512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
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.
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, 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.
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.
Text copyright (c) 2020 Stephen Hall
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