Chapter Eighteen – The Carina Nebula
7,500 Light Years from Earth
Endan was not the least bit impressed by the next ship he found himself on. The time-worn Riran ship that Doctor Sendrick had used to get all of them off of Old Sypherie proved to be less of a permanent ship than he had thought it would be. The doctor, when they transferred to another ship, had explained that the one they’d been on before was riddled with imperfections, dents and faulty seals, that made it risky take more than cargo anywhere in it.
The doctor planned to meet up with some old friends on the next ship, and let the one that they were leaving behind take his cargo to New Sypherie. Apparently there was a crew on the planet awaiting his hardware and possessions, as well as that of several others, so that they could set up their new homesteads.
Still, Endan preferred that ship, with all of its creaking and turbulence, to the Nebula Glider that they transferred to. Nobody told him until his third day on it that it was a battleship, and as soon as he found out that it was decked with all number and types of weapons, that did not sit right with him.
“Listen,” he told the doctor over dinner the evening after he found out. “I know you’re working under the assumption that I am still trying to figure myself out, but I can tell you right now that I am not interested in war.”
“Battleships don’t always mean war,” the doctor reminded him. “We’re not out here looking for a fight.”
“So why this ship, then? Why all the weapons and shielding?”
“Because it’s one of the few things that stands a fighting chance against the K’zzyrch,” the old doctor explained. “We’re going through space where they have been known to frequent.”
“What?!” Endan had been looking up information about K’zzyrch ever since he had left Old Sypherie with Sendrick and the girls. The entries from the various sources that he found were inconsistent in how they described them except for a few things: they were ruthless, vile, and violent. They were nothing if not sadistic and determined to dominate. He was well aware that all of his suffering was because of them, and he did not want to be anywhere near them. “Why can’t we just go around?”
Dr. Sendrick shook his head. “The Carina Nebula is too big of a place to go around, lad. We need to head right into it.”
“Why would we do a foolish thing like flying right into K’zzyrch airspace?”
“It’s nowhere near their home world, if that’s what you’re worried about,” the old man explained. “They consider it a pretty remote outpost.”
“But then why are we here?” Endan wanted to know. “Explain that!”
“We are here because the K’zzyrch use this nebula as a work site. There are asteroids out here that they try to mine using workers they’ve conquered and enslaved.”
“What is your plan, then?” Endan went on, his voice still full of concern and, if Sendrick had a say in it, fear. “Why do we need to worry about their slaves?”
“My work out here is two-fold, young man,” Doctor Sendrick explained. “For one thing, we’re going to see if your woman is anywhere among the slaves here. There just might be a human or two working on mining the asteroids. We can’t leave all of the work to Mannarius, after all.”
“And your second reason?”
“You can probably imagine that many of these slaves were injected with the k’zshyrk venom. While we’re out here looking for your beloved, I might as well continue my work studying the effects of their venom.”
“How convenient for you,” Endan grumbled.
Doctor Sendrick looked unmoved. “I cannot help you find her on charity alone.”
“Heaven forbid that anyone thinks of you as altruistic,” Endan remarked.
“I’m not, though, am I?” the doctor replied, his voice stoic, perhaps even a bit uncaring. “As tragic as your story is, you have been incredibly useful to my research thus far. I believe that when we find your woman, even that information will be useful to me.”
“Fine,” Endan grumbled. He had begun to accept the fact that he was more useful for research than anything else. It didn’t mean that he had to like it, even if he knew that he had no other choice. “But explain this to me: how are you going to work on anybody who is a slave of the K’zzyrch? Wouldn’t those crazy lizards just at attack us, too?”
“They would, if there were any K’zzyrch out here watching over the place. The fact is, the K’zzyrch are known for delegating; they hate menial work. The species that they chose to oversee the mining of the asteroids is actually on our side. There is nobody out there to harm us.”
“You mean they’ve been fooling the K’zzyrch all this time?” Endan replied, his eyes widening.
Doctor Sendrick gave him a cautious look. “Well, don’t let them hear you say that. We’re almost nine thousand light years away from the K’zzyrch home world, and thankfully they don’t do a lot of checking on these asteroids. The workers mine what they can – mostly because they have nothing else to do – but there is little that is of any worth out there. The overseers tend to file a report that work was done, but state that only useless rock was found. Every now and then, the transport ship comes out to take what cargo it can, but it usually gets more electronic paperwork than it does actual goods.”
“And the K’zzyrch are not angry that they are getting nothing out of the mining operation?” Endan asked him.
