hypertorque buffers with a pair of microspatial resonance clamps…”

“… which would mean I could then use a subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette to quantum-flux harmonise the randomised infiniwave relays -”

Wait a minute – did you say ‘subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette’?” Devereux asked. “You mean a subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette, don’t you?”

Ha ha! Of course! You’re right! Imagine using a subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette to quantum-flux harmonise a randomised infiniwave relay! Madness!”

They both laughed for a moment, as the other nine people in the room stared at them blankly. Maggie the fox did too.

Devereux handed Mr Abara an instrument from her toolkit, still giggling. “So here’s your subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette.”

Not my subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette, then?” he asked playfully.

No, not your subatomic Fermium plasma microcurette! Hardly!!” She laughed again.

Oh dear,” he said, wiping a tear of laughter from his eye, as he continued working. “Aaaand…. We…. Are…. Done!”

He stood up triumphantly.

Captain, Ms Arenson, I’m pleased to report that the overload on the Primary Navigation Module has now been cleared and it’s ready for rebooting.”

The whole exercise had taken a grand total of two minutes.

Just so,” said Captain Singh. “Thank you, Mr Abara.”

Yes, thank you,” echoed Ms Arenson.

Well,” Mr Abara responded. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it that quickly without Devereux here.”

Or without your subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette!!!” she added.

Mr Abara erupted into another fit of laughter. “Ha ha ha! No, you’re right! The good old subatomic Fermium plasma nanocurette!”

And as he smiled into her eyes, he thought ‘Wow! She’s so funny, as well as everything else! I love her so much!’ He longed to take her in his arms and smother her with a million joyous kisses…. But right now, he could only bring himself to make an awkward, yet affectionate light punch on her upper arm.

This was met with looks of bemusement from all the assembled crew members, save the ever-smiling Deck Rating Ms LeGuin.

“Aww, that’s nice, isn’t it?” she said.

 

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 43 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:53 AM

33 minutes until impact

Marie stood just inside the doorway of the Shifting Sands. She’d been here for nearly ten minutes now, trying to work up the courage to cross the threshold.

It’s just that there’s no point, you see?” she explained anxiously to her two insensible customers. “The Shifting Sands – the inside of these four walls – is the only world I’ve ever known. I’m not equipped for any other environments. If I leave here, I’ll just go into massive sensory overload and automatically shut down…”

A new, disturbing thought occurred.

Or maybe it’ll be even worse than that. Maybe if I leave, I’ll trigger a total meltdown; maybe my leaving will just fry all my circuits… and that’ll be it.”

She regarded the open doorway again, and gulped, nervously.

Zzzzz,” said Jelani from her prone position on one of the couches.

Zzzzz,” echoed Gotmund, from his.

MARIE? WHERE ARE YOU? We need you here.” Captain Singh’s voice boomed through the speakers – annoyed, urgent and intimidating.

“Here Captain, sorry Captain,” Marie stammered. “Slight delay in – ”

You get down here to the Engine Room immediately! That is an order.”

Right, Captain. But you see, the thing is – ”

Engineering! NOW, Marie! THAT IS AN ORDER!”

Yes, Captain,” Marie barked, and, bracing herself, she scooted – for the first time ever – out of the Shifting Sands lounge. And as a result of doing so….

Marie did not go into massive sensory overload.

There was no total meltdown. Her circuits were not fried, and she did not automatically shut down.

The only thing that had happened was that she’d moved from one place to another place.

And yet, this simple act triggered a surprising number of emotions within her synthetic consciousness. First, she was surprised. Then that surprise was engulfed by a wave of relief so great, it made Marie laugh out loud.

Ha HA!!”

The relief was then swamped by a jumble of excitement, novelty and sheer, utter joy.

Wow! Look at this corridor!’ Marie thought, as she trundled down it. ‘It’s amazing!’

It wasn’t, particularly.

But to someone whose entire existence had been spent in a space spanning only 450 square metres, rounding each corner was akin to discovering a new continent.

I wonder what’s down here…’ she thought.

Wonder. That was it; Marie was experiencing wonder. For the very first time. She was beholding new vistas, seeing colours she’d never seen before. She’d only travelled a few metres, but Marie was amazed, delighted, and thrilled with the rush of never-before-dreamt-of possibilities. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Or it would have been, had she been the sort of human who did actually breathe.

But then the reason for her expedition suddenly barged in on her reverie; something about stopping the ship from violently smashing into a planet. In roughly half an hour.

Ah yes, there was that, wasn’t there?’ She thought. ‘Right. Engineering, here I come….’

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

Elsewhere, the Cheeky Albert’s mechanic AJ had the same destination in his sights. It had been 35 minutes since he’d plunged down six levels on the Mad Maelstrom water slide, narrowly escaping being smashed to pieces in F Deck’s empty swimming pool.

His communicator had kept him abreast of all developments since then, and he felt sure that if he could just make it up the the Engine Room, he’d be able to help save the ship. But the injuries he’d sustained in his fall – well, technically, in the landing at the end of his fall – were significant, and his progress up five decks, and along most of the vessel’s length, had been an arduous one.

Now, as he limped slowly along C Deck, with shoulders, ribs and back aching, he passed the Symphony’s VR suites. He glanced inside. They were all closed now, of course; powered down and bathed in that familiar dim red service light, but when the ship was cruising and full of passengers, these 36 rooms were always booked out and busy. Deactivated, as they were now, each suite was simply a featureless, empty black cube, three metres by three metres. But when they were fired up, each suite could totally immerse its user, or users, in any one of thousands of scenarios. The Symphony’s onboard collection of simulations was staggeringly vast, and could take users to almost any moment in earth’s history, and a growing number of epochal occasions on the more recently discovered planets…

You could look over Leonardo’s shoulder as he painted the Mona Lisa.

You could be right there in the crowd on Ogillon II, watching Benak Vulbub score the winning goal in the 2286 Zero-G Smamszyball Galactic Hyperfinal.

Or you could have been sitting in an oak tree in the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna in 1979, excitedly holding your breath as a couple of people slowly walked by underneath you, completely unaware of your presence…

I guess you had to be there.

But with the VR suites, you could! And that was the point. All with every sight, every sound, every smell, taste, texture and sensation perfectly reproduced, and completely indistinguishable from the real thing.

AJ couldn’t remember the last time he’d indulged in a VR session. And he certainly couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to pay for one.

He trudged past the Symphony’s Wellness Centre now, peering longingly at the rows and rows of soft massage beds. For an instant, he pictured himself – clean and warm and naked, lying face down on one of those beds. A pair of expert male hands slowly and very gently massaged warm, fragrant oil into his shoulders and neck. He closed his eyes, escaped for a moment, and all was right with the world…

Until a twinge in one of his two cracked ribs brought him crashing back into reality. He touched them gingerly, and swore under his breath, cursing his injuries.

On the other hand,’ he then thought, ‘a sore back, shoulders and ribs don’t mean that much if the whole ship’s going to crash dive into a planet in…’ he checked the time, ‘… 29 minutes.’

He took a few more steps, lost in thought.

I guess I should try to look on the bright side.’

And a few more.

If only I could find one…’

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

Marie emerged from the elevator on B Deck, and began the last few metres of her journey to the Engine Room. She’d been astonished by the wall panel inside the elevator. It seemed to suggest that there was an entire new level of the ship above the Shifting Sands lounge… and another six levels below it! Marie felt she needed to sit down, to take a moment, to process the newly discovered vastness of her world. But there was no time for that. Burying the impulse to continue exploring the ship, she reported to Engineering.

Where the hell have you been?” snapped the Chief Engineer.

I’m sorry Ms Arenson, I – ”

Never mind that, there’s no time,” interrupted Mr Chamberlain, as he took Marie by the elbow and led her to the console housing the Emergency Override Matrices. Most of the console’s casing had been removed, and an unruly, jumbled mass of cables had been spliced, woven and consolidated into one long cord, that snaked out of the console, and across the floor. This cord ended in a standard plug, which was currently being held by the pirate Lightfoot, who looked rather pleased with herself.

