The portal opened into the middle of the cell. It was dark inside, save for the light of the small flashlight in Sinbad’s hands. The cabbie had a moment to catch sight of three people, in iron chains. One of them was missing a hand. They looked up, blinking owlishly in the light, before Sinbad waved his hand. The portal swept around, and they were gone, back to the safety of the village, where nobody would be able to get them. Then the Path to Victory disappeared. The cabbie frowned. “Aren’t we going to join them? You freed your family. What else is there left for you to do?”
“One last thing. I admit, I didn’t expect to find them- They weren’t the ones I was thinking of when I opened the Path to Victory.” The door opened. Three men stood there, two carrying assault rifles, one older, scar-faced. The two men never got a chance to bring their weapons to bear. The black portal swept forward, and consumed them before they could even scream. The cabbie couldn’t help the shiver that ran down his spine, at how casually Sinbad had done that. There was no sign that they had even been there. Just the old man, his face scarred, his jaw tensed.
“Where are my men, boy? And what, exactly, did you do with my prisoners?”
“They’re all where they need to be.” Sinbad studied him. “Still got that scar, I see. Haven’t taken any of the Panacea fruit to make yourself pretty again, sir? That’s a damn shame.”
“Boy, you appear to be in need of a lesson in humility again.”
The Colonel moved like a snake. Unfortunately for him, Sinbad moved like a dragon. In a blur of motion, the colonel was left cradling his wrist, his teeth gritted. His hand rested in Sinbad’s. It was no longer attached to the rest of his body. The spacefarer stood contemplatively over the old man. “You know, I won’t deny. I was looking forward to that.”
“Yeah? I’ll just bet.” The colonel spat in Sinbad’s face. The spacefarer didn’t move, still watching him contemplatively. “What are you waiting for? Go ahead and kill me, you dirty son-of-a-bitch traitor.”
“You know, there was a time that I would have been deeply hurt by that. You’d know that, I’m sure. Hell, that was probably half of the reason that I tried to go out into the stars for you. I believed that maybe, just maybe, I would be able to redeem my family. Make everything alright again. Shows what I know.” Sinbad sighed. “Why the hell did you do it, Colonel? Why did you fuck with me? Why couldn’t you have just played fair?”
“As though you were playing fair with us. We knew about that first betrayal of yours. You had the opportunity to deliver us the Star Clan on a silver platter. You could have given us an advantage like none other. And you blew it. You refused to give us what we needed. How do you think we’d ever trust you after that, boy?”
Sinbad looked away. “They were slaves once. You think that we’d be justified in doing that to them?”
“We would be justified in anything we do, boy! You don’t understand this, do you?!” The man gritted his teeth. “You ever gone toe to toe with an Imperial ship? We’ve done simulated exercises. Been doing them for the last decade. Seeing exactly what would happen if we ever had to fight them with the technology we had. Did you know that the most destructive weapons we have would be worthless against their ground troops? They could put a hole through the command staff of our most heavily armored ships from a parsec away. We have no goddamn hope, as it stands, boy. Do you know what kind of pressure weighs on me every day and night, thinking about what might happen to us? As a species? You went out there, and saw what the Empire is capable of. You might think that they’re friendly and cuddly right now, because that’s exactly what they want you to think. But give them an inch, and they’ll roll over us like a goddamn apocalypse. We’re not ever going to be safe.”
“With respect, sir, fuck off. You’re right, they’re a hell of a lot more advanced than us. And I’ve personally run into Imperials who would be happier with all of us dead. But what would ever make you think that I’m any more comfortable with you being in charge of my fate?” Sinbad leaned forward. “I’ll be blunt with you. I don’t care why you did it all. What is important is the position we have found ourselves in. You know about all of this. I’m willing to bet you know more than most. So I’m going to make an example of you.”
“You’re a filthy traitor, boy. You know that?”
“If I believed for a moment that you were worth being loyal to, I’d feel real torn up about that.” Sinbad stood up straight. “I’m going to give you a choice. One way or another, you’re going to be out of my hair. If you want, I could kill you right here, right now. I can’t deny, I’d really love to beat you to death with my bare hands right about now, after seeing where you’ve kept my family.”
“Like you’d have the stones-” The colonel was cut off as Sinbad slammed a fist into his solar plexus. There was an unpleasant crunching sound.
“I have a great deal of built-up anger, sir. I have been holding it all back for a decade, now. If you want to see how badly I want to kill you, please, feel free to keep talking. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.” The colonel gritted his teeth, but he didn’t say another word. “That’s more like it. Now, strange as it may sound, I could foresee there being a need for a man like you somewhere in this universe. It’s a long-shot, but maybe you are important to someone out there. So, if you want to keep living, at least for a little while longer…” Sinbad raised a hand, and the black portal appeared. “Then you step through that portal. And wherever you find yourself, if you ever cross me again, I won’t be giving you a choice.”
The colonel narrowed his eyes. “Where does it lead?”
“Where you’re needed.”
