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4 The First of Many

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Slipspace jumps are nauseating to say the least. Nikolas sat at the bridge console, though it would be better to say he was napping there. Everyone had weird responses to them, and he’d found he could never sleep after the damn things, long voyages were rough, but catnaps helped everything.

Sitara grumbled a little as her final calculations and divinations were run through the computer interface. She knew they were correct. She’d double and triple checked them, but something had been off about the whole trip. Was this going to be her final jump, would she strand the entire crew in the void of space because she was so arrogant as to believe that she could make it through the jump and be all right on the other side. Doubts filled her mind, and she took a deep breath, falling on old meditative practices so as not to allow these thoughts to cloud her mind.

“Preparing for jump.” She muttered to no one in particular.

“Jump coordinates ready.”

“Beacon stable.”

“Slipspace engine showing minor fluctuations.”

The rhythm of the words, spoken hundreds of times and embedded beep in her thoughts, was like a mantra. It calmed and eased the burden of her mind.

“Full power to slipspace engine in 10…”

“All impulse engines stopped… 5…”

“Coasting into position… 2… 1…”

The world opened up in a dazzling array of fire and ice. The ship stretched and reformed as if in an instant. Along its surfaces, fire coalesced, a thousand angry fires consuming everything, then it shuddered to a halt and reversed itself, becoming deathly cold. Crystals formed from the oxygen and glittered like dew drops on the freshest of spring mornings. The vastness of the void opened up and shone with a thousand thousand thousand stars of blazing glory, each crystal a star in its own right.

Then, as if it had never happened, everything was back to normal.

And the screaming started.

The shock of the slipspace jump dragged the Captain back to consciousness. It was like a jolt of electricity through his whole body. He fucking hated that feeling, it tore at his nerves and was what tended to keep him up at night. He roused himself, looking out over the frozen space outside the view screen. A new set of stars, the start of a long journey, and the all-consuming black. Men had gone mad in that void. He wasn’t one of them, but he’d known a few.

He turned to look at Si, in the navigator’s chair, and his mind froze.

She sat, perfectly straight up, her mouth open in an expression of shock while her eyes misted over and saw nothing. Her skin went from shade to shade, green then purple, then human pink, then a disturbing deep red, and back again, varying changing and never stopping. Her hands were seized over the slipspace jump drive activator, her finger drifting lightly over the keys and her hand locked in an expression of agony.

“Si!” he called out, “Sitara!”

He stood from his console, moving over to hers. She didn’t react as he pulled her out of her chair, a sure sign that she wasn’t all right. He scoffed, as if he needed another. She hated being touched. He pulled her down onto the floor, her body almost rigid and spasming as he did. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never seen this before. Kneeling over her was doing no good though.

He stood, slamming his hand down on the alarm button, then the PA.

“All crew to main bridge, All passengers are confined to their quarters until further notice.” He fought down the rising panic.

It was barely five minutes later that Victor and Asma appeared on the bridge. Victor at first, half-dressed and reeking of perfume. He stared at him, then at Sitara, then back at him. His eyes wide and his mouth gawping like a fish out of water.

Before he managed to say anything, Asma came in after him. She was covered in grease, her shirt already dirty, and reeked of weapon oil. Her eyes met the captain, then saw Sitara and immediately responded.

“Sitara!” She called out, rushing over to her still convulsing body. “What the hell?!”

Her voice cracked, tears streaming down her face.

“Victor.” The Captain said, numb. “Find me a medic, anyone. I don’t care if it’s one of Zakhar’s backstreet butchers. Find me someone that can help.”

Victor nodded, his eyes not leaving Sitara and Asma for a few moments as he turned to head back to the rest of the ship. He still couldn’t find words.

The Captain turned back to Sitara, Asma hunched over her, tears streaming down her face and muffled sobs coming from her throat.

“Asma.” The word came out choked, throttled half-heartedly by good sense.

“What happened?” Her voice was angry, hurt giving it a rawness and hate turning it hard and cruel.

“I don’t know.” He said, hoping it some apology. “I woke up and she was like this.”

Asma placed a hand on Sitara’s head, loving and almost motherly.

