Welcome to chapter 17, readers! I hope you’re enjoying Nebulous Heart so far.
If you’ve been around my website enough, you’ve seen that I don’t usually preface my stories, but this chapter was hard to write, and hard to re-read for editing. It only seemed fair to offer you a trigger warning.
This chapter is tragic. If you’re here, you’ve read chapter 16, and maybe you can guess at when I mean. If you’re not comfortable reading painful scenes, you might want to come back another day. There will be later chapters that discuss this topic and these events, but this is one of the hardest ones, especially having lived through the same kind of pain myself.
I’d say happy reading, but this isn’t a happy chapter. It’s raw emotion, and it’s going to make you hate the Wilang and the K’zzyrch.
Chapter Seventeen – The Veil Nebula
1,470 Light Years from Earth
The ship that slipped out of Sardonia’s atmosphere was not a large one by most space travelers’ standards. It left quietly, thanks to he planet’s lack of airspace security, and headed in the general direction of Epsilon Cygnus. At the ship’s helm, the pilot input several controls, pressing a series of buttons, and set a lever to just the right angle. Then he turned to his co-pilot.
“You have the helm,” he said, and he stood up. “I’m going to check on our passenger.”
“Yes sir, Mister Mannarius!” the other man said. He had nearly the same shaggy hair that Mannarius did, except that it was a darker shade of brown. While his eyes were bright and coppery, the fur on his face was a chocolaty color.
“You are as cheeky as Jalingan. Perhaps you should be a mercenary like him.”
“Mercenary work isn’t worth the pay. I could never stand to be around the Wilangs… nor the K’zzyrch.”
Mannarius grinned and shook his head. “You and me both. Watch our heading, Dhruv. We have to get out of the Veil Nebula, and I want no trouble along the way.”
“Will do!” the other man agreed.
Mannarius left the bridge and walked down a short hallway, then pressed a switch to open a wide metal door. On the other side, a young female sat beside a bed, watching the person sleeping in it with great concern. She looked up when she heard his footsteps, but offered him no smile.
“How is she?” Mannarius asked in a low voice.
The female, with her long, fox-like snout, shook her head. “I had to give her something to make her sleep, but I wasn’t sure about the right amount. I’m afraid I don’t know how long she’ll be asleep.”
“This is better than the screaming,” he replied.
She seemed reluctant to agree. “At least asleep, I can get some medicine into her, but there isn’t much else I can do for her. I told you when you hired me, captain: I’m not very familiar with human physiology.”
“You’re all she has out here, Iratze,” the captain told her in a sullen voice. “Nobody else would treat a human who was given the k’zshyrk venom. I say you’ve done quite well so far.”
“Thank you, captain,” she sighed. “Still, I worry for her. K’zshyrk, lavishta, the beatings… she’s been through so much. I ‘m giving her all the nutrients I could find that will help her grow more human blood, but I can’t heal what’s been done to her spirit.”
“I take it her bleeding is under control now?” Mannarius asked, recalling the way their patient had been screaming earlier, the way she’d kicked and pushed while they tried to help her.
The nurse nodded. “Now that her body has passed the…” She paused, her voice trembling.
“I know,” he told her. “You don’t have to say it. I think even while she sleeps, she would not want us to say it out loud again.”
“She took the news so badly… I had no idea that humans didn’t understand how lavishta works. What a terrible way to learn that she was with child, only to have it rendered away just as quickly.”
“She needs to get back to her husband,” Mannarius commented. “They were meant to be together, and he may be the only one who can mend her heart.”
“How were they separated?” the nurse asked.
“The K’zzyrch attacked the space station they were on. Those who could escape did, but the accursed lizards sold their captives off as slaves. Old Professor Sendrick found her husband, and my cousin found her,” the captain explained, gesturing to the human’s sleeping body. “Now we just have to rendezvous at the Heart Nebula.”
“I hope she makes it that far,” the nurse told him.
“So do I,” Mannarius replied. “I have a promise to keep!”
The nurse gave him a quizzical look as she glanced up at him and saw him grinning.
“You’re so serious, Iratze. Be careful with that, or life will pass you by.” He waited for her to nod in reply, then added, “Let me know right away if she wakes up. In the meantime, I’m going to increase our speed and keep an eye out for any other humans who might be out here.”
“Of course, sir.” the nurse replied, though she doubted that there would be any this far from Earth.
Mannarius left the room just as quickly as he’d come and returned to the ship’s helm. He glanced at his co-pilot and smirked half-heartedly.
“What has you so down?”
Mannarius gave him a confused look. “I’m not down,” he insisted. “I’m never down.”
