“Gambler’s Cruise”




by:  Thomas Allen Mays

     Captain Loughton surveyed the passengers gathered in the ship’s richly appointed dining room with a critical eye.  They were all dressed in their finest clothes, celebrating for celebration’s sake, unconcerned for why the star liner had fallen out of linkage transit, unworried about how very far away they all were from civilization.  He wondered, again, how long it would take them to descend into barbarism once they realized the Leoluce would never reach its destination, that their starving screams would die away unheard in the empty vastness between stars.

Loughton winced at the dire tone his thoughts kept taking.  Not all was lost, not yet.  He shook his head and beckoned to the chief purser.  When she approached, the captain spoke to her quietly.  “Keep the drinks flowing.  If anyone inquires why we’ve stopped, plead ignorance.  Tell them to enjoy the pretty stars or something.”

The purser shook her head.  “I don’t think it’s even occurred to them to ask, but they will eventually.  They’ll either pick up mutterings from the crew, or they’ll finally realize we’re not re-entering the linkage.  What then?”

“Then?  I’ll tell you when I know myself.  Just delay for now until I can check something out.  Oh, and send someone back to sit with Reese.  He’s standing a damned vigil over Micah and Sophie, waiting for the end, but he’s not in a good way.  I’m worried about what he might do left to his own devices.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Thank you.  Now where did you say our gamblers were?”  The purser pointed and Loughton walked over to join the loose crowd that had formed around the six players’ table.  He looked at the gamblers, at their cards and the chips stacked before them, trying not to hate them for what they had done.  One of these innocuous poker players had consigned his crew, his family, and his world to death for no reason at all.  But the one who had doomed them all might also be their only hope for salvation.


* * *


Dylan Darby turned over the last of the seven shared cards in Saturn’s Ring, his favorite poker variation, and fought down a smile.  Judging by the glares most of the other players were giving him, boasting would be ill advised.  His personal lucky streak had already gone from being an annoying quirk of fate to the uncanny blessing of providence, so his fellow gamblers would probably not stand for him being smug on top of it.

Dylan allowed the betting to proceed around him, unconcerned, purposely not watching as another pair of players dropped out.  Since others had folded early on, it left only Dylan, the florid Simosin, and the one kind face at the table – Tchechky – to fight over the massive pot at stake.  Once the betting returned to him, Dylan looked down from the painting on the bulkhead, a large reproduction of Maxfield Parrish’s Ecstasy, and casually pushed a tall stack of chips into the pot, eliciting groans from everyone else.

He shrugged with cultivated indifference and waited for Tchechky to fold or play.  After the seconds piled up, though, he figured a little friendly antagonism might be alright.  “C’mon, tovarisch,” Dylan said, smiling, “make up your mind.  It’s way past my bedtime and I wouldn’t want to disappoint my momma.”

Tchechky grinned.  “No, my young Darby, we wouldn’t want that.  I am sure your ‘momma’ has long grown tired of being disappointed in you.  And I am sorry to have to say it, but your little winning streak is at an end.  I raise you -”

They never found out how high the Ukrainian was going to raise, because his sentence was cut off by the sudden crashing of a long pipe on top of the table.  The stout tabletop snapped in half, tossing chips, drinks, and cards everywhere.  The players surged backwards from the abrupt violence, either leaping to their feet or falling over in their chairs and crawling away as fast as they could.

Reece, the Leoluce‘s burly senior engineer, wielded the pipe with a look of wild rage in his eyes, and breathed in ragged, shuddering gasps.  The officer gripped the weapon in massive hands that looked like the flesh equivalent of power wrenches.  With a grunt, he lifted the business end of the pipe from the shattered remains of Table 6 and swung it in a vicious arc among the gamblers, trying his best to remove their heads.

The players scrambled, some quicker than others.  The Chief Engineer’s pipe grazed along Simosin’s shoulder, its rough end ripping his jacket, clipped another player in the back of the head, and smashed into a third’s chest with the crack of bone.  Reece roared in frustration and unthinking rage, then flexed his corded arms for another swing.

Captain Loughton and two male pursers took him down with a combined tackle, yelling, “Reese, what do you think you’re doing!”

