It had not been his idea to go to the King of Dreams.
When the summons had come, Andrew had been about ready to give up. Ten years of fighting had gotten them nowhere. He was tired and he was getting old. So when F’ryr had come to him and said that a priest of the Morphac cult had approached him during their last layover on Calana Prime, Andrew had been reluctant to say the least.
Still, his old teacher had convinced him to take the chance. He had taken Phoenix to the Morphac Nebula, had used the herbs F’ryr had prepared for him and allowed himself to fall into the dream state required to commune with the ascended being.
The King of Dreams had met him on the shores of Jolinda Province, where he used to bring Penni and Jazon during the summer. One moment Andrew had been alone, staring out at the distant shores of the Kimbal peninsula, and the next a fat man in a dirty grey coat had been stood beside him.
“I hear you’re looking for a way home,” the King had said without preamble.
Andrew had nodded.
“I may be able to help you with that. I have a… a key that might open the lock that is keeping you here.”
“What kind of key?”
The King of Dreams shook his head. “First we talk payment.”
Andrew sighed. He was sick of dealing with cupid deities, constantly negotiating and trying to get one over on him.
“What do you want?” he asked through gritted teeth.
Instead of answering directly, the King of Dreams shuffled his body around on the sand until he was facing Andrew. Pulling open the ties that held his coat closed, he spread it, revealing a flabby bulging belly covered in fine white hairs. Andrew’s eyes, though, were drawn to his chest. A hole had been cut in the flesh and where the King’s heart should have been was an empty hole, oozing a dark green liquid.
“I want you to recover my heart.”
The story behind his request had turned out to be quite simple. The King of Dreams had become enamored of a fellow deity, a spider goddess who called herself the Crimson Queen. The two had spent two long aeons as lovers in her realm before the King grew tired of her. When he tried to leave, though, the Queen captured his heart, tearing it still beating from his chest.
“It is still out there, lost in the quantum eddies of her realm,” he said. Suddenly, Andrew could hear a steady throbbing beat carried on the sea air. The King stared, his eyes lost on some distant shore. “I can hear it. Sometimes, I can feel it.” He patted his chest once, twice, three times. “I want it back.”
Andrew had had no choice but to accept. And so now, here he was, about to enter the Watchers’ tent to make a bargain.
He found himself in the last place he had expected to be. It took him a moment to make sense of what he was seeing and even longer to believe it.
He was in his own bedroom, back home on Thycia. Sunlight filtered through ochre veils, casting a warm fiery glow on an antique four poster bed.
Everything was perfect, exactly as he remembered it. As if he had just stepped out for a moment. Walking over to the balcony, he stared through the veils at the dark green forest below, javatrees sweeping down a soft rise to the crystaline waters. The air felt heavy with the scents of summer, a thousand spices tinged with the heady smell of the sea.
And below it all, a very familiar perfume.
He turned as if against his will, eyes returning to the bed. A figure was spread out beneath the sheets. How didn’t I see her? Andrew moved without conscious thought, three short steps carrying him to the bedside. He fell to his knees, hands reaching out for her. Penni. His wife.
The figure rolled over and Andrew’s heart fell. It wasn’t her.
Instead, a dark haired beauty stared back at him. Her face was perfect, except for a small scar at the corner of her mouth.
“Hello lover,” she purred.
He jolted backward, falling on his arse. “You.”
Gliding out of bed as if she were made of liquid, the woman revealed herself in all her naked glory, breasts the size of apples, flat stomach taut and trembling. Andrew couldn’t help it – he felt an erection stretching the crotch of his trousers.
“What do you want?” he asked in a tremulous voice.
She stopped stalking towards him, pouting. “Aren’t you pleased to see me lover?”
“I am not your lover, Lydia,” he told the “goddess”. “That was a long time ago.”
Lydia, Goddess of Passion, patron of his beloved Thycia, moved like water. One moment she was five steps away, the next her hand was on his lower abdomen. She put her lips to his ear and purred. Andrew jumped backwards, stumbling on a table. He put his hand out to catch himself and felt the cold steel of a hunting knife. Gripping it, he pushed it out between them.
Her eyes widened. “Do you really think that will work against me?”
Andrew allowed himself a grim smile as he turned the blade around, pressing the tip to his own gut. “Maybe not, but I can end your fun.”
Lydia stared at him for a moment and then sniffed dismissively, turning away. “As you want it.”
Andrew suppressed a sigh of relief. He could feel the tension in his arms and knew that if he allowed himself to relax, he might collapse.
“What do you want?”
“I came to warn you.”
She nodded. “We know what you’re doing, lover, and my brothers aren’t happy. They’re worried you’re going to break the treaty with the insects.”
Andrew felt hope spring up in his heart, but he suppressed it before it could show. They were worried? That meant they thought the King of Dreams could actually do what he said he could. Could this fool bargain actually be a way home?
He forced his expression to remain neutral. “Why should I care? As long as I am working for him, I’m under his protection.”
“I know,” she said with a scowl. “They’re not happy about that either. To tell you the truth, neither am I. It’s unnatural.”
“Well, you used to worship me.”
