512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
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.
Evans, though, didn’t want another skirmish – she just wanted the gold. If she could just talk to them, she might be able to –
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.
Text copyright (c) 2019 Stephen Hall
All rights reserved.
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