Sample Sunday – The Phoenix and the Dream King’s Heart Chapter 1
Just noticed mention of this over at Kindleboards and thought I’d participate for the first time. So here goes…
ThePhoenixwas a cursed ship.
And yet, Danterian Ko thought as he sat in the engine room with his friend Wicka Bay, it was possible to call it home.
The two friends were ensconsed in a small chamber at the top of the engine room. In front of them, a part of the wall had been replaced by a glastile panel, allowing them to look out at the bleak emptiness of the Darkland Expanse. Sharing a lunch pale that Dan had brought up from his kitchens, they were both staring at the approaching station. A huge metal sphere hanging in space, constructed of a lattice work of interconnected branches, Bastion Shadow was one of a handful of such stations spread across this area of space. So far, thePhoenixhad only visited one of them, but that had been more than enough for the entire crew to gage just how powerful the mysterious Watchers were.
Behind them, the ship’s massive engines groaned and roared, spewing steam and oil into the air. The smell of scorched metal stung Dan’s nostrils, almost completely masking the smell of the stew he had prepared for Wicka to enjoy.
He glanced at her, tearing his eyes away from the ever larger station. Dressed in oil-streaked trousers and shirt, she looked the very picture of an engineer. And yet, to Dan, she was also completely different. It wasn’t just that she was a girl. As far as he was concerned, she was the girl. The dream girl. Her long red hair seemed to spark in the engine room light, let free momentarily from the green beret she usually wore to keep it away from her face. Sensing his gaze, she turned to look at him, her mouth full of stew, the spoon still stuck between her lips.
Dan shook his head, turning away to stare out at Bastion Shadow again. Now that they were closer, he could just about make out the massive holes in the spherical surface, moon-sized portals into the station’s interior. A handful of other ships, most of them completely foreign to Dan’s eyes, flickered around the holes – other ships coming in to dock or departing on new adventures.
“Nothing,” he replied, tracking one of those ships – a blade of pure silver surmounted by three engine nacelles – as it darted out of the topmost hold, narrowly avoiding a collision with a larger bulk freighter. “How’s the stew?”
“Hm-mm,” Wicka said, chewing and swallowing another mouthful. “As good as always, Dan. Thanks for bringing it down.”
“I know how busy you are whenever we pull in to station. I doubted you’d have the time to come up.”
“You’ve got that right. Things have been even more hectic since… Well, you know.”
He nodded. A week ago, thePhoenixhad been summoned to the Morphac Nebula, fifteen starleagues away. Summoned by a god, no less. The so-called King of Dreams. No one was really sure why, nor what the King and Captain Lee had discussed. Whatever it had been, it had drawn thePhoenixback to Bastion Shadow only three months after their last visit. And the rumours were that this might be it. After ten years. A way home.
“Do you think it’s true, what they’ve been saying? That the captain has found a way to get us home?”
Wicka stopped licking the bottom of the bowl long enough to afford Dan a pitying look. “I wouldn’t believe everything you hear, Pots. You know as well as I do that the gods’ verdict was final. We’ve been banished. Forever.”
Dan found himself nodding. “But that’s just it. The gods passed judgement on us. And they say that the King of Dreams is a powerful god in these parts. If anyone can get us home…”
“Getting home isn’t the problem, Pots.” She twisted her body so that she was looking at him directly. The sounds of the engine room – bangs and creaks and throbbing beats – rose from behind them. “Listen, you were just a kid when we got thrown out here. The rest of us…” She trailed off. “We know.”
He thought that her characterisation of him was a little unfair – there were only a few years between them. And he had been fifteen when they were exiled. Hardly a kid.
She didn’t seem to notice his reaction, though. “The gods made it very clear. Even if we manage to find another god powerful enough to send us home, we wouldn’t be able to stay.”
He nodded. “Because of the Trenchant Wave.” The powerful quantum disturbance field had thrown thePhoenixinto the Darkland Expanse. And every time Captain Lee had tried to lead his people home, it had swept out of whichever dimension it had been born in, sending them further and further into the border regions.
“Not just the Wave. If that was all there was, we could just ditch thePhoenix.” She shook her head again. “No, the real danger is the darkelings. Wherever we stop, they’ll follow us. And they’ll destroy everything in their passage until they get us.”
Dan felt a cold shiver run down his spine. The darkelings. They were like some kind of dark myth or legend rising out of their collective past, a bogey man. He could still remember the first time they had attacked. It had been just before his mother passed – he was sixteen. A group of crewmembers had managed to convince Captain Lee to land on a planet and try and start a new life there. The gods’ furor could only follow them so far and for so long, they had said. Maybe now they could make a home.
By the time the darkelings had finished, the planet had been stripped bare andPhoenixhad almost been destroyed. What had once been a crew of three hundred men and women had been decimated, leaving less than a hundred alive. Ever since, thePhoenixhad never stopped for more than a few days in any place. Any longer and they would bring the darkelings down on them once again.