“And that is why I’m worried about you now,” the co-pilot replied. “I haven’t seen you this serious in years; I know that it takes a lot to wipe that grin off your face. What’s going on?”
Mannarius shrugged and looked over the controls he’d set. He’d only been away for a few minutes, but he needed something to keep himself busy, to occupy his mind.
“Is it the human girl?”
His words startled Mannarius, and he caught a finger in one of the switches, which made him scowl. The co-pilot leaned back cautiously, not liking the sight of the lion-like man’s teeth.
“I don’t like having death on my ship!” Mannarius grumbled. He slammed his fist on a smooth part of the control deck and turned to stared out the window. “And if we’re not lucky, there will be another death very soon.”
“She’s at that much of a risk, is she?” the other man asked.
Mannarius didn’t answer his question directly. Instead, he growled down at the radar readings. “Dammit, Dhruv, why are there no other ships out here?”
Dhruv wasn’t sure if his captain really wanted an answer, but he answered the question anyway. “Nobody wants to fly this close to Sardonia unless they really have to. Why does it matter?”
Mannarius shook his head. “Just get us out of here.”
* ** *** ** *
It took several days for the small ship to pass through to the edge of the Veil Nebula. In that time, Citlally laid asleep on the narrow bed in the ship’s infirmary, watched over by the silky-furred nurse. Mannarius checked in on her every so often, and after every visit pressed he co-pilot to find another ship in their vicinity. They were, however, quite alone in that part of the galaxy.
They were just leaving the nebula when Citlally at last opened her eyes. Mannarius was sitting by her side at the time, while the nurse was preparing a new IV bag for her. The human girl groaned softly, and the lion-haired man took her hand, rubbing the back of it gently.
“Shhhh… Don’t worry, child. Don’t worry.”
Again she groaned, her eyes fluttering, opening to a blurred sight. She had one hand raised to rub her eyes, and realized then that the other one was being held onto.
“Wha… What? Who…?”
“It’s just me,” Mannarius told her, keeping he voice low and calm. “Do you remember me?”
Citlally tried to focus her eyes on who was speaking, but had a hard time making out what she was looking at. She shook her head in answer to his question.
“My name in Mannarius,” he reminded her. “Mannarius Klavernning III, to be exact. I am the captain of this ship.”
“A ship…?” Citlally asked, as though the very idea of it were foreign to her.
“Yes, indeed. I got you off of Sardonia, for what it’s worth.”
“I…” she began weakly, then paused to catch her breath. “I’m not from that place. I’m from Earth, not Sardonia.”
Hearing her words, Nurse Iratze turned around and gave Mannarius a pitiful look. She walked over to the bed and set a small metal tray on the bedside table.
“Do you not remember your time on Sardonia?” she asked the human girl.
Citlally turned to look towards the nurse, blinking several times. Her vision was starting to clear up, but even then she could hardly believe what she saw. The nurse looked very much like a fox, with a long vulpine snout and keen eyes, even her lean arms. Unlike the foxes on Earth, however, her fur was a sunny shade of yellow.
She pulled her hand away from Mannarius and reached out to touch Iratze’s arm, feeling the rich silkiness of her fur, so much more like down than the thick, rust-colored hairs a Terran fox had. Her eyes were like copper, her smile gentle instead of wily, her ears more relaxed, although still tipped in the finest example of white possible.
“Is that where you are from?” Citlally asked the nurse.
Iratze might have laughed, had she any humor left in her after all she’d watched Citlally go through. Instead, she only shook her head and told her, “No, sweet girl. I am from quite another region. My home-world is called Gliese. I’m a Gliesian.”
“What about him?” Citlally replied, glancing over at Mannarius.
Iratze looked up at him, then back at Citlally. “Captain Mannarius is from a planet not far from 83 Leonis, if you can imagine.”
“Then… what is Sardonia?” Citlally wanted to know, her mind still foggy.
The question made Iratze give the captain a worried look. “This is what I feared,” she told him. “She cannot remember the ordeal. Between the k’zshyrk poison and the trauma of her blood loss…” She let her words falter, realizing that she might alarm the human if she went on.
“It’s better for now that she doesn’t remember,” Mannarius said, keeping his tone calm and low. “I would block it out, too, if I’d been through the same thing.”
Mannarius thought back to the girl’s first day aboard his ship, when he’d first carried her away from Sardonia and her slavery in the mines. Her bandages hadn’t been enough to hold back the blood, and her pants had been soaked through. She was, at the time, delirious with the disappointment that he wasn’t Endan, as she’d first thought. When she’d boarded the ship, expecting to see her beloved then, her emotions rose like a forest set on fire.