They wrestled on the ground and tried to pull the pipe from Reese’s hands in vain.  The engineer screamed.  “They killed him!  Micah’s dead!  One of those bastards killed him and they’re just sitting there – playing!  They’re playing freakin’ cards while he’s dead and Sophie might as well be!  It’s all their fault!”

The captain slugged him in the face, immediately ending his rant and halting his struggles.  Once Reese was silent, Loughton spoke through tightly clenched teeth.  “Damn it, Reese!  I’m sorry about Micah, but this isn’t the solution!  You have to settle down so we can find out who’s responsible.  Maybe there’s still a chance we can still salvage this, but I need you calm!”

The engineer strained against his confinement for a moment longer and then slumped.  One of the pursers kept clawing at Reece’s hand, trying to remove the pipe, but it was like ripping at an iron shackle.  Reese nodded his head and Captain Loughton let go, standing up and helping the others disentangle themselves from the still-armed engineer.  They all rose to their feet, the crewmembers wary of Reece.

Dylan also stood, rising from the quick check he had made on the assaulted players.  They were hurt, but their injuries appeared to be relatively minor.  Dylan approached the ship’s master with caution.  “Captain?  Could you please tell us what’s going on?”

Reese bristled, but Loughton motioned for him to remain still.  The captain surveyed the concerned faces in the room and sighed.  “I don’t suppose there’s any way to avoid telling you all now.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that we haven’t gone back into the linkage continuum?”

There were nods from several of the passengers, Dylan included.  It had been impossible for him not to notice their continued presence in normal space, though he had thought nothing of it.  Linkage transit carried a very distinctive auditory and visual marker, the blurring and muffling of sight and sound.  Dylan had once heard it described as living within an impressionist painting, and the description was apt.

Loughton continued.  “There’s a reason for that.  While we were in transit, there was . . . an accident.  Both our linkage guides were injured, one of them, now, fatally.”

Some gasps came from the passengers, but the majority remained still, stunned into silence.  Probably no one else in the room besides Reese and the captain fully understood FTL linkage transit, but Dylan knew that it was beyond the capability of machines or normal men.  Linkage required the linkage guides, the mysterious, monk-like ascetics who somehow guided the ship from one point in space to another at hundreds of times the speed of light.  Without the guides, they were stuck, lost between the stars with absolutely no hope of rescue, and no way to make it to either Earth or Palisade, their intended destination.

Reese snarled and gripped the pipe tighter.  “It was no damned accident.  It was murder!”

“Reese . . . .”  Loughton shook his head.

“It was murder!  You can’t sugarcoat this.  One of these sons o’ bitches stole their probability for their damned games and it killed Micah.  Damn near killed Sophie too!  And without them we’re all as good as dead.”

Some of the passengers began to cry.  The players all looked at one another, but none of them knew how to respond to his strange accusation.  Eventually, Tchechky stepped forward.  “I’m sorry for what happened, but how can we possibly be responsible?”

Loughton took charge before the engineer could say anything.  His commanding glare pulled in each of the six players until he had their undivided attention.  “This may sound odd, but which of you is the luckiest?”

Dylan felt his face growing red, but Tchechky saved him from having to respond.  “Luck is a capricious mistress, Captain.  She visits us each at unknown times for unknown durations, and graces us with unknowable chance for either good or ill.”

The Captain nodded his head once.  “Granted, but have any of you been unusually lucky during this trip, luck that surpasses whatever skill you might have at poker?”

No one said anything.  Dylan hoped no one would say anything, but he doubted the engineer and the captain would just let the question lie.  Finally, the player who had been struck in the chest broke the pregnant silence with a croak from where he was lying on his back.  “Darby.”

Simosin was only too quick to join him.  “Yeah.  Darby.  He can’t read players and his mechanics are crap, but he keeps winning, over and over again.”

“Hey!” Dylan cried, indignant.

Now the others were nodding.  “Darby.”  First one.  “Darby.”  Then another.  “Darby!”  Then someone from the gathered crowd.

“Hey, wait just a damn minute here!”  Dylan voice rose angrily, but Tchechky stopped him in mid-complaint.

