= 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.”

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

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.


Text copyright (c) 2019 Stephen Hall

All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com

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