Trying to ignore the gaze of the strange cylinder on the bridge I strapped myself into the cockpit preparing for faster than light travel. I had determined a quick route towards the One Hundred and Eight Auspicious Gates system that would require a bit of careful piloting but took advantage of several large gravity sources to help move me along which would go a long way to keep the energy consumption low. My reactor was still fresh but I had no idea how long this search of mine would take, neither how far I would have to go and right now my money was running low. For an idle poor I was still phenomenally rich, but for a working space farer I was only one or two long shore leaves away from being stranded. Once that happened it would be incredibly difficult to get back into space. One of the first lessons of staying employed was that the only way to earn decent money was to have a large amount of it in the first place.
Now was not the time to worry, though. Now was the time to fly.
"Pentyl, before I go, this is your last chance to change your mind." I said.
"Go ahead. I'll rejoin you once we reach our target." she replied.
"Long range twisting is incredibly unpleasant. Trust me." I said, I knew that this was a lost cause and maybe twisting did not get increasingly worse after a certain point but I had to try.
"It can't be worse than breaking the laws of nature in your space relic." she answered.
"I hope you're right. I'll see you both on the other side." I said.
"Godspeed." said the Sentinel Fortress.
"You are a more courageous man than I ever gave you credit for. Fly safe." said Pentyl.
"Void Dancer over and out."
I let the cockpit shift into its superluminal flight configuration. I put my hands onto the controls activating manually the navigation engine. I loved the feeling of actually working with the machine I was flying. The subconscious/machine machine interface was faster and more effective. But it lacked the sheer haptic pleasure of actually controlling a spaceship with my own hands and feet and eyes. While I did maintain a direct connection to my ship mentally that was there to give me a better feeling of how all the systems were doing so that I could better concentrate on actually flying the ship.
I pushed the levers that energised the faster than light engine slowly forward feeling the ship shudder as its drive was tensing getting ready to leap forward towards the stars. The old thrusters nervously twitching sending shivers through the ship. It felt like the Void Dancer was looking forward to its next run as much as I did. This kind of connection with my ship was strangely more intimate than that of the mental interface. I could feel my vessel reacting directly to everything I did through its twitches and moves. The little movements soon turned into a smooth vibration accompanied by its characteristic deep purring sound. A sound so deep that it made my hair stand on end.
Slowly I aligned the ship into the star-way it was going to take. I double checked the course and shifted it a little bit. A swarm of red lights came alive blinking and beeping all over the control panels, warning me strongly against the new course that would lead to close to the singularity of a super massive black hole. I fine tuned the course until most of the red lights went back to sleep and then flicking a few steel switches sent the rest back into their rooms. I pushed down the lever that uncoupled the main thrusters, pushed the engine into maximum output listening to its roar ad the creaking sounds of the hull as it tried to contain the fury of the engine. I had done this thousands of times. I knew the sweet spot where the hull was not so strained that it just did not take any lasting structural damage but where the engine had built up an enormous amount of potential boost. I pushed an unassuming deep blue button with my right ring finger activating the emergency inertial buffer while releasing the uncoupler at the same time.
The Void Dancer had been slowly shifting in orbit around the Sentinel Fortress realigning its nose away from the space station. It remained still for a few seconds only to turn from one moment to the next into a blinding trail of fire pointing towards the depths of space.
This time there was no one on board I who I needed to treat with care.
This time I could push my ship to its very limits.
We reached the light barrier in minutes, the screen in front of my white with the light we were smashing against. I unlocked the engine and pushed it into overdrive mode. Punching into the wall ahead of us.
The ship twitched and shook.
The light went into shades of white that only exist at this speed. Signalling the final warning, the final push against any intruders who would dare to trespass its sacred boundary.
It flashed and everything went dark.
I let go of the accelerator. The screaming engine slowly calming down until it was only a smug purr.
Something was vaguely off.