As a long-time space adventurer and explorer, Mannarius knew about some of the things that the K’zzyrch did with their captives. As soon as Endan told him what he could remember about the attack on Space Station Regulus II, he’d known that the girl was in for a terrible fate. The K’zzyrch put the men that they captured into hard labor, or at least sold them into slavery that eventually led them to servitude.
The females of most species, on the other hand, were often treated with far more contempt. Their child-bearing bodies were either stripped of that ability, or forced to carry the young of the species enslaving them. Some served as carnal playthings, a means of pleasure, whether it was willing or not.
In space, Mannarius knew, those aliens willing to purchase illegally-captured beings rarely looked after their welfare. While there was a plethora of aliens who refused to deal with those who were wrongly captured, there were also enough who were unscrupulous, who made the æther a dangerous place to wander.
In his search for the young female human, Mannarius had remembered stories about the lavishta potion, not to mention the k’zshyrk poison, and knew that there were many other ailments and injuries that might befall the one he was looking for. He’d hired a nurse at one of the space stations, knowing that he had no skills at all in the realm of healing.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions he’d made in a long time.
When he’d gotten the signal from Jalingan and followed it to Sardonia, he hardly expected the girl to be alive, let alone recognizable. He was surprised when she came running towards him over the hills and saw that she was not altogether different from how Endan had described her. He remembered the way she’d fainted when he laid her on the passenger seat of his shuttle, and then tried repeatedly to rouse herself, though her eyes refused to stay open.
Once on board the ship, Mannarius had brought her to the infirmary for the nurse to treat. She had read about human physiology before, but her only experience in treating them had been through the virtual programs that she used to keep her skills sharp. Still, she’d been the only one at the station willing to go with him who knew anything about humans. More importantly, she came with a lot of knowledge about how the lavishta potion worked.
“The Sardonians ware known to automatically give the lavishta potion to any female captive whom they discover is not a virgin. ‘A hair cut and a drink,’ the old saying goes,” Nurse Iratze had told Mannarius as he laid her down. “The bleeding only happens sometimes.”
The way she’d been shaking her head, her expression turned solemn, had piqued the man’s curiosity. “What causes the bleeding, then? I’ve heard all sorts of urban legends about it, but since you have actual medical training, can you tell me what the true story is?”
Citlally had been lying on the narrow bed, moaning weakly, while the nurse thought of how to explain what the lavishta potion really was. “There was a very short time, when the Wilang first acquired alien technology and began buying slaves from the K’zzyrch, that they had to deal with their captives giving birth. They were terribly inconvenienced by the workers they’d purchased requiring so much medical attention and time to rest and attend to their offspring. They soon learned that the lavishta potion was nearly-universal contraceptive, and started giving it to all of their female slaves. Soon after that, they stopped buying males, and then learned to be more selective in which species they bought.”
“Is this what contraceptives do to humans?” Mannarius asked as he watched the nurse cross the room and begin loading a tray with tools.
Iratze looked at him mournfully and shook her head. “The blood means something so much worse.”
Mannarius could see from the way she moved, could hear from the way she spoke, that it was something too tragic to spell out clearly, something that she didn’t want to lend more words to than were absolutely necessary. She walked over to the bed, placed her tray on the table, and sat beside Citlally. She took the human’s hand in hers. And rubbed the back of it until she opened her eyes.
“Greetings,” Iratze told her. “You are safe now; I’m here to help you.”
“Wha…” Citlally murmured, “what happened?”
“Just relax,” Iratze soothed. “I’m going to give you something for the pain, and then I’m going treat you.”
“It hardly hurts,” the human replied, “but I feel so weak.. the bleeding…”
“I know,” Iratze told her. “Believe me, I know. You are going through a miscarriage, and your body needs help to get it over with. It may not hurt now, but that is the lavishta potion numbing you. It is going to wear off any –”
“What?!” Citlally screeched, suddenly sitting up. “What did you say is happening?”
“I am sorry,” the nurse tried to explain, keeping her voice as calm as she could. “Perhaps our translators have a hard time with this phrase. Your body is losing its child because of the potion that the Wilang gave you.”
“My – My…” Citlally’s face slowly turned from a visage of weakness to one of sheer dread and terrible sadness. “No! No, how could I – I did not even know that I was… But how?!”
Iratze gave Mannarius a worried look, then laid her hand and the human’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry,” she told Citlally. “If there was any way I could help you change what has happened, I would. As it is, all I can do is help your body finish what has started, and make sure you don’t get an infection. Please, lie back and let me give you something for the pain.”