“Darby is my new friend and we played together in the hotel before the cruise.”  He turned to face the accused.  “I’m sorry, Dylan.  You were lucky that night, but you are far from the professional that I am.  I was doing well despite your luck in getting the best cards.  Since we boarded, though, it’s hardly even gambling.  You have become unbeatable.”

Tchechky shook his head and turned back to the ship’s master.  “Captain, I’m afraid that Mr. Darby is who you’re looking for.”

Loughton nodded, ignoring Dylan’s gaping mouth.

Reese roared.  “Goddamn probability thief!”  He swung his pipe back, knocking a purser down, and then ran forward, pulling the pipe around in an arc to end at Dylan’s skull.  Before he could strike, though, his foot came down atop a pile of chips.  The foot slid out, tripping Reese up and sending him bowling over into the crowd.  The remaining purser and the ship’s master-at-arms jumped on top of him and wrestled him to a stop once more.

The captain looked at Dylan, then Reese, and back again.  “You are a lucky man, Mr. Darby.  I hope your luck holds out, for all our sakes.”  Loughton turned to his men.  “Bring him.  And Reese too.  If, that is, he can control himself and avoid spending the rest of his days in my brig?”

Reese dragged himself to his feet and shrugged off the restraining hands of the master-at-arms.  He nodded to his captain, looking embarrassed and angry.  Though he still held his pipe, he lowered it so it appeared somewhat less menacing.

Pursers politely, but firmly, grabbed Dylan and brought him in step with the captain.  Dylan cast a panicked look back toward the crowd and his fellows of Table 6, but they did nothing but stare back in silent shock.  Pity and fear touched Tchechky’s eyes.

The captain’s entourage left the Leoluce‘s ornate dining hall and proceeded through the passenger corridors, back, back toward the stern of the immense star-liner.  They passed from the refined, stately accommodations, through the starkly utilitarian crew’s quarters, down through the cargo decks, and finally into the cramped, pipe and cable strewn passages of engineering.

Loughton spoke from over his shoulder, continuing his brisk lead through the twisting bowels of his ship.  “Who exactly are you, Mr. Darby?  You’re younger than our usual single passengers, but you don’t have the look of born-rich.”

For a moment, Dylan’s thoughts were blank.  He had to re-engage his brain before answering.  “Um, nobody really.  I’m just a student.  At Rice.”

“Nobody?  And how did you come to be aboard my ship?”

“I won a trip.  An all expenses paid week at a resort on Palisade.”

The captain looked back for a moment.  “It always comes back to your luck, doesn’t it, Mr. Darby.  Was it a trip for one?”

“No, no, but that’s why this whole luck thing is all a big mistake.  I mean, if anything, I’m about as unlucky as you can get when it comes to women.”

They all stopped before a huge airlock door.  Dylan’s mind filled with nightmarish speculation about their intentions and he struggled against the unyielding grips of his captors.  “Captain, I promise you, I haven’t done whatever it is you think I’ve done.”  His thoughts raced.  Were they spacing him over a card game?  “My god, don’t I even get to have a trial?”

Loughton looked back at him, and frowned as if he believed Dylan was an idiot.  “We’re not going to execute you, Mr. Darby.”

“Yet,” Reese grumbled from behind him.

The captain scowled at that and then punched the cycle button on the airlock.  They passed through as a group, and Dylan saw that it was only an internal pressure boundary.  While it cycled, Loughton said, “I have a theory about you, Mr. Darby.  It’s crazy, but it’s the only thing that fits all the facts.  And if I’m right, you might be our only salvation.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Dylan asked, unsure if he really wanted the answer.

“We’ll either die of starvation or be turned into a cloud of subatomic dust.”

The door chimed and opened, releasing them from the lock’s cycle and saving Dylan from having to respond.  Beyond the double doors of the airlock the engineering spaces continued on.  This area seemed different, though.  Instead of the expected smells of oil, rubber, and cleaning solution, the air was thick with ozone and the unmistakable stench of burning meat and hair.