As she gestured for Marie to sit in the chair beside the console, Ms Arenson explained; “Mr Chamberlain and I have spent the last few minutes bypassing the old Janus Sapience Interface, and cobbling together an alternative that should be compatible with your primary auditory cortex…”

Lightfoot cleared her throat theatrically and raised and lowered her eyebrows.

Alright,” Ms Arenson said irritably, “Mr Chamberlain and I did it with some help from this pirate.”

Thank you,” said Lightfoot, adding “couldn’t have done it without me, that’s for sure…” under her breath.

So all you have to do, Marie,” Ms Arenson continued, “is allow us access to your PCP, we’ll plug you in, and connect the EOMs to your primary auditory cortex. Then we’ll be able to use you as a real time translator, to talk to the ship.”

Is it dangerous?” Marie asked, hesitantly.

Oh, no, no – I’ve insulated the cable, everything’s grounded – we’re all perfectly safe. Thank you.”

No, I mean is it dangerous to me?”

Oh.” Ms Arenson looked suddenly thoughtful.

Hm. Not sure. I’ve never done this before.” She looked to Lightfoot and Mr Chamberlain, both of whom shrugged in response.

I guess we’re about to find out,” ventured Lightfoot.

Marie nodded uncertainly, as she lifted her blouse to reveal the the small door covering her Principal Convergence Panel.

Well, as the Bard says…” Marie offered half-heartedly, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Oh, and also spiders’.”

Marie, please!” Ms Arenson said. “We do not have time for you to stand around quoting the Bard!”

Marie frowned at her. But there’s always time to quote the Bard…”

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

The influence of “The Bard” (Verity Dellascherzo; 2269 – 2371) on the vernacular of the 24th, 25th and early 26th centuries cannot be overestimated, particularly amongst offworlders. Her epigrams, quips, bon mots and aphorisms were never taught in schools, yet most spacefarers know dozens of them, and will take any opportunity to press them into service. Unusually for this era, the works of the Bard seem to have been transmitted almost exclusively orally. They’ve been handed down, handed around and handed across from person to person, in much the same way that jokes, urban legends or apocryphal ghost stories were shared, in days of old.

Part of Dellascherzo’s appeal surely stemmed from her specialisation in short, easily digestible proverbs. One popular critic dubbed her “the bite-sized philosopher”… but later withdrew this comment, after its misinterpretation led to a huge spike in actual consumption of philosophers among The Unexpectedly Cannibalistic Poets of Gilivis IV.

She remained relatively obscure and uncelebrated during her lifetime on earth; her collected writings were only discovered after she died, in a tragic volcano hoverskating race accident, at the age of 102. She remains a mysterious, reclusive figure; despite the highly social and convivial character of most of her output, she appears to have shunned social occasions. Various images of her survive, of course, but they provide few clues as to her character, her talent or her intellect. The pictures show a tall, dark-skinned woman with long black hair, smiling eyes and a very convincing cybernetic right hand. Some academics have theorised that she may also have been fitted with cybernetically enhanced legs, citing the cryptic clue hidden in this quote of hers:

Sticks and stones may break my bones… but not the ones in my legs because they’re cybernetically enhanced.”

There is also speculation that, in later life, she may have become an alcoholic. This is suggested by the following three maxims, all dated March, 2315:

The first drink will feel like a welcome reward.

After the second, you feel self-assured.

The third lets you know that you’re in for some fun.

Already the fourth? But I’ve barely begun!”

and

You won’t find the answers to your problems at the bottom of a bottle… But it always seems well worth a look”

And of course, the classic:

What are you lookin’ at? I seen you. HEY! Do you wanna go? Huh? Do ya? Oi! OI! …. Naww, I love you. Phblxxbbbrshnnn.”

Although she’s now been dead for 161 years, interest in The Bard has never waned; the combination of her homespun homilies and her mysterious, reclusive nature continue to spark interest, adulation and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Even her real name remains an enigma: in the preface to her collected works, she states that ‘Verity Dellascherzo’ is merely a pen name, chosen to suggest the eternal, universal truths contained within the jokes…

An example of this is the oft-quoted “Sleep is just like money and sex; always much more important when you’re not gettin’ any”.

One of the wilder, more fanciful conspiracy theories about her – that she commissioned a clone of herself and had it snap-frozen, to facilitate a future ‘Second Coming of The Bard’ – was sparked by this simple 11-word quote:

When you gotta go, you gotta go. Terms and conditions apply.”

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

Marie sat on the chair next to the EOM console, eyes closed. The thick, slightly ragged jury-rigged cable emerging from the console was now connected to her Primary Convergence Panel, and Ms Arenson stood close, her mouth adjacent to Marie’s ear.

Access Emergency Override Matrices,” Ms Arenson said in a clear, deliberate voice.

Marie’s eyelids fluttered, before she responded in an uncharacteristically flat tone; “Enter password.”

Ms Arenson’s eyes lit up. “S-C-1-T-9-E-8-T-M-2” she said slowly.

Marie’s eyelids fluttered briefly again before her response. “Access granted. Welcome.”

Ms Arenson smiled as she looked up at her colleagues.

We’re in.”

 

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 44 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

8:59 AM

27 minutes until impact

For the next few minutes, Ms Arenson stood at Marie’s side, clearly issuing instructions into her left ear. There was a split-second pause after each one, while Marie’s circuits translated it and sent it to the ship’s computer, before she acknowledged that it had been received and carried out, in that bland, distant monotone.

Looks like it’s working…” Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain whispered to Lightfoot, as they watched anxiously.

“Of course!” the pirate response smugly. “I told you it would.” 

“But will she come out of it in one piece?”

Lightfoot shrugged, as uncertainty flickered across her face.

Not so cocky now, are you?’ thought Mr Chamberlain.

His crew mates Ms Aku, Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin observed the procedure attentively from across the room; breathing shallowly, silently… desperate not to distract Ms Arenson, or Marie.

A couple of metres away from them, the Symphony’s former Chief Technology Officer Mr Abara craned his neck, trying to get a better view of the Synthetic Human / Ship’s Computer interface, while the pirate Devereux stood between him and her captain. She was a little less interested in proceedings.

Captains Singh and Sharp, however, were so transfixed by this vital operation, they didn’t notice how close they were to each other.

Behind them, the Albert’s First Mate Jiang checked the time and bit her nails, fighting her urge to start pacing the room.

Only Maggie the fox was oblivious to all the tension. She was too busy licking her left front paw, trying to remove something that was stuck to it.

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Directly below them, down on C Deck, AJ the mechanic was making his way past the Symphony’s 1000-seat theatre. The theatre was, unsurprisingly, state of the art. The countless advancements in replication and Virtual Reality over the past five centuries had ensured that Theatre could now be every bit as immersive as real life. 

Sometimes even more so.

That development had initially proven rather disconcerting to the more traditional theatregoers, particularly when the play was violent. Or sexy. Or both… But they soon got used to it. And this viscerally immersive aspect soon became just another ingredient in this timeless, complex art form. Theatre was thriving now for the same reasons Theatre had always thrived, and people kept attending for the same reasons they always had; to escape, to be entertained, to be educated while invigorated, to be transported to any one of a million different times or places – to witness, share and absorb the eternal, timeless struggles faced by all of us. To gain a thrillingly deeper and richer understanding of what it truly means to be human.

Or Betelgeusean.

Or Rigelean.

Or Thotirian.

Or Ongaran, Nelmotese or Sendruphi.

You get the idea.

AJ glanced into the theatre’s foyer, at the poster for its most recent show. His ribs still ached, his shoulders throbbed, and his legs were growing ever more stiff and sore. He smiled ruefully at the poster and tried to remember the last play he’d seen.

It was something by The Bard. A lot of it went over my head; it was one of her more highbrow works. What was it called, though?

Oh, that’s right…. Not In MY Pants!

He plodded on, as his mind wearily returned to the task at hand.

I’m nearly there. Nearly at Engineering…’

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

Three decks below AJ, the Cheeky Albert was still adjoined to the far end of the Symphony’s Docking Bay. And there, inside the gunmetal walls of the pirate ship’s dingy, cluttered communal area, two men sat – impatiently – on a couple of beat-up old metal crates.

25 minutes until impact,” moaned the Symphony’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev.

