“Your arse is mine, Ko,” Wicka snarled, slapping her hand down on the table.
Dan glanced down at the seven circular cards that she had just put down and groaned. The laughing faces of two gods stared up at him from between a goddess, a demigod and a hydra. A Full Spirit. He didn’t even bother checking his own cards before admitting defeat.
Wicka grinned impishly and gathered in the twenty chits stacked in the middle of the table. Dan hid a smile behind his hand – he liked to see her this way, so happy. It was a pleasant change after the last few days aboard ship.
After they departed Bastion Shadow, the Phoenix had slid in and out of subspace a couple of times to throw off any darkelings that might have picked up their trail. Guided by the temporal drifter, Lorns, they had then charted a course to an area of space Wicka had called the Sperious Veils. From what she had explained to him, the whole league of space had a much deeper chronotone concentration than any other she had ever seen. Lorns claimed that he could use a machine he had designed to cut a doorway to the realm where the Captain wanted to go.
The realm of the Crimson Queen.
It was all much too complicated for Dan. Talk of stolen hearts and spurned goddesses. He had taken to spending more and more time in the kitchens, especially after Kave’s reaction to his latest request for training. The only person onboard ship he had any contact with outside of the regular mess times was Wicka.
Who was, as she had promised, owning his behind.
“Another hand?” he offered as she finished counting the chits. To his disappointment, she shook her head.
“We’ll be attempting the first crossing in an hour. I need to be with the engines when it happens.”
“Alright,” he said. His voice sounded pathetic even to him.
She looked up, a lopsided smile on her face. “What’s wrong, Pots? You want me to kick your arse some more?”
“Can’t get enough of it,” he replied in kind. He was always astonished at the side of him she brought out.
“Well, don’t worry.” She finished emptying the chits into one of the overlarge pockets on her long leather coat and stood up. “Your arse will still be around to be kicked once we’re done.” She stepped past him and ruffled his hair as she passed. He turned slightly in his chair and watched her go. “See you around, Pots.”
He waved, and then realised how stupid he must look and dropped his hand into his lap. Breathing a heavy sigh, he let his head drop to the table. He wished he could get up the nerve to tell her how he felt. He got the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she might like him too. But if he never got up the nerve to ask…
Banging his head against the table a second time, he tried to stop thinking about her.
An hour later, he was dragged from pleasant sweaty dreams involving Wicka Bay, engine oil and lots of flesh by the shrill screech of the comm. panel over by the messhall door. He looked around for a moment in confusion, trying to make sense of the sound, of where he was, of what had happened… When he realised where he was he stumbled up out of the chair, over to the panel and pressed his hand to it.
Almost immediately, he heard Esala Gray’s voice, sounding tired and drawn out.
“Messhall? Messhall? Can you hear me?”
“Messhall here, Commander.”
“We need some kaf up here, Pots. It looks like it’s going to be a long night.”
Dan shook his head to try and make sense of the request. It took him a moment to remember what Wicka had said – the crew were preparing to use the drifter’s machinery. He felt a thrill of excitement run down his spine. To get a chance to take a look at what they were doing, to be on the bridge, in the middle of everything…
“Of course, sir. I’ll bring it straight up.”
“Good man, Pots.”
With a chime, the comm. cut off, leaving Dan in the dimness.
He stood there for a moment, collecting his thoughts, before rushing into the kitchen. He set a pot of water to boil and then darted into his storeroom. Pulling down one of the paper packages the quartermasters had purchased on Bastion Shadow, he rushed back to the heater in time to pull the pot off the hob before the water boiled over.
He had a number of kaf pots he had inherited from his mother when she passed. He chose the two largest, solid copper he kept to a burnished sheen. Dropping the thin white grains of kaf in the bottom, he carefully poured the boiling water until the kitchen filled with the thick sweet aroma.
Five minutes later, he was making his way through the corridors with a large tray carrying the two pots and a dozen small cups. Better to have too many than not enough.