Just outside the main engine rooms, there was a casualty care station, smaller than the ship’s main infirmary, but no less capable.  Both the beds within were occupied.  A sheet had been pulled over the body on one, but an arm had been pulled out from beneath the sheet, and Dylan then knew the source of the smell.  The skin was blackened and cracked, immolated, presumably by some sort of electrical discharge.  His stomach rebelled and Dylan gagged, but he fought down his rising bile.  He tried to back out, but his captors compelled him forward.

The exposed hand was held by the person in the other bed.  She wore the gray robes of a linkage guide and might have been beautiful once, but whatever had killed her partner had done her no favors.  Half of her face lay dead and slack, one eye rolled up, blind.  The other eye filled with freely flowing tears, staring without blinking at the person beneath the sheet.

Dylan turned his head away, but one of Reese’s massive hands gripped the back of his skull and turned him back toward the figures on the beds.  “Don’t you dare hide your face!  This is your doing and you’re going to accept it.”

“How?  How is any of this my fault?”

Loughton approached the body under the sheet.  He gently touched the crest of the white linen, hanging his head in honor of the recent dead.  When the captain turned back to Dylan, unshed tears lined his eyes.

Loughton cleared his throat and spoke, his voice grave.  “Our passengers trust us to take them to the stars, but none of them bother to understand what that entails, what terrible sacrifices and discoveries have been made on their behalf.  They know it’s somehow different from the grav-wave impellers we use to get to and from our transit points, and that somehow the linkage guides are involved, but that’s all.  It’s very important that you know, though, Mr. Darby.”

He gestured all around them.  “Linkage transit makes use of the wormholes that surround us continuously, tiny Planck scale shortcuts through the fabric of spacetime.  At that scale, reality foams with chaos and disorder, but also potential.  Individual particles can be transited through individual wormholes to circumvent the speed of light, but by itself it’s of no practical use.  To make it worthwhile, the wormholes have to be ganged together so they can transit all the particles of an object as one macroscopic body.  The natural odds against such an unlikely arrangement are beyond astronomical, though.”

Loughton walked over to the female linkage guide.  Dylan guessed that this was Sophie.  The captain laid a gentle hand upon her arm.  “But we would not be denied the stars.  We developed the linkage guides, humans who could manipulate probability, making the most unlikely chance a certainty.  Under the control of a linkage guide, we can pass all the uncountable particles of the ship and passengers through chains of coupled wormholes, moving as a unified whole.  The guides have sacrificed their lives to the service of all, and they’ve given us the stars.”

Reese growled.  “And you took that away . . . for poker.”  He shoved Dylan forward, releasing him when he was inches from Micah’s blackened corpse.

Dylan no longer cared what Reese was planning to do to him.  He whirled around, fists clenched to face his tormentor.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

The engineer smiled, and it was less pleasant than the scowl he had been wearing.  “The shifting of probability is a zero-sum game.  If you manipulate it for your benefit in one place, it works against you in another, making the most random sort of accidents happen spontaneously.  Micah and Sophie worked together to handle the linkage:  he stretched probability to form the wormhole matrix, and she smoothed out the counter-probability reactions against him and the ship, damping them out to something our redundant safeties could handle.  Sophie and Micah have linked aboard the Leoluce for over a hundred transits, without any incident they couldn’t handle together.  That is, until another probability shifter came aboard.”

Dylan appeared confused, looking from the captain to the engineer.  Loughton relented.  “We believe that you have – perhaps naturally, perhaps not – what Micah and Sophie acquired through genetic alterations:  the ability to manipulate probability.  When linkage guides travel on someone else’s ship, they always travel in suspension, so they don’t accidentally affect the probability streams.  You see, it has to be conserved, balanced.  There’s only so much probability that can be shifted around.  Your lucky streak at cards happened at the expense of Micah and Sophie being able to transit us safely through the linkage continuum.”

Reese’s false smile dropped.  “You stole their probability.”

Dylan looked between the pair of officers, then at Sophie.  They were so certain, he thought.  Could he really be the cause of all this?  He locked eyes with Loughton.  “How do you know?  How can you be sure our card game was any different from anyone else’s through all these trips?”