I know,” responded its Cruise Director, Mr Martell.

When are they going to come to their senses?” said Mr Lebedev, as he stood, and started pacing the room.

Surely they see that they won’t be able to fix all those problems – they just don’t have enough time. They’ve got to abandon ship; they’ve got to come down here, fire this bucket up, and get us all out of here! What’s taking them so long?”

He looked at Mr Martell, who had assumed the question was rhetorical. He shrugged.

I mean, it’s the only possible course of action, isn’t it?” Mr Lebedev continued, his desperation growing. “If they’re quick, they can all cram in here, their pilot can fly us out of here, and we can escape. It’s our only chance!”

His looked to Mr Martell for affirmation, who only offered a noncommittal “Maybe”.

What do you mean, ‘maybe’?!

Mr Martell shrugged again.

“Wait – are you saying that you and I might be able to fly this ship? That we can just commandeer it, hightail it out of here, and save ourselves?”

Well, no – I certainly hadn’t thought – ”

But Mr Lebedev was already running to the Albert’s bridge.

Come on!”

Mr Martell trudged after him reluctantly. On the bridge, they found it difficult to identify – let alone even locate – the ship’s central command console. When they finally did, the original (foolproof) 3183 Interworld Freighter control panel was virtually unrecognisable. It had been submerged under so many byzantine modifications, so many improvised additions, so much re-purposing, so much souping up… that Mr Lebedev and Mr Martell were exhausted by just looking at it.

Ugh! You’d need a degree in astronavigation just to get the thing started…” groaned Mr Lebedev, as he dropped heavily into the seat at another console.

Yeah,” said Mr Martell, dumping himself into the next seat. “A degree from the making-it-up-as-we-go-along faculty of Pirate King’s College in the Institute of Dangerously Improvised Technology.”

Mr Lebedev looked at him and blinked.

Did you just make that up?”

Mr Matrell nodded, grinning weakly.

Mr Lebedev’s head lolled forward, dejected.

We’re doomed…” he whined.

Mr Martell looked at his poor crew mate.

Hey, I know what will lift our spirits!” he said suddenly. “How about a singalong? Do you know I Hooked Up With This Chick From Babbiogantu VIII?”

No,” Mr Lebedev returned. “But if you hum it…”

Yes?”

I’ll kick you in the shins.”

Oh.”

Half a minute passed.

They both looked at the time.

24 minutes until impact.

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

Ms Arenson rubbed her eyes wearily. Searching the vast amounts of data in the EOMs for what could be just one tiny glitch was proving to be a dispiriting task…

Run tertiary macrodiagnostic on matrix 78,” she said to Marie, thickly.

A moment passed before Marie said “875,362 files scanned. Fatal error found in file 459541.”

Aha!” Ms Arenson, said, looking at Mr Chamberlain and Lightfoot excitedly. Then; “Isolate and quarantine file 459541”.

File 459541 isolated and quarantined,” Marie replied.

Full diagnosis of file 459541, please. Detail level: Alpha.”

Acknowledged,” Marie responded dully.

This should let us know what we’re up against,’ Ms Arenson thought hopefully, but her face remained impassive. They weren’t out of the woods yet.

All the other crew members in Engineering watched on, impotently. Salazar’s frustration, in particular, was tangible.

I just want to get in there and help.”

Leave them,” said Captain Singh. “They know what they’re doing. You’d only get in the way.”

The two captains were still standing next to each other. A mother and her son, reunited. Their elbows ten centimetres away from each other, their souls worlds apart. After a couple of minutes, their sombre silence was broken.

Did they love you?” Diana whispered.

Salazar wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly.

What?”

Did they love you?” she repeated, quietly, her voice sounding as though it was arriving from far away. “Your adoptive parents?”

Salazar turned to look at her, and was surprised by the mournfulness of her expression.

That couple who found you on the streets when you were little, and took you in…”

She didn’t need to elaborate; he knew who she meant.

Please – please tell me they loved you…” she sighed, her voice softened by the twin burdens of loss and regret.

Yes. They loved me,” Salazar answered, as a faint, sad smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “For the five years I was with them. They loved me. Until they were killed by – ”

I know, I know,” Diana said quickly. “They were killed by the Navy.”

Another long pause. They both stared straight ahead, but they weren’t watching the repairs. They were avoiding looking at each other.

I am sorry.”

Salazar heard her apology. Of course he understood the words, but he wrestled with the layers of their meaning, with the implications of her saying them, with what they might mean for the future… He turned to her.

You’re sorry?

She gave a small, ashamed nod.

And what am I supposed to do with that, Diana?”

She opened her mouth to speak –

Emergency Override Matrices reboot sequence commencing.” Despite the importance of this announcement, Marie’s voice remained a dull monotone.  “Disconnect auxiliary Janus Sapience Interface from external Principal Convergence Panel.”

Ms Arenson took a deep breath as she uncoupled one end of the bulky, tangled cord from the console, and disconnected the other end of it from Marie.

All crew members looked to Marie for the next status update. Had the disconnection compromised all the repair work done so far? And if it hadn’t, was the reboot sequence proceeding? And if it was, how long would that take?

No information was forthcoming. Marie sat on her stool, her empty eyes staring straight ahead.

Without warning, the Engine Room filled with a low, warm hum. Ms Arenson checked the monitor on the console housing the EOMs. “It worked! It bloody worked! The Emergency Override Matrices are back online! We’re nearly there!”

Salazar, Jiang, and Devereux all cheered loudly as they slapped Lightfoot roughly on the back. The Symphony crew members were more reserved in their exultation, content to nod approvingly in the direction of Mr Arenson and Mr Chamberlain, and to scowl at those rough, undignified pirates.

Marie, however, showed no such signs of animation. She was staring ahead. Blankly. Silently. Lifelessly.

Captain Singh looked at Marie, concerned. Then, to Ms Arenson; “Is she…”

Dead? She wanted to say “Dead”, but that wasn’t quite the right word.

Is she… still functional?”

I don’t know,” Ms Arenson muttered, examining Marie closely.

Poor thing,” said Deck Rating Ms LeGuin, sympathetically. “And she’d only just had her first taste of the wider world. After all these years…”

Marie?”

There was no response.

Marie?” Ms Arenson repeated. “Marie, can you hear me?”

Slowly, very slowly, Marie’s head turned to face Ms Arenson. Her Synthetic Human eyes were open, but inert. There was no spark, no sign of sentience, no sign of intelligence, no sign of… anything.

Marie?!” Ms Arenson said again, sadness rising in her voice.

Twenty seconds went by.

Marie did not move.

Then thirty seconds, then forty…

The Symphony crew members all bowed their heads, disconsolate.

 

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 45 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:07 AM

19 minutes until impact

But the only former Symphony crew member here – Mr Abara – wasn’t quite so sorrowful. He watched Marie from across the room, his face betraying no grief, no loss; just professional curiosity.

Interesting,” he said quietly to Devereux. “Looks like the Comprehensive Wernickean Defrag they did might have obliterated her CIDs.”

Her what?”

Her Core Identity Drives. They were asking a lot of her; this was way outside her specs. She’s just not designed for complex simultaneous binary translation.”

So, have they… killed her?” the pirate asked.

Well, she is a Synthetic Human, so technically, no…” but his voice trailed off, uncertainly, as he noticed Marie’s eyes. They certainly looked dead to him…

But this wasn’t Mr Abara’s area of expertise. In his role as the Symphony’s Chief Technology Officer, he’d only ever needed to be a generalist, so he’d never really thought about automaton autonomy. He was aware of the sophistication of SHs these days, of course, but he’d never wrestled with the implicit questions they raised;

Could their convincing mimicry of emotions for our benefit eventually teach them how to experience real emotions for themselves?

If they can make plans and decisions, and bear the consequences of them, how are they different from us in any meaningful way?

If their experience shapes their personality, moulding them into truly individual entities, and if they have the ability to ponder the past, the present and the future, do they not have – for want of a better term – “souls”?

In short, if you were to ask Mr Abara “at what point, philosophically, does a Synthetic Human become indistinguishable from an actual human?”

He would have responded “Er… dunno, sorry.”