He was alone in the turbolift on the way up. Unease filled him as it always did when he had to walk through the ship. There were so few crew members now that it seemed half a ghost ship. He could remember when he used to have to squeeze into a turbolift there were so many people aboard the Phoenix. Of course his mother had still been alive back then…
Arriving on the same deck as the bridge, he hurried his steps. If Kave was there, maybe he could prove that he was serious about wanting to be a security officer…
Just as he reached the doors, it whooshed open. Dan felt his heart rise into his throat as he tried desperately to quick-step past the man barrelling off the bridge. He felt the metal tray strike a shoulder and saw one of the pots begin to tip…
A calloused hand reached out and grabbed the handle, stalling the fall. Dan looked past the pot to see Kave looking down at him, a frown on his face.
“Watch yourself, Pots. You could hurt someone.”
Dan nodded, but Kave had already released the top of the kaf pot. Before he could say anything else, Kave was gone, vanishing down the ladder. Dan suppressed a heavy sigh. So much for impressing the security chief.
Squaring his shoulders, he walked through the door and onto the bridge.
A tubular chamber, the Phoenix’ bridge could hold up to ten people, though there were rarely more than three or four. Holographic consoles sprouted from the metal deck plating at will, sparkling with photonic energy. A large throbbing column rose from one corner, connected through biopacks and neurotransmitter entanglements to the bioficial intelligence buried deep within the ship’s core. A large holographic screen afforded the crew a clear view of the starfield beyond, currently a tortured starscape of crimson ribbons and dark brown stars.
Most of the holographic consoles had been deactivated, leaving the bridge almost empty. Captain Lee, Commander Gray, Lieutenant-Commander F’ryr, Lorns the drifter – who was keeping a safe distance from the three Wise Men – and Dalilah, the ship’s biomimetic herder were all gathered around a single spot on the bridge floor.
Dan knew Dalilah the least – as the ship’s main link to the bioficial intelligence, the willowy dark-haired woman spent most of her time communing with it. He studied her quickly, once again taken in by her over-large eyes and the blade-like ridges than ran down her cheeks and neck. She had no official rank aboard the ship, like every other herder. From what Dan had gathered from his talks with Wicka, the herders had only been assigned to Starfleet vessels since they had adopted the Kalindan bioficial technology to replace the outdated bioneural gel packs that had been phased out in the last century.
Commander Gray caught his eyes and waved him over. As he got closer Dan saw that they were all staring at a strange metallic device, constructed of cogs and other clockwork pieces. Lorns was busy connecting a series of wires to the nearest power shunt relay.
“… And thanks to a chronotone manipulator connected to this garble accelerator,” Lorns was saying, “the device will be able to pierce local space-time in such a way as to open a rift, one that if correctly harmonised to the quark resonation pattern provided to us by the Watchers, should get us where we want to go.”
Dan’s head had started to ache when Lorns mentioned garbel accelerators, so by the time he got to quark resonation he was completely lost. He was pleased to see that the Captain and Commander Gray looked equally confused.
“Will it work?” the captain growled after a moment.
Lorns looked away from his manipulation of the device long enough to give all three of them a long-suffering glance. “Of course it will work.”
Setting down his tray, Dan began to pour the kaf. Commander Gray took a long inhalation, letting out a soft moan. “Veriilu, that’s about the greatest thing I’ve ever smelled.”
Dan smiled at her, then turned his attention back to the device. He had never seen anything like it. A small glowing blue box at the centre seemed connected to the rest of the device by a series of cogs, each one carefully cut out of some kind of crystal. The more Dan looked at it, though, the more the device seemed to grow, more and more cogs appearing and then disappearing. It was like looking at a starry night sky – the more you looked, the more you saw, but every time you looked away the dimmer stars seemed to disappear.
“The slicer exists in nine dimensions,” Lorns said. Dan looked up and saw that the drifter was studying him. “That’s why it seems to phase in and out like that. Kind of like me, in fact.”
Dan nodded, embarrassed to have been caught out studying the device so closely. He poured another cup of kaf and handed it up to the captain.
“Would you like some?” he asked Lorns.