There was a few long seconds of silence, as the colonel gave the portal a contemplative look. “You’re going to regret this, someday. When those soft eyes on those pretty Imperial girls turn out to just be a honeypot. I hope you remember that I warned you when that day comes.” Then, with as much dignity as he could muster with a broken sternum and a missing hand, he stood up straight, and strode through the portal. And that was the last that anyone ever saw of the colonel.
The cabbie frowned softly. “Are you sure that was the right thing to do?”
“No,” Sinbad admitted. “But it was the thing that I had to do. I’ll probably regret it someday. Hell, I regret it now. But he deserved the chance. Maybe there’s somewhere that needs that son of a bitch. Now… Where do you want to go?”
The cabbie’s frown deepened. “What do you mean? We’re going back to the village, aren’t we? That’s where everyone’s waiting for us. They’re going to get worried if we don’t show up soon.”
“If you want to return, I can send you there. But I’m not going back.”
“What? But- All the people, waiting for you-“
“Are trapped by me. They care about me, and god knows I care about them, too, but I can’t help them by being there. If they need me, I’ll be there for them, but…” Sinbad sighed. “All the people I’ve hurt in my life. All the damage I’ve done. I don’t deserve a happy ending, cabbie. That’s not the way my story ends. I’ve got so much to make up to the world. So much harm that I’ve done, and I haven’t even begun to pay back those debts. Dolly isn’t the half of it. They’ll miss me. Then they’ll get over it, and be better off without me.” He smiled. “It’s just my way, I suppose. Wandering endlessly. No place to call my home.” He raised a hand. “I’ll do what I can to make them safe, but I don’t think I can ever be happy. I’m going, now. If you don’t want to go back to the village, just follow me. You can take a ship from wherever we end up… Well, wherever you like.” The portal opened.
I sat across from the cabbie, my notepad in front of me. The two of us sat in the cafe on the Throneworld. “He was going to abandon everyone? That sounds strange for him.”
“The thing about Sinbad is, from the short time I knew him, he always hated himself a bit. His failures ate at him. He could understand why it was foolish to do what he was doing, I think. He was hoping that I was smart enough to talk him out of it. If I were a more clever man, I would have.” The cabbie sighed, as I scribbled down the notes.
“So… He left them? His wife, his children, all the people he loved?” I frowned.
“Oh, no. I said I wasn’t smart enough to talk him out of it. See, the Path to Victory wasn’t a one-way entrance. Hope had realized that, and was able to open it up from the other end. If you were prepared, you could always travel both ways down the path. And it knew where it needed to go”
She stepped through the portal. Alabaster skin, dressed in her black latex outfit, a frown on her face. A blue ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. Sinbad stared, his eyes opened wide, his jaw dropping, the shock playing across his handsome face. “Dolly?”
“I woke up, and you weren’t there. I had a bad dream.” Tears were running down her cheeks. “I dreamt you left, and you weren’t going to come back. You’d said that you’d done something horrible, and that you couldn’t stay.” She wrapped her arms around him. “My head feels wretched. How long did it take me to wake up?”
“It’s…” His voice was strained. “It was eight years. Dolly-“
“Oh, is that all?” Her expression brightened, as she smiled up at him. “When I woke up, on the throne, I was frightened that it had been a long time. I thought I’d gotten lost in my thoughts for ages.” She sighed with relief. “I saw something, like that black portal you talked about, that brought you to the Far and Sunless Land. I thought, well- It was kind of impulsive and foolish of me, but I thought it might take me to you.” She looked down. “I suppose that was pretty childish of me.”
Sinbad hugged her softly, his arms going around her. “Dolly, I… ” He trailed off.
“Jeez, Sinbad. Did you turn into a total wimp while I was gone? Come on, let’s get out of this gloomy place! Let’s go somewhere sunny! Ugh, my head still hurts from my damn mom’s memories.” She grabbed Sinbad’s arm, grinning him. “Don’t leave me behind next time, alright?”
Sinbad lifted his hand, and hesitated for a moment. There was a flash of light, and the portal opened again. The three of them walked through, and found themselves on the sands of the desert village. Sinbad’s family was there. Everyone was there, in fact. All laughing, cheering as he returned. The cabbie watched his face. There was no stalwart stoicism, no poker face. There was just a wide, open smile on Sinbad’s face as he was greeted by the people he loved and cared about. Tears streaming down his cheeks, in the hot desert sun. A feast being prepared already, with all the food that the group could scrounge up. The *Diogenes* was already preparing to take off, to carry the group away, after they finished.
Some time into the feast, the cabbie noticed Sinbad wasn’t with the rest of them. He walked into one of the old buildings, and found Sinbad, standing in the quiet, waving a hand. Nothing was happening. “Trying to escape, still?”
“Mmm. Sort of. I’ve been trying to call the Path to Victory, but… It doesn’t seem to be responding. It’s like it’s… gone.” Sinbad frowned. “Maybe… Well, I suppose I’ll never know for certain, but maybe I’m finally where I’m supposed to be. Maybe this is the universe’s way of telling me that I’ve done enough. That I can finally relax. At least for now.”
“You kidding me? You’ve got six Imperial women who want to monopolize your time.” The cabbie smiled cheerfully. “Your adventure’s only just beginning! Come on. The Seekers of Truth found a way to brew the Panacea fruit that’ll get even an Imperial drunk. The quest is done, you saved everyone. Might as well enjoy it while it lasts!”