These concerns were currently far from Chief Engineer Ms Arenson’s mind, too. She had no time to contemplate the finer points of Synthetic Human self-determination… and yet, she felt she needed to have one last try…

Marie?” Ms Arenson asked forlornly, not expecting a response, but not quite ready to give up.

An enormous, broad smile slowly spread across Marie’s face, as she winked at Ms Arenson. “Gotcha!”

Lightfoot and Mr Chamberlain breathed an enormous, unified sigh of relief.

Don’t you ever do that again!” Ms Arenson said, laughing despite herself.

Well, of course I won’t,” Marie said. “I’m not very likely to get the opportunity, am I?”

How are you feeling, Marie?” asked Lightfoot. “Do you feel alright?”

Oh sure, sure! Just as sane as I ever was!” She said, going cross-eyed, sticking her tongue out and blowing a raspberry.

Hm. She’s more robust than we thought,” said Mr Chamberlain.

I am, aren’t I?!” Marie agreed happily. “I even surprised meself! And not for the first time today, either!” She concluded, winking at Ms Arenson again.

If you don’t mind, CAN we get on?” Ms Arenson interrupted.

Be my guest, Chief,” said Marie, standing up and stretching luxuriously.

Right,” Ms Arenson said, climbing up onto Marie’s chair, the better to address the room. “Now that that the Emergency Override Matrices have been rebooted and the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules has been cleared – ”

You’re welcome,” Devereux interjected, unable to help herself.

– I should be able to reboot the PNMs and regain control of the ship. Then it’s just a matter of adjusting our course by a few degrees, and we’ll avoid crash-diving into the planet in…” and here she checked the time, “18 minutes.”

How long will it take you to reboot the PNMs?” Captain Singh asked.

Only a couple of minutes, Captain.”

And if, for some reason, you don’t get them back online?” asked Second Officer Ms Aku.

Then we all evacuate,” Ms Arenson said grimly. “Either in the pirate ship, or, now that the EOMs are back online, in the Symphony’s lifeboats.”

I know which option I’ll be choosing,” Ms Aku said, scowling at Salazar.

But it shouldn’t come to that,” Ms Arenson said confidently. “This is the easy part.”

And so saying, she walked over to the PNM master console, shooing the Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin out of the way.

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

Directly above them, one level up, was the Shifting Sands lounge; the luxurious bar that was, until a few minutes ago, the only home Marie had ever known. Although she’d deserted it now, the room was neither empty nor silent. On one of the many soft leather couches lay the enormous pirate Gotmund, busily getting on with his motionless, silent, unconscious oblivion. On another couch nearby, his crew mate, the drunken doctor Jelani, was also out cold. She was working her way through a drunken slumber, and snoring very loudly indeed.

For a couple of minutes, nothing happened.

And then…

Jelani rolled over, and continued sleeping.

But now on her left side.

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

Up on the ship’s bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair had been relieved to hear Ms Arenson’s report from Engineering. There wasn’t much for him to do up here; the ship’s course was – unfortunately – predetermined and locked in, so he was only really there to monitor the systems and ensure that the bridge wasn’t unattended.

Despite the boredom of this, despite the futility, Mr Sinclair’s sense of duty stayed strong. He would not desert his post.

Not yet, anyway.

Although Mr Sinclair was a loyal First Officer to Captain Singh, he was also a devoted family man. He had a wife and daughter who needed him. He would not be meekly surrendering to his doom in – what was it now? – 16 minutes.

He checked a map of the ship, to remind himself exactly where the nearest lifeboat was.

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

Like I was saying, Captain,” Chief Engineer Ms Arenson said, deftly punching instructions into the PNM master console. “This is the easiest part of the whole thing. To bring the Primary Navigation Modules online, all I have to do is simply tell the computer to – ”

She stopped, and frowned at the screen in front of her.

Hm.”

What is it, Ms Arenson?” asked Captain Singh.

No, but that can’t be right…” Ms Arenson mumbled. “It looks like the PNMs have shut themselves down again, and that datadump overload is returning somehow…”

But we cleared that overload,” protested Devereux, looking to Mr Abara for support.

Yeah!” he added, supportively.

I know you did,” Ms Arenson responded, gesturing to the console and shaking her head. “I don’t know what to tell you – maybe the systems are all so badly damaged that your repairs just couldn’t hold.”

But we did a brilliant job,” Devereux insisted, petulantly.

So Ms Arenson,” the captain inquired. “Are you saying that we don’t have navigational capabilities? And that we’re not likely to get them back?”

I’m sorry to interrupt, Captain,” said the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain, who was apprehensively poring over another console. “But the Emergency Override Matrices have just failed again too.”

This time, the protest was Marie’s; “But we only just managed to fix them!”

Well, now they’re unfixed,” Mr Chamberlain responded glumly.

Bugger,” Marie said quietly.

“So… no access to lifeboats?” asked Ms Aku.

No access to lifeboats.”

There was a moment while everyone processed the implications of these developments; a moment before the Chief Engineer heaved a great sigh, and wearily hoisted herself up onto Marie’s chair again, to address the room.

I’m sorry, everyone. For a moment there, I really thought that was going to work. But all the damage…” she waved an arm around, gesturing to every part of the room, before fixing her eyes on Salazar. “All the damage your people did, is just far too extensive.”

Salazar glared at the floor – humiliated, ashamed, frustrated and angry. This had never been his plan.

We’re now back exactly where we were forty minutes ago,” Ms Arenson continued. “And again, I’m sorry, but… I don’t know what to do. In thirteen and a half minutes, this ship will nosedive right into the planet’s surface, unless we kill all propulsion, or alter our trajectory. And now, we have no way of doing that.”

She climbed slowly down from the chair.

The Engine Room filled with a crestfallen silence.

After a moment, the door behind First Mate Jiang slid open, to reveal AJ – bruised, battered and exhausted after his long, painstaking trek up from the empty pool down on F Deck.

He hobbled into the room, surprised and confused by the sight of the pirates and the Symphony’s crew united in contemplative silence. He staggered up to Jiang and tapped her on the arm.

Hey Jiang, how are ya? Did I miss anything?”

 

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 46 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:14 AM

12 minutes until impact

Mr Sinclair!” Captain Singh called.

Yes Captain?” responded the disembodied voice of her First Officer on the bridge.

Please initiate Evacuation Protocols,” the captain said dejectedly. “It’s time to abandon ship.”

Yes! Oh, thank you, thank you!’ was what Mr Sinclair thought. ‘The end of this nightmare is finally in sight. At last, at last! I can go home to my girls.’ All he said, though, was “Yes, Captain”, as he carried out the order, and the evacuation tone began sounding throughout the ship.

All crew will need to leave on the pirate ship, though;” she reminded him. “Our lifeboats have all been locked down. Again.”

Yes Captain,” he repeated. This wasn’t ideal, but as scared of the pirates as he was, Mr Sinclair was probably even more scared of smashing into a planet at hundreds of kilometres per hour, and being crushed, burned and entombed forever in 200,000 tons of torn, twisted metal. He trotted briskly off the bridge, and towards the Docking Bay.

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I am assuming, Captain Sharp,” she said, turning back to her son, “that your offer still stands?”

Yes Ma’am. It’ll be a little bit cosy, but we’ll all fit.”

I don’t mind ‘cosy’!” said Ms LeGuin cheerfully.

I trust that Your Captainship will be joining us?” Salazar asked, in a tone that sounded more hopeful than he’d intended it to.

No, I will not,” was the impassive reply. “The captain always goes down with her ship.”

But that’s stupid,” Salazar snapped, exasperated. “I’m offering to save you – I can get all of us out of here, safe and sound. This is life and death, Diana. It’s not time to be stubborn.”

She fixed him with a steely glare. “This is not stubbornness, Captain Sharp. This is Honour. I don’t expect you to understand.”

Well you got that right – I don’t,” he mumbled under his breath. “What if I were to force you to leave? What if I just stunned you and dragged you off the ship?”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“If it saved your life, I believe I would.”

“NO, Albert!” she yelled, suddenly and ferociously.

The stunned silence was only broken a moment later, when some of the more immature pirates couldn’t help themselves;

“Whooo! Al-bert’s in trouble! Whoo!” they cooed, mockingly.

