Extinguishing the fusion lance, Cass slid her goggles up into her hair and leaned through the rapidly dissipating smoke, to scrutinise her handiwork.
Good enough.
Somewhere away near the Promenade, Jamie picked up on her stray thoughts, his inquisitive mental chatter immediately flooding her mind.
Did you use right flux?
Was the metal thick enough to support the weld?
She wrinkled her nose in distaste at this second, alien, internal monologue and turned to toss the lance onto the workbench behind her.
Did the bracing struts work out?
After just over a month of this, Cass was beginning to loathe his presence – a sentiment she was quite sure was more than reciprocated.
The telepathic link had manifested in the days following their return to the Dwarf and as far as anyone could determine, it had arisen as a result of their exposure to that black gunk from the neural cluster they had destroyed, back on Fernando’s.
Cass hated everything about it.
She hated sharing each and every thought with someone else; she hated his intrusive, simplistic mental babble, every bit as much as he hated the abstract, non-linear onslaught of her thoughts; she hated sharing his dreams at night; she hated knowing where he was and what he was doing; but most of all, she hated that she was an open book to him, and that no matter what she did or what she said, her true feelings and motivations were laid bare.
In fairness to Jamie, he hadn’t capitalised on it in the way that Cass might previously have worried he would; in fact he seemed to be every bit as uncomfortable as she was with the mental intimacy they had to endure.
Going to the toilet was nothing short of humiliating.
Jade and Artemis’ combined prognosis after a week of exhaustive observation and examination, was that the effect was only likely to be temporary; but that offered little comfort to Cass and Jamie in the meantime and the only thing that either of them had found they could do about it, was to get absolutely hammered.
Alcohol seemed to scramble their thoughts into a sort of psychic, white noise that made it difficult, but not impossible, for each other to pick up on.
Sighing, Cass reached for the three-quarters-empty bottle of gin, stood amongst the equipment, littering the workbench and unscrewed the cap.
Today was her turn to be drunk.
Raising the bottle to her lips, she upended it and took a couple of good long gulps; the raw spirit making her cough and gasp as it hit the back of her throat.
Being pissed wasn’t bad, but gin, her normal drink of choice, had a tendency to make her maudlin, and there had been a couple of times this last month when Jade had had to deal with an extremely drunk and tearful Cassandra, beating down her door, in the small hours of the morning, to sob her heart out.
That sort of thing was embarrassing.
Cass hated that as well.
Lowering the bottle, she turned to perch on the metal reinforced edge of the workbench and take another few, more genteel, sips while she scrutinised her latest creation.
Now that she had got the industrial grade grav-plates, cannibalised from one of the loading bays, welded in place along the length of the body, the bike was slowly taking shape.
Obviously having channelled Jamie’s expertise in achieving some of the flashes of engineering brilliance in her initial designs, Cass had run these through a series of evolutionary algorithms of her own devising; the end result being a machine with a somewhat unsettling biomechanical feel to it, but, which all the simulations assured her, would achieve a phenomenal level of performance.
Jamie notwithstanding, it was meant to be a surprise.
She hoped Jay was going to like it.
Taking another swig of gin, Cass recapped the bottle and, placing it down beside her, slid down off the workbench.
Her stomach growled.
“Fucks sake” she grumbled under her breath before raising her voice “Hol?” she called “Where’s the nearest vending machine with something edible in it?”
“There aren’t any” the AI swam into view on one of the nearby, cracked and dirty monitors, set in the wall.
“You’re fucking joking?”
“Nope” Holly bobbed on the screen “Your mate Jaxx cleared out the last one on Deck 523 this morning”
“Fucking...” Cass scowled unsteadily. The gin was starting to kick in a little, dimming Jamie’s concerns about his own hunger into a low, background hum. A glossy psychic haze “Fuck”
“Yep. You got that right”
“Is there any food left on this ship?”
“Well, other than... you know...” Holly gave her a knowing look
“Yeah, yeah” she waved a dismissive hand. Cass had a few emergency bits and pieces squirreled away in her quarters, but Jamie, of course, knew all about those, so she’d have to share them with the rest of the group – even though it hardly seemed fair; Jaxx, for example, was about twice her size and needed so much more food than she did to keep going.
“There are always the Nutrigrain bars?”
“Bruno said they gave you the shits” Cass curled her lip in revulsion “Is there nothing else?”
“Not really”
“Don’t the Vermin or Huzards have anything to share?”