“Hmmm? Oh, yes, thank you. One moment, though, because…”
Turning one last cog until it clicked into place, the drifter studied the slicer and nodded.
“That should just about do it,” he said. He looked up at the captain with a big smile. “Whenever you’re ready, Captain Lee.”
The captain studied the device and the drifter for a moment, then glanced at Commander Gray. “Are we ready?”
“Should be. Dalilah?”
They all turned to look at her. Her usual blank expression became a little more animated as she reached out to anchor herself to the column. Dan knew that she was accessing the mental link she shared with the coralmind, one that had been created when she was a baby and had been sold to the Kalindan temples. After a moment, she smiled.
“Phoenix says she is ready, captain.”
“Good.” Waving his hand, he called a console into being and pressed his hand to one of the glowing screens. “Engineering? How are we doing down there?”
“We’re fine, though that device seems to be drawing a lot of energy.”
“That is perfectly normal,” Lorns replied. “It will probably draw a little more as it becomes active.”
“Is that going to be a problem, Bishop?”
“No, captain, I don’t think so.”
“Alright.” The captain took another breath and then nodded. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Lorns reached forward and pressed his palm against the lit cube. There was a flare of light that left an impression on Dan’s retina despite his closed eyes, and which faded very slowly. When he opened his eyes again, the device had activated. Cogs turned, slowly at first, and then beginning to whir faster and faster. A clicking sound filled the air, and sparks of pale purple and gold rose from the machine.
“It’s working,” the drifter whispered. “I knew it.”
The captain looked at him, frowning at his choice of words, but Lorns had already turned to Dan.
“I think I’ll have that cup of kaf now, kitchen man.”
Dan couldn’t hold back a grin, caught up by the man’s enthusiasm. Pouring the rich white liquid from the pot, he lifted the cup and handed it to the drifter… Just as a sharp tremor shook the ship.
His fingers slipped from around the handle and the cup tumbled to the floor. Kaf splattered the deck, a large splash striking the slicer device. Dan felt his eyes widen as smoke rose from the metal cogs.
“Oh no,” Lorns whispered.
Before anyone else could react, the device went haywire. More and more sparks began to fly from the places where the cog teeth met. Smoke rose in ever increasing billows as those same cogs began to spin faster, and then faster still. Dan could only squeeze his eyes shut as tremors ran through the deck beneath his feet.
“What did you do?” the captain barked. Dan looked up at him to see a furious glaze in his eyes.
He was still looking up when the bolt of pure silver lightning struck the captain’s chest. Eyes snapped wide, so wide that the whites formed a perfect circle around his pupils. Mouth gaped, spittle collecting on the captain’s lips. A horrible rattling moan escaped, as crackling energy began to run all over his body. Licking tongues of pure electricity burned at his clothes, setting fire to his arms. Dan could not look away as the light enfolded his captain and then with a flash, he was gone.
“By the Seven Hells,” Commander Gray whispered. Dan could only nod.
“We have to get out of here,” Lorns moaned.
They didn’t get a chance. More bolts of lightning burst from the device. One of them struck the column in an explosion of acrid smoke and hot shards. Dan felt them rip through his cheek, as hard as crystal. He screamed, turning away, his eyes burning from the smoke.
Chaos erupted on the bridge. Another bolt of lightning struck a panel on the nearby wall. One of the Wise Men was pierced by a larger piece of coral, blood pouring from the wound in his shoulder. Commander Gray was shouting orders, trying to bring everyone back to some semblance of order.
Dan started to stumble over towards the Wise Man who had been hit, thinking he might be able to help. He had only taken a couple of steps, though, when he felt a stabbing pain in his chest.
Looking down, he saw the crackle of electricity surrounding him. The pain increased all of a sudden, like having his skin peeled from his bones. He couldn’t take a breath, his lungs were burning. He couldn’t even scream. His body felt detached, as if he was floating away. Light surrounded him, obscuring the world outside. Before he had time to really understand what was happening to him, that light blinded him and he felt himself slip away into the dark.