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

A couple of metres away, Ms LeGuin was enthusiastically congratulating Marie on her newfound freedom.

Look at you!” she said, gripping Marie’s shoulders. “Out at last from behind the bar, and helping to save the day!”

“… Or not, as it turned out,” Marie said with a self-deprecating roll of her eyes.

Well, yes, alright,” Ms LeGuin conceded. “BUT your connection to the ship’s computer – and all that translating that you did – was actually working.”

Marie regarded her sceptically.

Until it wasn’t. But hey,” Ms LeGuin continued, “the good news is… you’re still here! And you didn’t go mad, or break down!”

I know, I know!” Marie said gratefully, warming to the theme, “and I gotta say, it’s bloody wonderful to BE here! I’m happier than a kitten under a leaky cow.”

You’re free, you can explore!” Ms LeGuin enthused, choosing to ignore Marie’s mystifying simile.

And I can help; I can contribute.”

Yes! And I’m sure that the next time you do, it’ll be even better.”

It will, it will!” Marie assured her. “I can do so much more than I ever thought I could. I can travel so much further than I ever thought I could. My whole world has grown so much – there are so many options now. It makes me realise that until today, I was about as useful as a one-legged man in a bum-kicking contest.”

Ms LeGuin frowned; were there actually such things as bum-kicking contests?

And you know what they say, Marie…” she offered, as she broke out of her reverie. “‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.”

Yeah!” Marie agreed. “Although they don’t say that in the Trokinian system, where they have that non-fatal, muscle eating virus.”

Oh yeah, I had forgotten about them. Yeah.”

Their conversation seemed to have come to a natural end, but Marie was still feeling energised, excited, and even chattier than usual. She turned to Salazar. “Hey, I really like the name of your ship,” she offered. “The Cheeky Albert. ‘Cheeky!’ I love it – it’s so saucy! Oo-er, Missus! ‘Know what I mean? Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!’” The oddness of this collection of words made everyone in the room stare at Marie in confusion.

Eventually, it was Salazar who spoke.

What did you say?”

I said ‘I like the name of your ship’…”

No, after that.”

Erm, ‘very saucy’?”

No, after that.”

Oh, I said ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!’ It’s a reference to – ”

Nudge nudge,” Salazar repeated, suddenly thoughtful. “Nudge nudge…”

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On one of the couches up in the Shifting Sands, somewhere in the depths of her drunken slumber, Jelani decided she was uncomfortable.

She rolled over onto her right side…

and continued sleeping.

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Salazar bounded over to the Chief Engineer, eyes shining, excited by the idea he’d just had… “Ms Arenson, how much would the ship’s current trajectory need to be altered, for it to bypass the planet?”

Ms Arenson quickly did the calculations. “Well, 12 degrees, but… so what? I don’t have navigational control; there’s no way I can alter the ship’s trajectory.”

No… But maybe I can,” Salazar countered. “What if I used the Cheeky Albert to nudge the Symphony off its current course?”

Ms Arenson blinked at him, dumbly.

If I could detach the Albert from your Docking Bay, fly it out and around, and then gently bring it into contact with the Symphony’s hull….”

And then if you could give it a burst of acceleration…” continued First Mate Jiang, boarding her captain’s train of thought. “You might be able to push the Symphony out of its current flight path…”

“… and into a new one!” Salazar concluded triumphantly. “So that it missed the planet altogether! Could that work?”

Ms Arenson looked thoughtful. “Well, theoretically, I suppose so… but a ship that small wouldn’t have enough power to shift a cruise liner of this size and mass.”

You’d be surprised by how much muscle the Albert has,” offered AJ. “I’ve made a few modifications in that department….”

Who’s he?” asked Mr Chamberlain, as he noticed the Albert’s bedraggled mechanic for the first time. “When did he get here?”

Ms Arenson ignored her second-in-command as she hurriedly finished some more calculations. “Well, maybe if your ship does have enough power to nudge us off course…” She frowned again. “But by the time you get to the Docking Bay, disengage your ship, fly it out and up against the Symphony’s hull to start pushing….”

But is it possible?” Salazar interrupted.

Pushing it that far off course will chew up precious time…” Ms Arenson warned. “AND if you did somehow manage to nudge the Symphony out of its collision course, that little freighter of yours would just take its place. By that late stage, there’s no way the Albert would be able to escape the planet’s gravity well. It’ll be pulled straight down to the surface… with you in it.

She paused and looked Salazar in the eye.

“So, in answer to your question, yes. It is possible – ”

Excellent!” Salazar exclaimed, clapping his hands and rubbing them together.

– But it’s also suicidal.”

Salazar’s eyes sparkled, as a smile began to creep across his dark, scarred face.

I’m gonna do it. If it means saving the Symphony,” he said, glancing at Captain Singh, “and everyone on it, then I reckon it’s worth a try.”

But you could save us all anyway,” said Devereux, frowning and looking around the room for support “if we all just left in the Albert right now.”

Mr Abara nodded vigorously in agreement.

Not quite all of you. ” He turned to Captain Singh. “You’re absolutely sure you won’t leave?”

I will not desert my post” was her frosty response.

Then you leave me no choice. You all stay here, I’m going to the Albert. I’m gonna save the Symphony and everyone on it. I promise.”

The crews of both ships registered the implications of this, in grave, thoughtful silence.

Oh you’re welcome, don’t mention it,” Salazar drawled.

But Cap’n, are you sure?” asked First Mate Jiang. “You’re putting yourself in an awful lot of danger.”

I promised you we’d take the Symphony, didn’t I?” Salazar whispered out of the corner of his mouth, before raising his voice again. “Oh, this ship is well worth saving, Jiang. Particularly if Captain Singh has vowed not to leave it.”

Jiang closed her eyes and shook her head imploringly. “Let me do it, Cap’n – I’m a better pilot than you.”

Salazar smiled at her, but said nothing.

Or at least let me help you,” she continued, desperation creeping into her voice. “Let me co-pilot. Please.”

Thank you, Jiang, but no. I’m the captain – it’s my responsibility. In fact,” he glanced at Captain Singh. “It’ll be my honour.”

Captain Singh gave him the tiniest approving nod.

But you’ll lose the ship; your ship,” Jiang reminded him.

Salazar grinned.

Eh, that ship only cost me a dollar.” he said with a wink.

And we could also lose you,” she added, too quietly for him to hear.

 

 

Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here

= CHAPTER 47 =

512 years in the future.
A Thursday afternoon.

4:48 PM

It had been 9 hours and 48 minutes since Captain Singh cut Dr Zivai adrift from the Symphony, and she had now drifted more than 294 kilometres away from the ship.

She continued to float at 30 kilometres per hour, in the same straight line, past staggeringly superb celestial sights; incandescent gas clouds, psychedelically-hued ringed planets, asteroid belts that appeared as thin and sharp as knife blades, and always, always, those infinite hosts of bright white stars, thickly spattered across the inky black firmament.

‘Pretty,’ she thought.

Dr Zivai knew that ten minutes from now, her spacesuit’s oxygen would run out. She knew that ten minutes from now, she would be dead.

Inside her helmet:

Her breathing rate had slowed, to 12 breaths per minute. She was no longer perspiring, and her pupils were dilated, as she continued to greedily drink in the awe-inspiring spectacle that enveloped her so very, very completely. Her eyes were smiling.

Inside her head:

‘No one on the Symphony will mourn my death. None of them wanted me there. And they’re rid of me now.
It is what it is.
I did bring that upon myself, I suppose, when I murdered Ms Stuppeck, Mr Vickers, and Mr Serrano.
Oh, and that pirate in the cellar. If any of my victims had any families – did they? I don’t know, I wasn’t really that close to any of them – those families might derive some satisfaction from seeing me die this way. They’d think I deserve this. Maybe I do.

In just a few minutes, my 43 years will be over.
43 years – not a very long time.

But I have brought this upon myself. Was the thrill of the kill – kills, actually – worth it? Those few fleeting rushes, that handful of moments; were they worth this? Were they worth not having the next 40 or 50 years of my life?
No.
They were not.
Not much I can do about it now, though.
Not much I can do about it at all.

How will I be remembered? Will I be remembered?