“You do know that there was a food riot on the Promenade last week?”
“Yeah, I heard about that” Cass grimaced. A whole horde of Vermin had apparently ransacked the Gourmet Gourd and other restaurants on the strip, desperate for any bags of kibble they might have had on the premises “How about the Huzards?”
“Our peace with them is tenuous at best” Holly said “Do you want to go and upset them by stealing their food?”
“Yeah, but can we not at least ask?”
Holly shrugged, or more accurately, bobbed up and down on the screen “Be my guest” he said, leaving Cass frowning while she considered their options.
“How many days are we from that planet you picked up on your scanners?” she knew the answer to this, but thought she’d ask anyway – just in case things had changed and Holly had forgotten to mention it.
“Just under fourteen days”
“There’s definitely life there, right?”
“Yeah, I reckon” Holly beamed beatifically at her “Dunno if you’ll be able to eat any of it, though – It’s a bit early to say”
“Figures” Cass wrinkled her nose. It was beginning to look like she should have stolen more of the party food from Artemis’ 50th, but it had seemed a little churlish to do so, and at the time, none of them had realised how far away the nearest habitable world would be – it was either that or Fernando’s and nobody had wanted to go back there.
“Do you want me to start handing out those Nutrigrain bars?”
“The last thing I want with this psychic link is a case of the shits” Cass shook her head unhappily “Jamie and I don’t need to be party to each other’s stomach cramps and dabbing our arses dry – I don’t want that”
Don’t want what? Jamie’s disjointed query fuzzed in.
Fuck off Cass lurched back towards the workbench, reaching for the bottle.
“Holly, are you sure there aren’t any other habitable planets, or abandoned space stations around here,” she demanded in between mouthfuls of gin “or... or anything”
“One sec, I’ll have a look” the AI dodged off the side of the screen only to return a moment later “Nope nothing”
“Oh, hang on – I forgot to check the other side”
“What have I told you about that sort of shit?” Cass snapped as Holly disappeared off the other side of the screen “It’s not funny”
“It’s just a jape, innit” he smirked as he reappeared back on the monitor “Anyway, you were right; there is something out there”
“I said you were right and that there’s something out there”
Grimacing as she swallowed another mouthful of gin, Cass scowled unsteadily at the monitor “I’m always right, you dickhead. What did you find?”
“Dunno really. It seems be some sort of resort in orbit about a red giant, about fifteen light years away. Everything’s on standby at the moment which was probably why we missed it from a couple hundred light years away. Do you want me to hail it?”
Cass considered this for a moment. Normally she’d have initiated a series of increasingly aggressive scans to acquire as much data as possible before she’d have ever considered establishing contact, but today, it was her turn to be drunk “Fuck it” she said, throwing caution to the wind “Go for it”
It took a few minutes before they got a response, the monitor snowing with static before clearing to display the angular features of a service mechanoid.
“Oh, my,” he trilled “a human. I had hoped we might have...” he stopped and gave her a broad, if somewhat insincere smile before continuing “My name is Grovely. How may I be of service, ma’am?”
Swaying slightly as she drained the last of her gin, Cass tossed the bottle aside with a crash “Have you got any food?” she squinted at the monitor, belatedly realising that she might not be in the best condition to open negotiations.
“Why, of course ma’am” Grovely replied, smoothly “Here at the Reality Resort, we pride ourselves in offering nothing but the finest cuisine, prepared by our team of award winning robo-chefs”
Cass narrowed her eyes “Can you manage Kaiseki Ryōri?”
“Ah, a connoisseur” Grovely nodded appreciatively “You can rest assured ma’am. We have a wide selection of nothing but the finest, fresh produce, perfectly preserved in stasis before being shipped from all over the galaxy. This allows us to cater for every conceivable taste, no matter how demanding or exotic”
“Holly” Cass raised her voice “Change course. Take us to this Reality Resort”
“Shall I make a booking?” Grovely asked
Holly bobbed into the bottom corner of the screen “Don’t you think you should clear this with Jay and the others first?”
“For fuck’s sake” Cass snapped “Who’s in fucking charge here!?”
“Well, you; but...”
“Then just... Just...” she angrily threw her hands up and span on her heel, turning away from the monitor “Just fuck it!” she spat “Let them know about the resort and what’s out there. Let them know that we can be there by three this morning, and that I’m going to change course unless I hear otherwise”
There! Cass peevishly folded her arms and glowered down at the floor, while she regained her composure That was a concession. That would have to do.

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