= 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. 


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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