As she turned back towards the tray, Citlally, as though given a sudden burst of energy, began to shout hysterically. Iratze could hardly understand what she was saying, but focused on getting her to calm down. She reminded her that she might very well make her bleeding worse if she went on screaming and flailing her arms.
After a few minutes of that, she realized that Citlally was not going to hold still long enough for her to inject the pain medication. And if she couldn’t even do that, then the procedure she had to do would be impossible.
“Captain, I need your help holding her still,” she told Mannarius in a hurried tone as she rushed across the room and took a different syringe from the cabinet.
“I would only be happy to be of assistance,” he replied. “What should I do?”
“Hold her legs down,” Nurse Iratze told him as she returned to the side of the bed.
“No!” Citlally screamed. “Get away from me!”
It was too late for Mannarius. He was already leaning down to grasp her legs when she pulled back her knee. Her foot slammed against his chest as she screamed at him, and he doubled backwards, the wind knocked out of him. He laid on the floor long enough to catch his breath, and then got to his knees.
“You can’t take it from me!” Citlally went on, tears streaking down her face. “You have to heal it!”
Iratze gave Mannarius a wide-eyed look and shook her head, hoping that he would understand. Then she turned to the human.
“Please, Citlally. We’re going to do everything we can to help you!”
“Get Endan!” she cried. “Go get him!”
“Mannarius, she is going to bleed out if she keeps this up. You have to try again.”
The captain wasted no time arguing. He scooted up to the bed, careful to say out of range of being seen or kicked, and reached up his hands to grab her leg, pinning it down as he rose.
“Now!” he yelled to the nurse, feeling the way Citlally squirmed beneath his grasp.
As the human struggled, Iratze hurriedly cleaned the flesh between his hands, then plunged a needle into it. Citlally gave one last scream of resistance, and her arm reached over to slap Mannarius in the face before she collapsed onto the bed. He stepped backwards as soon as her body went limp, rubbing his cheek.
“Ohh… she hits hard!” He said. Then he looked down at her. “That stuff worked really fast.”
“The way her heart was pounding, and with what little blood she has left, it only makes sense,” Iratze explained. Then she took up another syringe, wiped a spot on Citlally’s arm clean, and gave her another dose of medicine.
“Is that really necessary? What if her body cannot handle so much?”
“It’s all right, captain. The first one was to make her sleep. This one,” she explained as she withdrew the needle from the human’s skin, “is to make sure the pain does not wake her when it starts to set in.”
Mannarius looked down at Citlally, a sadness weighing on him unlike he’d ever felt before. Had they handled the situation the right way? Could they have avoided her reacting like that? “She didn’t know, did she?”
“Know what?” Iratze asked. She wasted no time standing around as they spoke, and pulled over a bulky machine.
“About the baby,” Mannarius explained, his throat nearly sticking on the word as he said it.
She paused, staring down at her for a long moment, and then shook her head. “No,” she answered. “I don’t think she did.”
Mannarius watched as the nurse turned on the machine and entered in a stream of data at each screen that came up. Then the view switched to an amber field, and Iratze pulled a tool from the side of the machine and sighed heavily.
“You don’t have the newest equipment, but then again this isn’t a medical ship.” She pulled the cloth away from Citlally’s belly and placed the tool against her skin. The screen came alive with a jumble of images, blurred shapes moving around chaotically until she settled the tool in one place low on her abdomen, just off to the side. She squinted at the screen and said, “There it is. I ‘m surprised that she did not know yet; it was growing for a good many weeks.”
When she pointed to a tiny curved form on the screen, Mannarius could hardly look at it. There it was, curled against the side of her uterus just like he used to curl up against his mother’s side in her bed when he was but a cub. Except it was not moving, unlike the way he could hardly stand to lie still when his mother snuggled with him. He shook his head and pulled his eyes away.
“Can you really not save it?” he begged, his voice breaking.
Iratze shook her head. “It had been lost for days before her bleeding even started. All I can do now is save the woman. If she survives the blood loss…. if she does not develop an infection, then perhaps they can try again some day.”
“I… Do you need me in here anymore?” Mannarius asked. He could feel his voice shaking, his body quivering as he tried not to think too deeply about what was going on on his ship.
“No,” the nurse replied. “No, captain, you may go. I can do the rest on my own.”
“Thank you,” he said hurriedly, and wasted no time in fleeing from the room.
He rushed a few doors down the narrow hall, and entered his own room. He took a seat in his desk chair and stared out the window at the colors of the nebula outside. “I’m sorry, Endan…” he choked out, though he knew that the other man was somewhere too distant to hear him. “We were too late to save your little one.”