“One last dance, eh, Si?” She muttered, barely heard except for the silence of the bridge. “What did you know that you didn’t tell me?”

The captain stood silent, suddenly feeling very out of place in the scene. Asma swept her hair back and placed a gentle, chaste kiss on Sitara’s forehead.

“Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

It seemed in that instant that Sitara had heard something. She relaxed, her body falling limp and her skin colour settling on a deep crimson colour. It was by no means healthy, but at least she no longer convulsed. Her breathing was ragged, audible even across the room like the rasp of an upcycling engine.  Her eyes were wide open, a milky white and staring straight up, unseeing. The bridge fell truly silent.

“We are.” Came a voice from her lips, a shock to the both of her friends. It was utterly alien and layered as if by a machine, or a chorus, high voices and low voices intermingled into a single voice.

Asma was taken aback, shock written across her face. She waited with bated breath, waiting for any other words, but Sitara had gone silent again. Her face remained serene, if staring.

Ten long minutes went by, Asma not wanting to move lest she abandon her friend, Nikolas staring, unsure, a novel sensation for him.

Victor finally returned, a hunched over man following him. You couldn’t tell his age just from looking at him, Rejuv treatments and augmentations had made that difficult. He was entirely bald, though only half his face were covered in augs. His eyes shone like a pair of gems, one in luminescent blue, the other in darkened red. He dragged along a heavy looking bag, being carried by a set of augmetic arms on his left side. His right twirled around a wicked looking bowie knife that he seemed to be heating with the device on his wrist.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked, his voice raspy like a hundred year smoker.

“She’s unconscious, something happened in transit.” Nikolas said, his voice constrained, even and calm like he was supposed to be. “Who the hell are you?”

“One of Zakhar’s backstreet butchers…” He said smiling. “You should watch your language and how you let your crew speak to us, some of the men here are loyal to him.”

“And you?”

“I’m loyal to Platinum, and not much else.” He said, smiling. “I’ll send you a bill when I’m done.”

“Tell me what you know.” The twisted figure hunched over Sitara’s prone form, his upper left hand hovered inches above her face, while his other grabbed and mixed a variety of drugs into syringes, occasionally altering the mixture or throwing a needle aside to grab another. His right, still holding that wicked looking blade toyed idly at his side.

“Psychic feedback.” He muttered, “but from what?”

“Consistent with neurogenic shock, psychic feedback cascading through the system. Current active areas correlated with fear or terror, reptilian brain stuff, though I suppose that presumes similar evolution to humans.” He continued muttering, his voice strangely warped and distant. It seemed filtered and tuned to sound as if it came through his organic structures, but it was strangely mechanical. “Preparation of a mild sedative should be sufficient, then bed rest.”

“Preparing sedative.” He said, again. He looked up at the captain. “Does she have bed chambers that she can be escorted to?”

“I’ll take her there” Asma said, relief mixing with the grief that still stained her face.

“I will need to monitor her.” He said, the organic voice speaking. He placed the tip of a syringe against her skin. His spare arm held her steady.

“Monitoring necessary until she has awoken. This will not occur for another 16 hours, given the dosage regimen. Hourly checks necessary, though a presence at the bedside would be recommended.”

“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere.” Asma said as she gather Sitara’s supine form into her arms and stood.

 

After they had left, Asma followed closely behind by the doctor, Nikolas let out a heavy sigh, the burdens of the world slipping from his shoulder like so much chaff. He took the silence and collected his thoughts, hoping for answers of some kind, though nothing came. He looked up, not meeting Victor’s eyes, before turning to face the encroaching void and unfamiliar stars.

“How long until the next upcycle needs to begin?” Victor asked from behind, his words choked.

“We’re on cooldown for the next three hours, then a three hour upcycle and launch an hour later.” He got the words out, but it hurt to say. “The ship’s computer has the calculations stored, but there’s no way to correct if something goes wrong. Seven hours from now will be a true test of her calculations”

The bridge fell silent again, the pause lengthening into an unbearable silence.

“She’ll pull through…” He let his words trail off. “Vic, let me know when Si is up and moving again. I need to be alone.”

“Yes Captain.” He said, before wandering off.

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