The captain sighed.  “Thirteen different, completely separate system failures happened simultaneously in order to release a lethal voltage into the transit tank.  Even then, Micah should have survived, at least as well as Sophie did, but all his protective devices and redundant safeties failed at that same moment.  That level of improbability could only have resulted from a complete breakdown in their ability to shift probabilities, and that only has one known cause.  Besides, we consulted our own resident expert on linking and she’s the one who pointed the possibility out.”

Sophie’s good eye broke away from Micah’s burned corpse for the first time, looking at Dylan until he felt the weight of her agony and loss crushing down upon him.  Her words were slurred to near gibberish by her stroke-afflicted mouth.  “Yuah ah pahbabity tef.”

It took a moment for Dylan to parse her distorted words, but he soon arrived at what she had said:  You’re our probability thief.

She spoke again.  “Ah cun sae i’ – ehn ooo.”  I can see it – in you.

Tears gathered at the corners of Dylan’s eyes as he began to believe it all as well.  He turned beseechingly toward Loughton.  “I told you – I’m nobody.  I’m a liberal arts major, for goodness sake!  I can’t afford gene mods, and it’s pretty damned unlikely that I’d develop something like this naturally.”

“Well, ‘damned unlikely’ is just another way to say it’s a low order probability, exactly the sort of thing that becomes likely when you start manipulating chance.  The artificial gene sequences are just refined versions of capabilities that already existed in the gene pool.  To my knowledge, it’s never happened before, but there’s no reason something similar couldn’t develop naturally.  And, as luck would have it, that brings us back to why we went looking for you.”

“Why?”  Dylan sounded defeated, worn down by events.

Reese answered, somewhat mollified by the change in Dylan.  “Captain thinks that if your ability is close enough to theirs to steal their probability, maybe you’ll be able to use it like they do.”

Dylan shut his eyes, trying to steady himself from all the revelations he had been forced to endure.  “You want me to try linking us to Palisade.”  It was not a question.

The captain nodded when Dylan opened his eyes.  “That’s right, Mr. Darby, but not to Palisade – that’s too far.  The closest planet to us now is Morgana, 32 lightyears away.  It’s a short transit, a few hours at the most.  I believe you can do it . . . if only because no one else possibly can.”

“And if I don’t – or can’t – or just screw it up completely?”

“Best case, you successfully get us into the linkage continuum and all the way to Morgana.  Everybody lives.  Or, you get us to Morgana, but you end up like Micah because you don’t have Sophie backing you up.  Then there’s the chance that you get it working, you get us linked, but you can’t hold the pattern together.  The wormhole matrix diverges and every particle of the Leoluce comes apart.  We turn into so much dust.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Or you can’t make it work, we don’t transit, and we’re all dead of starvation inside of three months.”

“Right.”  Dylan wrung his hands together for a short while, and then looked up with a sad smile.  “So, I’ve got a one in four chance.  Those aren’t the worst odds I’ve ever played through.”

Loughton looked visibly relieved.  “There’s some preps to be made, but as I’m given to understand it, the linkage interface handles everything for you.  To tell the truth, no one can really tell you how to do what it is you need to do, not even Sophie.  She handled support, not the actual transit.”

Dylan turned back toward Reece, who still held the pipe, though a bit looser now.  “No time like the present, I guess.”  Reese grunted, but simply gestured to the engine room with his free hand.

They all turned to leave, but a soft voice behind them made them pause.  “Wayy.  Ah nee t’ say su’in t’ im.  A’ohn.”

They stopped, out of surprise as much as a need to parse her speech, but then Loughton nodded and motioned for the others to continue out of the casualty station, leaving Dylan behind with Sophie.  He approached, filled with trepidation over whatever she might have to tell him.

She gave him an unfortunately grotesque half-smile.  “Ehers su’in ooo nee t’ noe.”  There’s something you need to know.


* * *

     He rejoined the crew outside the engine room several minutes later.  Loughton appeared to have grown more anxious in just that short bit of time.  “What did she say to you?”

Dylan shook his head slowly, obviously dwelling upon whatever she had told him.  “Nothing, really.  She just warned me to stay disciplined and keep focused.”

Reese sneered.  “Sure she did.”  His momentary goodwill toward Dylan seemed to have run its course.