Chronometer? Six minutes! Argh! Don’t waste time on these thoughts – have better ones! Come on, Tara, come on – I should be having grand thoughts, profound insights. I should be realizing The Secrets To Life, now that mine will be over in – what, five and a half minutes?

Damn, I wish I wasn’t so hungry.
And thirsty. Thirsty too. Just a glass of water would be nice. A simple glass of water, that’s all. I’d kill for a –
I’d love a glass of water.

Should I be feeling some Last Desperate Burst of Hope right now?

No, Tara. No. The time for hope has past.

But can I be sure about that? That this is really, definitely, absolutely 100% certainly the end?

Yes, Tara. It definitely is. No last minute reprieve for you; no escape, no Dramatic Rescue Just In The Nick Of Time. This is it. It is what it is. And hey, as far as deaths go… well, at least this one has a sensational view.

I wish I’d read more books. I always wanted to learn a musical instrument. Oh well.

Well, at least I won’t die wondering what it’s like to kill someone. Ha! Was that in poor taste? Probably. On the other hand, it’s not like there’s anyone around here to be offended by it… Eh – it’s just a thought.

It just is. Let it be.

It’ll be nice not to be hungry anymore.

These are my final thoughts? They’re not very profound, are they, Tara? Pathetic, in fact.

Eh, I should be kind to myself. They are what they are.
Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the view. Perhaps I should be grateful for that.

Is that it, though? Is that my grand final epiphany?
Damn! Only three minutes left now.

I was going to say ‘but I have so much left to do’! But there’s not really a lot I can get done, all the way out here. Ha.

I do feel bad now for my victims. I had no right to take their lives.
I am sorry, Devlin.
I am sorry, Anton.
I am sorry, Tania.
I am sorry, Mr Serrano – don’t know your first name, sorry.
And I am sorry, drunken-fat-pirate-in-the-cellar.
I know none of you will believe me – you can’t, because you’re dead. But I do feel for you. That’s too little too late, I know. But it’s something, isn’t it?

Yeah, don’t congratulate yourself too much, Tara. You’re not so great.

Hm.’

She now noticed her breathing was becoming more laboured.

‘I guess this is it.’

It began quite suddenly, that feeling of profound sleepiness. And now it infiltrated and overtook her quickly, as though her veins were filling with pure torpor. She blinked, noticing how even that tiny reflex action felt slow and dull. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier.

‘This is it. Definitely. Hm. So.’

A penultimate thought took her completely by surprise;

‘I’m sorry, Mum.
I’m sorry, Dad.’

A tear came to her eye, and she yawned, as the final coherent thought she would ever have crossed her mind;

‘… Well, it’s about time.’

And as Dr Tara Zivai continued to drift off…
She drifted off.

 

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 48 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:20 AM

6 minutes until impact

Wait a minute – aren’t we forgetting something?” protested Devereux.

Salazar looked at her, unsure.

The Albert! You’re seriously suggesting sacrificing the Albert? That ship’s been our home for the past fourteen years!”

Yeah! The Cheeky Albert’s where I keep all my stuff!” AJ added.

AJ’s got a point, Cap’n,” said Jiang.

You can’t expect us to give up the last fourteen years of our lives, just like that!” said Devereux.

The chorus of disapproval grew louder – the pirates’ voices were raised, they interrupted each other, spoke over the top of each other, the discussion became heated.

Captain Singh and the other Symphony crew members watched on incredulously; did any of them have time for this? Ms Arenson spoke for all of them – and quite economically, too – when she suddenly yelled “IMPACT IN FIVE AND A HALF MINUTES!”

Alright, alright, alright!” said Salazar, holding up both hands, in the universal gesture of calling for calm. “I’ll give each of you one minute on board to clear out your stuff and get back to safety. Then I’ll have to go.”

Ms Arenson stared at him, stunned. “Are you INSANE?”

Salazar ignored her. If retrieving their few meagre possessions was this important to his crew, then it was important to him too.

One minute – no more. And that is an order,” he continued, eyeing each of his crew in turn. “Understood?”

There were various mumbles of “Aye Cap’n”, as the pirates realised that this would probably be the last order their Captain would ever give them.

Right. Then let’s go!”

But Captain Singh stopped Salazar, gripping his upper arm and fixing him with a piercing stare.

You do know that you probably won’t be able to get out in time?” she asked.

If I can save all of you – and the Symphony – it’ll be worth it.”

She eyed him with bemusement.

The captain should go down with his ship,” Salazar said, surprising himself. “Huh,” he continued. “You must be rubbing off on me.”

It took a moment for Captain Singh to respond.

Just so,” she said finally, her voice equal parts maternal pride… and utter desolation.

She let go of Salazar’s arm, and he ran off. Her shoulders drooped as she closed her eyes and exhaled slowly.

Captain Diana Singh was spent.

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Within seconds, Salazar had sped down to the Docking Bay – closely followed by AJ, Devereux, Lightfoot and Jiang – and back onto his trusty ship, the Cheeky Albert.

None of the pirates expected to be greeted by the smiling faces of the Symphony’s Chief Steward Mr Lebedev and its Cruise Director Mr Martell.

Oh, at last! You’re here! We’re escaping!” gushed Mr Lebedev.

Thank you so much for rescuing us!” said Mr Martell.

They clearly hadn’t heard any of the discussions in the Engine Room.

Sorry gentlemen, change of plan,” Salazar snapped. “In a moment, I’m gonna pilot this ship out there…” he gestured in the general direction of the cruiser’s starboard side, “… ram it up against the Symphony’s hull, and push it off its current collision course. You’re welcome to come along for the ride, but the odds are it’ll be a one way trip.”

Mr Lebedev and Mr Martell shrieked with fear and darted off the Albert and back into the Symphony’s Docking Bay.

Salazar ran to the ship’s bridge, as Jiang, Lightfoot, AJ and Devereux all sprinted past him, heading for their various berths.

YOU’VE GOT ONE MINUTE, PEOPLE!” Salazar yelled, as he settled into the pilot’s seat and began firing up the ship’s flight systems.

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Lightfoot was the first one out. There had only been two possessions she wanted to save – a little data drive, packed with treasured and endlessly useful information… and an old, tarnished Cetanian Moonstone necklace, whose only value was sentimental.

On her way out, she stopped by the ship’s bridge, to bid her captain farewell. On hearing her footfall, he spun around in the pilot’s seat, to face her.

Ah, Lightfoot! Hey, will you do me a favour?”

She nodded. Of course she she would. After all, this would probably be the last thing he’d ever ask of her.

Anything, Cap’n.”

Salazar smiled. “Now, while this plan of mine IS, most definitely, undoubtedly, one hundred percent going to work…” (Salazar had always subscribed to the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach) “… the Albert will not survive it. So. I want you to transfer all of the Albert’s data – and all of the Albert’s wealth, such as it is – over to the Symphony… can you do that?”

Of course.”

Salazar nodded. “But you don’t have to be here to do it, do you?”

Nah, not at all – I can do that from over there on the Symphony.”

Good. Let’s do that, then. Might as well salvage whatever we can from this old rustbucket,” he said, smiling sadly.

Aye Cap’n.”

Lightfoot stood there, wanting to say so much more than that, but not quite sure how to. She wanted to acknowledge the last fourteen years – to thank Salazar for the good times, to laugh with him about the bad ones, and to reminisce with him about…. Well, about all of them. She wanted to thank him for this sacrifice; this sacrifice he was making not only for his crew, but for a bunch of people who were, just a couple of hours ago, ‘The Enemy’. But no words came.

It fell to Salazar to end this pause. These were valuable seconds, that he really couldn’t spare.

Now go.”

Aye, Cap’n.” Lightfoot turned and jogged off the ship’s bridge, disembarking the Cheeky Albert for the last time.

The moment she left his sight, Salazar yelled “FORTY FIVE SECONDS, EVERYBODY! FORTY FIVE SECONDS!”

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His warning echoed throughout the ship.

First Mate Jiang heard it, as she was opening the foot locker adjacent to her berth. She frantically rummaged around inside. Where were they? Where were they?…

Aha!” she said aloud, as she spotted the ring – a dull platinum piece, set with seven Zilmarian starstones. She deftly slipped it onto her left index finger, and continued rifling through the locker’s contents.