And yet… Dan could not get the murmurs he had heard out of his head. If there was a way home and Captain Lee had been able to negotiate for their safe passage back to the Expanse…
“Don’t get your hopes up, Pots,” Wicka chided him. “You’ll only end up getting hurt.”
Dan nodded glumly. He supposed she was right. It wasn’t the first time that thePhoenixhad found or been offered a way home. In the ten years they had spent in the Expanse, they had encountered more than their fair share of races, creatures and excelled beings who had the power or the know how to seemingly defeat the Panthion’s decrees. So far, though, none of them had worked.
He supposed that in a few years he would probably be just as cynical about their chances as Wicka. What does that mean, though? he wondered. Did it mean finally accepting that thePhoenix would never get home? That they truly were cursed to spend the rest of their days wandering these sparse territories until the last of them used his or her last breath to pilot the ship into a sun?
“Well,” Wicka said, dragging herself to her feet, “we’re about ready to dock. I’d better get down there.”
He looked up at her, trying not to stare. In his twenty-five years, he had never seen anyone more beautiful thanWickaBay. Not even the silver modules implanted in her forehead, skull and left temple could marr her beauty. Nor the purple shaded optitronic prosthetic eye. No, as far as Dan was concerned, those signs of her calling as a mech-tech priest just added to her allure.
Not that she didn’t intimidate him. After all, as she had said, she was older than him. And she was the Bishop, spiritual leader of the mech-tech priests who ran Phoenix’ engines.
Still, she was his friend.
“Cards later?” he asked.
She nodded. “You’re on. Have a good one, Pots.”
He watched as she wrapped one leg around the pole that descended to the engine room floor, sliding slowly down until her feet hit the decking. She winked at him and then vanished into the chaos of her domain, her voice already raised as she shouted orders at the other mech-tech priests. Dan stared at the place where she had been for a long moment before turning back to the outer view.
The ship was holding station above one of the upper landing bays, due galactic north of Bastion Shadow’s centre. From his vantage point, Dan could see a dozen other ships descending towards holding plots within. In a few minutes, it would be their turn.
Still thinking about what Wicka had said, Dan leaned back against the softly throbbing wall and thought about home.
Asher Lee would never get used to seeing a sun inside a world.
Standing beneath the harsh glare, he raised a hand to shield his eyes. The small singularity that provided heat, warmth and energy to Bastion Shadow was stronger than any sun he had ever encountered in his travels. And the desert, spread across the inner plane of the spherical station, didn’t help matters.
Behind him, Esther Gray and Tave Bantu, his two seconds, shuffled in the sand. They had been standing outside the tent for a good few minutes, waiting for the mysterious Watchers to answer their summons. He had rung the bell, just as Fryr had instructed him to, but nothing had happened. He was starting to wonder whether he should try again, and Fryr’s warning be damned.
He turned. Esther Gray’s auburn hair flashed in the sun, a few blond strands looking like burnished gold amongst the copper. Although her face was starting to line, she had a soft beauty he knew belied the core of hard steel in her heart. Full red lips and eyes a true shade of emerald only served to highlight both her attractiveness and how long it had been since he had taken a woman to his bed.
Don’t think that way, he reminded himself, trying to drag Penni’s face from his memory. It was becoming more and more difficult, despite the captures of her he had in his rooms back onboardPhoenix. It had been so long.
“Captain?” Esther asked again. He shook his head, vanishing the blurred picture of his wife.
“Shouldn’t something have happened by now?”
He shrugged. “You know as much as I do. This is the first time I’ve come to negotiate with the Watchers’ direct. We don’t have any experience. None of us do.”
“Except the paradhan.”
Asher glanced at his other second. Tave, as usual, got straight to the point. Fryr had, somehow, met the Watchers before. When that had been, and how it had come about, was as much a mystery as why he wasn’t here to talk to them himself.
Tave hated mysteries. A big man, broad-shouldered and muscular, he was Asher’s oldest friend, after Esther, and master-at-arms of thePhoenix. A panopoly of weapons hung from his waist, and Asher knew that even more of them were hidden within the folds of his long coat.
Asher opened his mouth to answer, but was distracted by the rustling sound of the tent flap being pulled aside. He spun to find a bald man, dressed in sack cloth, peering out at them. Asher felt nauseous at the sight of the man’s two eyes, bulbous and over sized, the pupil a single point of red almost lost amongst the white.
The man picked Asher out and bowed his head.
“My lord. Please. They are expecting you.”
Pulling the flap aside, the bald man motioned for Asher to follow him. Esther and Tave went to follow, but the bald man shook his head.
“Only the one who rang the bell may enter.”
They had been expecting this from Fryr’s descriptions. Still, Asher glanced back to make sure that neither of his seconds would cause any problems. To his surprise, Esther seemed the more reluctant. He met her gaze and shook his head. After a moment, she stepped back, but she didn’t look happy about it.
None of us are happy about this situation. Turning back to the bald man, he followed him into the depths of the tent.