The captain shook his head and the group entered the main engineering space.  It was vast, cluttered, and completely confusing to Dylan.  He could hardly tell an engine from a pump, yet they had given him the task of safely navigating the ship to a planet over thirty lightyears away.  Only the horror of failure, and what Sophie had told him, kept him from laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all.

Their preparations and the reasons behind them were obscure to Dylan, but he was soon changed into a mesh skein suit with an oxygen mask fitted to his face.  A hatch stood open on the side of the enormous spherical transit tank, exposing a rippling wall of silvery liquid which stayed within the enclosure in seeming defiance of the ship’s gravity.  Dylan stood before the hatch, ready to literally take a plunge into the unknown.

He looked back at the captain and his crew.  “I’m sorry for what happened.  I never would have come aboard if I knew anyone was going to be hurt by it.”

Captain Loughton clapped him on the shoulder.  “Mr. Darby, I want you to know that I don’t blame you.  This was the working of fate, and fate is bigger than us all.”

“Captain, if I don’t come out of here, do me a favor.  Tell Mr. Tchechky that I said thanks and to watch the way he stacks his chips.  It’s a complete giveaway.”  Dylan smiled.  “See?  My winning wasn’t all luck.”

Loughton nodded.  “I will.  There’s something I want you to keep in mind, though.  If you succeed and we all survive, you’re going to walk away from this with a gift you hadn’t realized you had.  It’s going to be a huge responsibility to bear, but I have faith in you.  I know you’ll do what’s right.”

Dylan thanked him and Loughton squeezed his arm reassuringly.  The captain turned and walked out, headed to the bridge to control the transit from there.  The pursers and master-at-arms went with him, leaving Dylan alone with the Chief Engineer.  He turned to the burly, angry officer.

Reese smiled unpleasantly.  “If you come outta there and we aren’t in the Morgana system, I’m going to crush in your useless skull with my pipe.  That’ll be after I break every bone in your body, of course.  Twice.”

Dylan nodded.  “Good luck to you too, Mr. Reese.”  He jumped backward through the hatch, swallowed without a splash by the amorphous quantum nanoprocessor network.  Reese shut the hatch and then stepped back.  He looked around himself slowly, trying to catch the first signs of transition.

Within the dark confines of the liquid computer, nanoprobes invaded his body, connecting to his peripheral nervous system, inundating his neocortex.  He had no idea how to do what had to be done, but soon the blackness lifted and his awareness expanded a thousand fold.  He became the Leoluce.  He could feel the movement and position of everything aboard, as if each particle was his own limb.  It was exhilarating.

He could also perceive the grasping, randomly appearing mouths within the spacetime foam, and all the myriad, branching streams of probability.  He saw how to play one against the other, how to manipulate chance to bring an impossible degree of order out of infinite chaos.  As the matrix of wormholes began to coalesce, he could not help but worry, troubled by what Sophie had told him.


* * *

     Her speech was broken, mangled, but she said each word over and over until Dylan finally got it, desperate for him to understand her.  “They think they know how the linkage works, but none of them realize how fragile it all is.  None of them know what kind of power they actually gave us.  You see, there’s a reason the guides all live the bland, ordered lives of monks.  We have to devote ourselves to pure discipline.  If we’re distracted by life, by material concerns, we could rip all of reality apart.

     “When we link, the ship never actually moves.  Instead, we unknit the fabric of spacetime, removing the ship from the universe.  Then we stitch it back into reality, displacing it in incremental steps with the illusion and the effect of motion.  Maybe the difference is academic.  Maybe it’s all the same thing, but if it’s not . . . a new danger presents itself:  what if we drop a stitch?  What if we sew it back together all wrong?  That’s why we meditate, why we focus so much, because the cost of an ascetic life is so much less than the cost of unmaking everything.”


* * *

     Reese smiled.  Colors and shapes blurred slightly, while the noise of the engine room became damped.  It was the “impressionist” effect.  They were linked, transiting through the chains of Planck-scale wormholes.  He looked toward the guide’s sphere.  The scrawny college puke had done it.

The engineer turned to get back to work.  Everything always took twice as long to do when they were linked, because of the blurred appearance of surfaces and writing.  Once he walked away though, a wave of nausea struck him.  It became harder to see.  The blur grew worse.