The cockpit look rather normal. Everything did look better than brand new. Polished to a ridiculous sheen. The lights were more colourful and brighter, the shadows more deep and dark. A strange effect I had not seen before. But I quite liked it. This looked like the cockpit I remembered when I was thinking of my ship always a bit better, slightly more impressive than the real thing. I activated the advanced auto-pilot routines which flared to life on their screens with a new found sense for style.
When the cockpit retracted to let me out of my seat it did so with some extra flourishes leaving glowing trails in the air and doing swishing sounds as it did so. I arched an eyebrow at this but could not suppress a smile. I liked where this was going.
I got up going up towards the bridge. The opalescent door now looked as if made from actual opal. One giant polished stone inside of which a strange fire flickered. I opened the door that swung open with a light hiss. It never had done that before.
The bridge itself did not look like the usual forest path but instead looked like the bridge. Again in an idealised form. In its centre to the left side of the command chair stood the black cylinder. Now perfectly still. It radiated some strange kind of power. Nothing I could see, but I knew it was there.
The cylinder looked at me and blinked.
It took me a while after I had fallen down the stairs back into the cockpit to stop screaming.
How did the cylinder even blink? It was just a black column. Maybe a meter and a half tall. Black. Nothing more. But it hat looked at me. It had looked at me and blinked.
I signalled to the ship that it could retract its protective cushioning. I was gently lowered to the now once again hard floor.
Sorting my limbs I slowly got up again working my way up the stairs.
ON the bridge the cylinder shifted its invisible but intense gaze upon me once again. It blinked again.
I pressed my lips together holding myself steady on the edge of the opalescent door leaving a sweaty hand print on it.
Then it spoke.
This time I almost threw myself down the stairs on purpose. Instead I forced myself into my best impression of calmness which included making a soft whimpering sound.
"Do not be afraid." the cylinder repeated in a million flat monotone voices. "We come in peace. We are here to help."
"Thanks?" I said with my back pressed to the wall, my body tense and ready to jump downstairs at a moments notice.
"We are a device for communication. We are a beacon of hope." its choir of dead voices monotoned.
"Are you the Sentinel Fortress?"
"We are a device for communication. We are a beacon of hope." it said. "Do not fear." it added after a short pause, not helping in the slightest.
"Are you sentient?" I asked.
"We are a beacon of hope."
"Do you have any basic communication protocols?"
"We are a device for communication. Do you want to communicate?"
"Communication is not possible right now. We are establishing a stable link. Patience. Do not fear."
"I'll do my best." I was relaxing a little bit started to remember my training for first contact with cardinal order aliens. Creatures so different from a Terranoid that their mere existence caused fear, disgust or black despair in anyone who witnessed them. I shifted my view slightly away from it. Far enough to not have to confront it directly but not so far that I could not keep an eye on it.
"How long will that take?"
"Communications will be established." it said. For a moment I thought that was all it was going to say. I got quickly distracted by feeling its gaze that was somehow trying to punch right through my body. "In an unknown amount of time. Time and space are unstable. Do not panic. Do not fear. We are a beacon of hope." at least it was trying to be comforting...
I worked my way towards the next exit. Trying not to show any signs of fear while keeping the greatest possible distance to the repugnant artefact.
"I will leave you to your work then." I said willing the door behind me to open. "Just call me when you're done." I took a step backwards.
"I am a beacon of hope." the cylinder said before the door closed breaking its line of sight.
I slumped against the wall breathing hard. This little encounter had aged my body by at least five years. Not good I did not have the money for a proper private refresh cycle right now. But I still had a few good to decent years left in my body as it was right now.
I had to move to a place to clear my thoughts.
That place was the engine room.
The effect I had seen in the cockpit and the bridge seemed to extend over the entire ship. Everything looked like an idealised version of the Void Dancer. Looking more vibrant, absolutely flawless, more real. The engine room was no different. The drive was pulsating in strange colours its mechanical parts moving to the beat of an invisible heart elegantly twisting and turning elegantly as they kept the ship beyond the grasp of light. As with the cockpit console every movement had added flourishes and like the doors, the engine made new sounds. Nonsensical but incredibly satisfying to hear.