Andrew did not bother to correct her. Half-human, half-Kalindan, one of a generation of Federation citizens born and raised in the new galaxy, he had been raised by his mother to respect the beings her people believed to be gods. As a Starfleet officer, though, he had come to see them for what they truly were – mortal beings who had found a way through science and quantum manipulation to gain a sort of godhood, an ascension to a higher state of being. Lydia had never understood that.
“I don’t worship the King of Dreams,” Andrew retorted instead. He relaxed his fists. “And I don’t worship you, either.”
She sighed, waving a hand. “Yes, yes, we all know you’re an aetheist now. The gods are evil, the gods are cruel. Blah, blah, blah. So tiresome.”
“You said you had a warning for me, Lydia. What is it?”
“This task isn’t what it appears, lover. What he’s offering you is not what you think it is.”
“Will it get me home?”
He saw a flicker of something in her eyes, as if she was trying to decide whether to lie to him. She shook her head. “Yes.”
He felt relief flood through him. It’s going to work. This time, it’s going to work.
“Then I don’t care.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You should really listen to me unless you—“
“I don’t think so, lover. This all seems much too convenient. I find a way home and suddenly you’re here to save me. It’s too late for that. Maybe if you had been there ten years ago when your brothers decided to get rid of me…” He shook his head. “Now. Put me back where you took me from. I have a job to do.”
For an instant, he thought he had gone too far. Lydia’s face had grown darker and darker, flesh flooding with blood. Just when he thought she might snap and kill him – and the curse be damned – she lifted her arms and pushed him. He fell back…
It was as if he had just taken a stumbling step. He lurched through the tent flap. When he straightened, he found himself in a long dark corridor, carved out of rock and lit by flickering candles. He looked back, expecting to see the tent flap and the desert, but there was only a large wooden door.
For a moment, he thought that Lydia had played another trick on him but when he looked up, he found the same old man looking at him. He didn’t seem confused, so Andrew guessed that Lydia had paused time while they had their little chat. While she took him home. He might not be sure of much else, but he was sure of that. She had taken him home. If he had left that room, would he have found Penni in the study? Would his little Jazon have been asleep in his bed?
He sighed. Painful thoughts.
“Is there a problem my lord?
Andrew shook his head. “No. Let’s go.”
Bowing, the old man turned, leading Andrew down the rock tunnel, into the depths.
The Watchers held court in a circular chamber deep within the rock. In the centre of it stood a small rock slab, surmounted by five thrones seemingly carved out of bone. Sat on them were five figures, draped in long robes, each one died a different shade of purple.
“Welcome, Andrew Lee,” they intoned as the bald man led him in, their voices speaking as one.
Coming closer, Andrew caught a glimpse beneath those cloaks. Decaying flesh and blood red lips. Yellowed and broken teeth. He shuddered. F’ryr had told him that the Watchers were immortal, gaining eternal life in decaying bodies as the price for protecting the galaxy. From what, no one seemed to know. Once again he wondered where his intelligence officer got his information.
A raspy sound came from the thrones – he realised that the five men were laughing.
“How low the mighty have fallen,” the one and many voice said.
Andrew gritted his teeth. F’ryr had warned him they might taunt him. He pushed through his anger. “I come to seek your aide.”
“Our aide? And how could we be of help to one of the mighty warriors of the Star Fleet, powerful allies of the Kalindan gods?”
From what F’ryr had told him, the Watchers and the gods of the Kalindan colonies had had dealings in the past, despite the vast distances that separated the Darkland Expanse from his home. That explained the anger in their voices, though perhaps not why it seemed to be personally directed at him.
He ignored the tone, concentrating on their words. “I need two things.”
“Two?” Eagerness, desire even, lifted their words.
“Yes. First, I need the quark resonation pattern of the Crimson Queen’s dimension.”
“A mighty gift,” they rasped. “And second?”
“I understand that you have a temporal drifter in your custody. I wish to bargain for his freedom.”
They hissed. F’ryr had warned him that this would be the most difficult thing to get from them. A temporal drifter was a mighty prize, even for beings as powerful as the Watchers.
“And what will you be willing to pay for these… items?”
Andrew took a deep breath. Before he had encountered Lydia, he had a very specific set of bargaining chips he was willing to throw into the ring. Now… F’ryr was not going to be happy.
The five Watchers fell silent. Even they seemed surprised at what he had offered. Making a deal with the Watchers was dangerous business. To offer them anything in return for their assistance was tantamount to selling your soul.
“We… We must think on this. We will provide you with your items and will call upon you when we have decided upon our price. Do you accept?”
A creaking sound from the bone thrones – the sound of skeletons dancing on a grave – told him that they were leaning forward, eagerly waiting for his answer. He had been afraid this would be their answer. He would be left in their debt, at their mercy. They could call upon whenever they wished. A dozen voices screamed in his head, telling him to refuse, to walk out of the room and find another way. Lydia’s voice, though, echoed stronger.
Will it get me home?
He forced himself to nod and was greeted by a chorus of hisses. In their realm, on their turf, that nod was as binding as a signature in blood.
And somewhere, in the dark, he swore he could hear a woman laughing.