From the romantic impressionism of Pissarro they moved into the more obscured appearance of a Van Gogh, then the blobbed pointillism of Seurat.  Things were growing more and more vague, formless, undefined.

“You little bastard!  Hold it together!”  Reese roared in frustration, but to no avail.  Reality abstracted around the Leoluce, devolving to a scene of unconnected streaks and splashes of color, the envy and ideal of Jackson Pollock . . . .


* * *

     The hatch popped open and Dylan fell out, coughing.  He ripped the mask from his face and pulled in quaking gulps of steamy air.  Reese rushed up, finally laying down the massive wrench he had been toting around.  “Master Darby, are you alright?”

Dylan looked up and him and groaned.  “Are you going to crush my skull now?”

The engineer looked confused, but then his face broke out in an enormous grin.  “Now why would I want to do that?  You did all that we asked and more:  thirty-two damned light years in a single jump!  For a guide, that ain’t half bad, but for an amateur, it’s goddamn unheard of!  You listen to me now, you’re going to be the toast of Morgan’s Rock.  And Palace Gate as well, I’d swear!”

A fresh coughing fit overcame him, but Dylan managed to choke out a perplexed, “What?”

“Let’s get you topside.  Your little planet-side lungs weren’t built to handle all this good engineering air.  The captain’ll want to thank you himself anyway.”  Reese lifted him up easily and led him out of the machinery space.

The journey back to the passenger area was a funhouse mirror reversal of his trip down to engineering.  The utilitarian white corridors and decorated passageways had given way to dark paneled wood and riveted iron plate.  Dylan saw several familiar faces, but their manner of dress was archaic, like something out of a Victorian novel rather than the slick synthetic fabrics he had been used to.

Reese eventually reached a wide oak door, which he flung open.  The sight beyond the doorway caused Dylan to try to squirm free of his grasp, to flee back into safety.

It was outside.

There was no overarching roof to the hull of the ship.  It was open to space, or, in this case, the sky.  Rather than the black vacuum of space, the void was filled with color, in the palest of blues and creamy parchment whites, with whorls of rose and splashes of gold stretching out to infinity.  The light had a rich, luminous quality, as if the impressionist effect had given way to a Maxfield Parrish universe.

Masts with billowing, iridescent sails rose high above the deck of their ship.  Past them, a cloud-shrouded planet hung in the multicolored sky, undoubtedly Morgan’s Rock, or as Dylan had known it, Morgana.  Ships in orbit encircled the planet, ships with sailing masts extending from both the deck and the keel, pushing against the aether.  They were impossible, inexplicable things, but they worked, they existed.  Dylan felt numb with shock.

This was not his reality.  Had he tunneled them to some sort of parallel universe, or worse, had he re-stitched all of time and space together again somehow incorrectly?  What did this mean for him, for all of humanity?  What the hell did he do now?

Dylan’s reverie was interrupted by a scream and then a fierce embrace.  An enormous hat blocked his vision and he almost tripped over a woman’s voluminous petticoats, but his notice of that fell away a moment later.  The beautiful young lady who had attacked him now kissed him, and he ceased pondering his impact on the universe.

Captain Loughton cleared his throat several times before she relented, but she eventually broke the kiss and let Dylan breath.  Loughton shook his head, bemused, standing directly behind her.  “Miss Tchechky, at least let me thank the boy before you get him all turned about.”  He stuck a hand out to Dylan.  “On behalf of the passengers and crew of The Light of the Lion, we are forever in your debt.”

Dylan shook the proffered hand and then looked all around him, at the aether-sailing ships, at Reese’s smiling face, at the charming girl on his arm who was somehow still his poker buddy.  Had he lost the reality of his memories in order to gain the reality of his dreams?  The displaced panic he felt faded away, leaving behind only a sense of wonder.

Dylan Darby shrugged and smiled at the liner’s master.  “Not a problem, Captain.  I just played the hand I was dealt.”


26 Feb 2007; 04 Mar 2007; 28 Mar 2007; 22 Aug 2007;

One thought on ““Gambler’s Cruise”

  1. Pingback: The Day After | The Improbable Author

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