Now,’ she thought, ‘if I can just find the map…’

And there it was – the stained, ancient parchment, rolled up and tied shut with three crumbling leather bootlaces. She picked it up and stuffed it into the folds of her jacket. She remembered the day this map came into her possession. Now that was an eventful –

THIRTY SECONDS, AND THEN I AM LEAVING!!!”

Yep, fair enough,’ thought Jiang, snapping out of it, and slamming her foot locker shut.

She bolted towards the bridge.

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Thirty seconds?!” AJ repeated in exasperation, as he rifled through his chest of clothes, gadgets, spare parts and keepsakes.

He’d already stuffed a few random items into his many pockets, but there was one in particular that he was looking for…

He spotted it. A small oil painting – a portrait of two people, on a canvas not much bigger than his hand. It showed a much younger AJ, and his partner Simon; their arms were around each other and they were smiling joyously. For a moment, AJ’s face mirrored the image – his smile was jubilant as he kissed, and then pocketed, the picture.

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

When it came to what she saved, Devereux wasn’t being quite so choosy. She stood at her locker, snatching every item she could, and hurriedly stuffing them into her pockets. Her enamoured companion Mr Abara stood by her side. He was helping.

Grab everything,” she’d told him. “Everything you can carry. Between us, I reckon we can probably get all of it.”

He worked hard, swiftly collecting and pocketing everything he could. He desperately wanted to serve her well; the thought of being useful to her was a joy to him. When she had asked him to help her with this, he’d replied “I’d be delighted”. And he had meant it – with every fibre of his being. He did love her so.

Right, that’s it – EVERYBODY OUT!” Salazar’s voice boomed throughout the ship’s dingy corridors.

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On the ship’s bridge, Salazar was completing the final steps of the pre-flight protocols.

AJ appeared behind him.

Cap’n, I just wanted to say – ”

But Salazar had no time for long goodbyes.

Go, AJ – go!” he commanded, shooting AJ a brave smile.

Aye Cap’n. Good luck Cap’n,” Salazar nodded, and as AJ left, Devereux arrived on the bridge, with Mr Abara in tow.

She knew time was tight, so she just offered a simple, heartfelt “Good luck Cap’n,” as she beat a path to the exit.

Yes, good luck,” Mr Abara also mumbled to Salazar, as he trailed along in her wake.

And now First Mate Jiang stood on the ship’s bridge, directly behind Salazar in the pilot’s seat. She didn’t move. She didn’t know what she was waiting for; she only knew that she was reluctant to leave. Although she wasn’t standing in his eyeline, Salazar knew she was there.

Jiang,” he said, “will you do me a favour?”

Of course.”

Look after Maggie for me?”

And that was when Jiang knew. She knew Salazar didn’t expect to return. Blinking away sudden tears and swallowing hard against the lump in her throat, she answered “Aye, Cap’n”. She didn’t trust herself to say any more than that.

Now go! Go!” Salazar said.

She didn’t.

Clock’s ticking, Jiang – GO!”

Jiang ran out of the Albert, through the Docking Bay and further into the Symphony, sealing the Docking Bay door behind her.

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

Salazar detached the Cheeky Albert from the Symphony’s docking portal, and carefully piloted it away from the massive cruiser, to begin this fateful, all-or-nothing gamble…

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

From their (relatively) safe position inside the Symphony, his crew anxiously watched the battered little freighter pull away. Jiang said the three words so quietly, they were almost a whisper; “Good luck, Cap’n.”

 

 

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 49 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:23 AM

3 minutes until impact

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

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

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

Not here.

Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do. I do indeed.” she said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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45 seconds until impact!”

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he has,” AJ snapped.

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

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

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

AJ slapped his forehead in exasperation.

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

So Salazar did it.

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

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

Well?” Ms Arenson snapped at Mr Chamberlain.

He consulted the console in front of him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturally, they both looked at the floor and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about the other ship?”

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

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

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

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

“And its current course?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here

= CHAPTER 50 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:27 AM

There was something else that everyone on board the Symphony didn’t see, which actually turned out to be quite important.

Because just after the Cheeky Albert left their field of vision, two sections of its hull slid apart, to reveal a smaller spaceship inside. This was the Cheeky Albert’s second pinnace; its second four-person vessel, used for short trips and lightning raids.

And so no one in the Symphony’s Engine Room witnessed the pinnace blasting out of the pirate ship, seconds before the larger vessel was sucked into the planet’s gravitational pull. They didn’t see the pinnace shooting away from the Albert, and they didn’t see it perform an exuberant (and utterly unnecessary) loop-the-loop, before righting itself and setting course for the Symphony’s Docking Bay.

And they couldn’t hear the man in its pilot seat, either.

WHOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOO!” he said.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *           

Still no audio or visual contact with the Cheeky Albert, Mr Chamberlain?” 

No Captain,” was the sombre response.

Just so,” the Captain responded forlornly.

The pirates Jiang, AJ, Devereux and Lightfoot looked mournfully at the floor. He was gone. Salazar Sharp, their captain, their friend… was gone. The four of them silently embraced, united in their devastation.

Good riddance,” snarled Second Officer Ms Aku, as Mr Sinclair and Mr Ferrer nodded tentatively in agreement.

AJ pounced at her, his fists clenched. “How dare you?!” he spat. “He sacrificed his life to save your ship!”

This ship wouldn’t have needed saving if you all hadn’t come blundering in here,” she countered, “hellbent on robbing and murdering us!”

AJ took a step back, unclenched his fists, and took a deep breath. “We’ve lost our captain,” he said in a small voice. “We’ve lost our home.”

What do you want from us – sympathy?” First Officer Mr Sinclair snapped. “You’ve killed two of our crew members!”

And look what else you’ve done!” Mr Chamberlain added, gesturing to one of the Engine Room’s wallscreens. It displayed a schematic of the entire ship, criss-crossed and pockmarked with red lines, spots and splotches from down in the keel of the ship all the way up to A Deck; the catastrophic legacy of the morning’s slew of gunfights.

You even destroyed most of the maitbots, you lumbering, bloodthirsty idiots!” said Ms Aku. “And all for what? For our secret cargo? The ten tonnes of gold? You botched that as well. Thanks to your violent, amateurish bumbling, it all got sucked out into space, just seconds after you found it.”

Along with poor Mr Ellis,” Ms LeGuin added quietly. Mr Ferrer nodded sadly.

If that’s what this was all about, then it’s gone,” Ms Aku continued. “Your oh-so-precious treasure has gone; you don’t have it, we don’t have it – it’s GONE! This morning’s been nothing more than a long, violent, destructive exercise in futility. Are you proud of yourselves?”

And that gold belonged to the FrontierLine Corporation,” said Mr Sinclair. “Do you have any idea how much trouble we’re all going to be in?”

The pirates did not know how much trouble the Symphony crew would be in. They guessed it would be quite a lot.

All I know,” said First Mate Jiang hoarsely, “is that Salazar has just destroyed our home of 14 years, and he’s just destroyed… himself. He did it to save us, and he did it to save you – all of you. But especially you, Captain Singh. And your refusal to abandon ship – your stubbornness – has now cost us our home, and our captain’s life.” She blinked away the tears that she was determined not to cry. “Your son’s life. Are you happy now?”

The crestfallen captain softly stated the obvious; “No, I’m not happy now.”

The moment of sad silence that followed was, eventually, broken by Lightfoot.

There may yet be a silver lining, everybody…” the pirate smirked, as she swapped knowing glances with the Symphony’s Chief Engineer and former Chief Technology Officer. “You see, between us, Ms Arenson, Mr Abara and I have just managed to – ”

CAPTAIN!” Mr Chamberlain suddenly yelled, cutting her off. “I think you should see this.”

Captain Singh looked at the wallscreen he was pointing to. It showed the starscape just off the Symphony’s starboard side, the curved surface of the planet Liphigantu just bulging into the bottom of the frame. At first, she couldn’t see anything unusual. Then, after a moment, she spotted it – a tiny speck, slowly moving towards them. As it drew nearer, she saw that it was a ship. Well, maybe not a “ship”; it looked too small to be called that. But it was definitely a craft – a small space-faring vessel, gradually growing larger in her field of vision as it approached.