For a moment the horrid thing on the bridge was forgotten as the view in front of me woke my inner twelve year old who took over my body to look at it with the largest eyes it could make so that they could see as much of the miracle machine in front of him as was physically possible. I was so hypnotised by what I was seeing that I did not hear the hiss of the door opening and closing behind me. Or maybe I thought that the noise was just part of the spectacle.
"Oooooooh. Sooooo pretty!" said Kira.
My heart skipped a beat, fell over head over heels. Stopped. Spluttered to life again.
"What have you done with it?" Kira asked, "I have never seen it that beautiful before."
I opened my mouth. No words came out just a few some irregular breathes.
I turned around.
Kira had turned away from me walking towards the coffee maker.
"You want one too?" she asked turning towards me. As our eyes met I felt a painful jolt of joy.
"Kira." I said.
She looked at me and smiled eyebrows raised a bit. "James?" she asked.
"Fancy that." she said. "And so are you. What an incredible coincidence. We should celebrate that with a coffee!" she turned away from me going to the coffee maker taking two metal cups from the heated cupboard under it and started to prepare two cups of strong coffee with foamed milk.
"I didn't say I wanted one." I said grinning like an idiot.
"You also didn't say you didn't want one." she replied continuing to prepare them. "Where are we going anyway? You never told me."
"We are going to the One Hundred Auspicious Portals system."
"Oooooh." she turned around her eyes gleaming, "I've never been there before! What a great idea. Are we doing something special over there or..." she said her smile taking a turn towards the seductive. "...are we going there just for pleasure?"
"We are actually going there..." this was going to be slightly awkward, "...looking for you."
"But I am right here." she said. She turned around again putting the finishing touches to the coffee she had made.
"I can see that." I moved to join her. Had she been here all the time? Was that even possible. I sat down next to her on the floor legs dangling in the air as we looked at the engine.
"But if looking for me brings us to new places I am all for it!" she said. "Who's we anyway?"
"Pentyl and the Sentinel Fortress."
"Pentyl? That's great haven't seen him in quite a while."
"Her. She's going through a female phase right now." I said.
"And the Sentinel Fortress?"
"Yes." I said.
"I didn't know that it was capable of interstellar travel."
"Neither did I."
"So you, Pentyl and the Sentinel Fortress are travelling to the One Hundred Auspicious Portals system to go looking for me?"
"That was the plan." I said looking back at her.
She faced me. "That sooooooo awesome!" she said balling her fists making slight 'Yay!' motions with her arms.
It was then when I noticed it. Her lips where a shade too red. He hair was in a style that she had not worn in years but that I particularly loved. Her face was almost shining with an inner light. No her face was was actually glowing. She was radiant in the truest sense of the word.
This was the perfect version of my ship.
I could not imagine my ship being complete without her.
Her face suddenly turned worried. "What's wrong?" she asked?
"er... Nothing. Nothing's wrong." I lied.
"You're the second worst liar in the universe. Just after me." she said not convinced at all.
"No it's nothing. I'm just low on cash. When we arrive I really need to look for a decent job and get a few operations going again, just to build up some reserves. Just to be sure. That has been stressing me out a bit." kind of the truth.
She smiled. "Don't worry. You're great at what you do. And you'll easily find a job. I'll check our contacts when we are there I am sure someone needs info on the system back in Dead End or some other hub. That alone will cover our travelling costs. I know how much you hate doing 'tourist guide' jobs but this one is going to be really fun."
"Yeah I guess so. Still you know how it is. The thought of ending up in such a shit hole of a job like the one we met still gives me the creeps."
"Hey you met me there!" she said in mock outrage.
"That made that totally worth it. For you I'd do that job again could I change the past just to meet you again." I smiled.
"Dito. Now come here." she said hugging me. "Even if you run out of money you'll not be alone. As long as I am here you don't need to worry."