I looked around at my audience. “It would be inaccurate, and disappointing, to say they lived happily ever after. Sinbad would’ve hated it, for certain. Saying they lived happily ever after suggests that nothing interesting ever happened in their lives again, and that’d be a damned lie. I do not, for example, know how things hashed out between Sinbad and those he loved. Maybe he ended up settling with one of them. Maybe he ended up settling with all of them. It’s not unknown, especially considering the disparity in numbers between humans and the Empire, although I wouldn’t envy him the situation. A man can only do so much. But he had, at least, finally found himself able to live with himself. He didn’t need to escape anymore.” I took a deep breath, and stood up, facing the captain. “And, if I may belabor my fucking point, he realized that this is not a zero sum game. I am sorry about what happened to your mother. But that is not how this has to go down. We can find a better solution.”
There was silence for a few moments. Kry was about to open her mouth, when there was a soft tinkling noise. She cursed, and held up a communicator. The face of some strange Imperial male, with avian features, appeared. “Captain. You said that you had a human aboard. Are you going to bring him to us, or will you continue to procrastinate?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Look here, bird. I have the human aboard. We are finalizing the terms of his release into your hands-“
“Finalizing terms? Are you a pirate or not? Can you not control your own cargo?”
Her lips curled back, revealing sharp teeth. “You would do well to remember who you are talking to-“
“I am talking to someone who I have offered a very generous amount of money, in exchange for the provision of a service. Get the human aboard in ten minutes, or-“
“Toralee?” Kry spoke sweetly. “I have decided that we will not be selling the human today. Set in a new course. Let’s be on our way.”
“You have no right to do this, Kry. If you do, I will blackball you with our research initiative. You will not recover from this, I promise you.” There was a harsh metallic sound, that reverberated through the ship’s hull. “We have engaged the docking clamps. You cannot escape from us. Please avoid a lengthy and unpleasant boarding action, and deliver the human to us. We know of your reputation, and I can assure you, you will not come out on top if you defy us.”
Toralee looked up at the captain. “Ma’am, I- We could jump, but we’d have to… Oh.” She smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Kry! This is your last warning!”
“You know, bird, you have only yourself to blame for this.”
I did not see what happened at that moment, as Toralee triggered the ship’s engines. There was a sound of tearing metal, a great shuddering, and then stillness. From outside, a hole was ripped through space and time with the ship’s reserve power, into the photosphere of a star. Close to a million cubic meters of superheated plasma poured through the gap into the docking ring of the station, turning the docking clamps into a rapidly expanding cloud of extremely energetic metallic particles. The ship dove through into freedom, even as Kry sat down, her expression annoyed, as she gave me a look.
“You wouldn’t throw me out of the airlock after all of that, would you?” I asked, giving my best, most hopeful smile.
She was silent for a while, nearly a minute, as the room stayed still. Finally, just as I was about to crack, she sighed. “No. I suppose it would be a terrible waste of your talents to do so.” She leaned back in the chair, her eyes dull. “I can drop you and your little coterie off somewhere. And try, in vain, to rebuild the shattered remnants of my reputation.”
I paused for a moment, and looked around the room. There were glum expressions on the faces of every one of the pirates. They’d lost their payday, and made an enemy. I leaned back, and sighed. I was going to hate myself for this soon. “I don’t think that I should leave just yet. After all, you’ve helped me out quite a lot with some information. I might like to… stay here. You were right when you said that you have real passion. I think that’s important, even if I disagree with how you’re expressing that passion.”
She stared at me for a moment. Her expression ran through half a dozen emotions, and settled on ‘hardass’. “If you want to stay aboard this ship, you and your little friends will have to work. I’ll make you a deal…” She took a deep breath. “As long as you have stories, as long as you keep being interesting, you can stay. When you can’t keep going… You’re out of here.” She held out a hand, and I took it, shaking enthusiastically.
“You won’t regret this.”
“I already do.”
That evening, I lay in the small room that I had earned. There was a knock at the door. “Come in.” Naja entered, a frown on her face. “Naja. I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind this inconvenience. You can leave the ship the next time we make port, which should be in a couple of weeks.”
“I wouldn’t think of it. You are still in a den of thieves, even if you seem to have forgotten about it.” She frowned. “What could have possessed you? You had gained your freedom. This was your chance to escape!”
I leaned back in the chair. “I’ve got a mission.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes. You’ve learned the shocking truth of the Dragon Captain Kry, her mommy got thrown over for a squid woman. What more do you expect to find, here?”
I gave her a smile. “You know, folklore among the Imperials is of special importance to the Eudaimonia Universalis. The greatest heights of the Empire had technology that it can’t match today. Most of it is forgotten, lost, or sealed away. The thing is, those things always remain in stories.” I paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I can trust you, but this is in the best interests of the Eudaimonia and the Empire. The galaxy is not a stable place. Dangers still lurk.” I looked around the room. “Have you ever heard of Alabama Jones and the Forty Thieves?”