The pinnace!” Jiang exclaimed as she recognised the Albert’s smaller auxiliary craft.

Haha! He got out!” AJ cheered. “The Cap’n got out!”

Jiang, Lightfoot, Devereux and AJ spontaneously rushed into a group hug, and began jumping up and down. “He got out! He actually got out! Haha!”

Mr Chamberlain, can you open a channel? Can we talk to him?” First Mate Jiang asked.

The Symphony’s Second Engineer tried, but was only met with audiovisual static.

No,” he reported. “Looks like all its communications systems are down.”

Oh yeah,” said AJ absently. “I’d been meaning to fix those….”

Slowly, the Symphony crew members all drifted, mesmerized, toward the screen, joining the four smiling pirates who were staring at it.

The pinnace drew closer and closer to the enormous cruise liner’s Docking Bay.

He got out,” Captain Singh repeated quietly, as a small smile played across her face.

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

Elsewhere on D deck, a hundred or so metres away from the Engine Room, the Maitbot Control Centre was a hive of activity.

The five functioning maitbots scuttled among the scorched wreckage of the room, diligently mending, fixing, patching and rebooting their damaged comrades, or harvesting parts from those unfortunate droids that were beyond repair.

Each revived maitbot then immediately joined the reconstruction efforts, until the room was filled with the whirring and clicking of spindly metallic arms and legs probing, soldering, connecting, rebuilding and reviving their colleagues. The number of functioning maitbots continued to grow.

To an uninformed observer, their tireless revival efforts may have looked loyal and compassionate – almost tender.

It was true that they were selfless; but then they were robots, and robots are, by definition, selfless. The services they performed now, and the duty that drove them, were not choices. Service and Duty had been hardwired into them, as central tenets of their core programming. They were just machines. Just little black, crablike robots, designed and programmed for very specific purposes. They’re not people, you know.

Apart from the 68 of them that were blasted to bits, the majority of these silent automaton workers would soon be back on deck, and as good as new.

Or almost as good as new.

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

Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, HEY!” Salazar was yelling triumphantly as he ran along B Deck, on his way to the Symphony’s Engine room. ‘They are gonna get the shock of their lives!’ he’d thought upon disembarking the pinnace, after safely docking it two levels below.

He reached Engineering, opened its door, and leapt into the room, his arms outstretched.

HEY, HEY, HEY! GUESS WHO?!” he bellowed triumphantly.

It’s you. We know,” Mr Sinclair deadpanned. “We’ve been watching your approach.”

Salazar’s enthusiasm only waned for a split second.

Oh, right,” he nodded. “Still… pretty impressive, eh?”

YEEESS!!!” shouted Jiang, AJ, Devereux and Lightfoot, as they all rushed over to embrace him. Maggie the fox joined them, rubbing herself affectionately against Salazar’s shins.

You did it, Cap’n,” Jiang marvelled. “You bloody did it!”

I KNOW!” Salazar yelled exuberantly. “I’m a legend! I’ve saved the day! Haha!”

Salazar’s crew couldn’t help grinning at his loud, shameless self-congratulation. It was good to have him back. Laughing, Salazar broke free of his crew’s embrace, turned and looked Mr Lebedev in the eye.

You’re welcome.”

Then he turned to Mr Martell. “You’re welcome too.”

Then Mr Sinclair, Ms Aku, Ms LeGuin and Mr Ferrer. “And you’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome and you’re welcome!” Ms LeGuin was the only one to smile.

Then he rounded on Ms Arenson, Mr Chamberlain and Mr Abara. “And you, you and you – you’re all welcome too.”

Ms Arenson rolled her eyes.

What about me?” asked Marie in an exaggerated plaintive tone. “Don’t forget me!”

Of course I wouldn’t, Marie! You are most very welcome indeed,” He said, bowing to her flamboyantly, before turning, at last, to face Captain Singh.

If she was awash with relief that her son had survived and returned to her – if she was, in fact, overjoyed to see him – she certainly didn’t show it. In fact, she almost seemed to be standing to attention, as she stared at him. There was a long pause. “Well done, Captain Sharp,” she said at last, stiffly.

Overwhelmed by the various emotions battling inside him, Salazar decided that for now, he should stick to discussing practicalities.

Well!” he said loudly, clapping and rubbing his hands together. “It looks like you’re stuck with us for the time being, Diana. You wouldn’t have a few spare berths you could put us up in for a while, would you?”

A few spare berths?” Captain Singh responded, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve got about 2000.”

Her First Officer felt compelled to correct her. “2,106 actually, Captain.”

Thank you, Mr Sinclair,” said Captain Singh.

By which she meant “Shut up, Mr Sinclair.”

 

Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here

= CHAPTER 51 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:30 AM

One level above them, in the Shifting Sands, on a soft leather couch, the enormous pirate Gotmund was beginning to stir. “Rmphlphgnnt,” he grunted, blinking his eyes open and slowly sitting up. He looked around and frowned, as he struggled to recognise his surroundings.

He was aching all over. He took a mental inventory of his gigantic, muscular body. Toes, feet, legs? Yes, he could move them all.

Arms, shoulders, neck, torso? Yep. Although everything was throbbing, at least it all still worked properly. He breathed a sigh of relief as he recognised this feeling; he’d just been shot. That was alright then; he’d been shot loads of times before. No biggie. As he surveyed the tastefully decorated and subtly lit walls, the luxurious furnishings and the soft deep carpets, he finally worked out where he was; he was in that fancy bar, where they’d all nearly been asphyxiated earlier.

He looked across the room.

He was in that fully stocked fancy bar, where they’d nearly been asphyxiated earlier. Things could be worse.

Gotmund suddenly felt thirsty. It was only now, as he laboriously hauled himself up onto his feet, that he spotted his crew mate Jelani, snoring on another couch nearby.

Jelani,” he called. “Jelani!”

Mmmm,” she mumbled, from somewhere deep in a drunken dream. “No, I don’t think so. Even though it’s called a hash brown, I don’t think you’re supposed to – ”

JELANI!”

Argh! What?!” she started, falling off the couch with all the dignity and grace of a sack of wet sponges.

Ow.”

Jelani shook her head and squinted up at Gotmund, through the fog of her brutal, pounding headache.

Gotmund checked the time. “Jelani,” he boomed. The volume of his voice hurt. “It’s 9:30. I’ve been out for over an hour. What have I missed?”

How would I know?” she snapped. “Whatever it was, I missed it too.” She gestured weakly to the couch where – until a few seconds ago – she’d been sleeping it off. She really did not feel very well at all.

Oh. Alright, fair enough,” he nodded, as he made his way behind the bar. “Want a drink?”

Jelani looked at him, briefly considered his offer, and suddenly – and quite explosively – vomited.

Suit yourself,” Gotmund shrugged, as he started perusing the bottles behind the bar.

 

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 52 =

512 years in the future.

A Thursday morning.

9:40 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salazar suddenly realised that Lightfoot was staring at him expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightfoot, Ms Arenson and Mr Abara all nodded excitedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure have!” Lightfoot beamed.

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

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

She didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a moment’s contented silence.

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

What?” Evans said flatly.

I can’t help thinking…”

Yes?”

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

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

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

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

Evans and Skarsgard stared at Fullbrook.

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

No I didn’t.”

Yes you did.”

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

There was a pause.

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

Out here?”scoffed Evans. “Unlikely”.

And so what if they did?” added Skarsgard.

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

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

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

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

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

No. Well, yes – a little bit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was still dead.

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

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

Captain Singh frowned at him quizzically.

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

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

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

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

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

So, Cap’n,” said First Mate Jiang.

Yes?” Diana and Salazar answered in unison.

What do we do now?”

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

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

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

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

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

And they kissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana winced. “Don’t call me ma’am.”

Yes… Mum?” he said uncertainly.

Ooh. Don’t call me that either.”

Right. Sure. Sorry.”

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

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

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

Its innocence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

to trillions of terrors, and trillions of triumphs…

and

infinite

wondrous

possibilities.

THE END.

 

 

Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here.

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

Cheers and thanks again,

Stephen