“This is one of the few times that the K’zzyrch have low expectations,” the old doctor told him. “Now listen. Sometimes another ship will bring in new workers, but none of them are ever regulated. I guess you could say the lizards are too lazy. They do not invest anything in their slaves. At least, not out here in the far reaches of space. On their home world, they would use armbands or neck bands, and other ways to keep their slaves under control, but out here it’s just not worth it. A slave could go flying out into space, essentially lose his footing and fall off the asteroid, and nobody would care.”
“It sounds so cold to hear you say that.”
“Maybe it is,” the doctor admitted, “but it works to our advantage. The K’zzyrch have no idea how about the ships that come and take away workers, nor the ore that they take with them.”
“So,” Endan went on, “there is no oversight with the overseers?” He chuckled a little bit, but when Doctor Sendrick gave him a curious look, he said, “I guess there’s something being lost in translation. Anyhow, what happens to the workers who get taken away?”
“All number of things,” Sendrick told him. “Sometimes mercenaries – not the kind that work for the K’zzyrch, but good ones – come through with a transport ship and pay the overseers to keep quiet and let them take away some of the workers. They get transported back to their home world, and either their government or their families pay to get them back.”
“You mean they’re ransomed?” Endan asked.
“So to speak,” Doctor Sendrick replied. “Like I said, it’s not really possible to be altruistic out here in space. The K’zzyrch don’t let people buy their way out of slavery like some species do, but for these prisoners, it is almost like they’re doing just that. Remember, sometimes they take chunks of ore with them, and use that to pay for their transport.”
“It sounds like one big money-making scheme to me,” Endan scoffed.
“Be fair about it, young man. It’s not easy getting people out of the Carina Nebula, just considering the distances involved. These people are a long way from home, many of them poisoned with the k’zshyrk venom.”
“Any idea how long someone ends up staying out here on these asteroids?” Endan was curious to know.
Doctor Sendrick shrugged. “There has never been a formal study done. Most of the time, if someone claims to have been there for a long time, they get priority on leaving. Nobody has any way to prove how long they’ve been there, so it’s kind of the honor system. Still, the story goes that other prisoners are more than willing to rat each other out if somebody is being outrageous with their claims.”
“So, doctor,” Endan said as he moved to lean in closer, “is the Nebula Glider one of the ships that takes prisoners away?”
Doctor Sendrick looked cautious again. “As far as you’re concerned, this is just a fleet ship passing through a lovely nebula on its way back to its home-world. Enjoy the trip.”
Endan thought for a moment before asking, “Can I help out while I’m here?”
Doctor Sendrick sighed and shook his head. “Boy, why would you think that it’s going to be any other way? Of course you’re going to help out. You need to let me know if you see your girl, and while we’re looking for her, I will let you know what else I need you to do.”
Endan nodded, and in the quiet that followed – for Sendrick had nothing else to say just then – his mind began to wander. After a while, he gave a heavy sigh.
“What is it, boy?” the doctor asked him.
“I just realized… I don’t even know whether I will know that it’s her when I see her. I’m not even sure that I will recognize her, that I will know what she looks like. What if I see her, but I do not know that it’s her, and we leave her behind?”
“We will not be leaving her behind,” Doctor Sendrick assured him.
“How do you know that, though?”
“Do you not trust me by now?” the doctor asked him, pretending to sound hurt.
“It is myself I feel like I can’t even trust myself anymore,” Endan said.
The doctor looked exasperated. He opened his notebook and looked down at the page of notes. Then he drew in a long breath and told him, “Listen to me. I can tell you two things right now. You will know her when you see her. From the way you’ve recovered so far, I can promise you that the instant you see her, you will know that it’s her.”
Endan did not feel as certain as the doctor did about this, but he didn’t argue the point. “And the other thing?” he asked instead.
“Nobody is getting left behind,” the doctor told him, looking his straight in the eyes, full of seriousness.
Endan gave the doctor a dubious look, amazed just that anyone would make such a bold promise.
Before either of them could speak again, Callina passed through the door, Mesilde at her side. “Grandfather, the Plexferan is approaching and almost ready to dock.”
“Excellent. Is everything quiet on the asteroid platform?”
“Quiet as can be,” she told her grandfather. “The crew is being called in even as we speak.”
“Then hopefully this won’t take too long,” Sendrick replied. “I will be up shortly, dear girl.”
Callina nodded and took off with her friend again. The doctor took Endan up to the bridge after a few more minutes, and together they watched the Nebula Glider approach their site. It turned out that an asteroid platform was sort of like a small space station, but that it was rooted to several larger asteroids. The steel construct floated through space right along with the asteroids, and the crew had easy access to their mining sites.
The Nebula Glider pulled up alongside the asteroid station and began docking procedures. Above them, another ship was arriving, slightly larger than the one that Endan was on, its name painted with alien script. It towed a small vessel behind it, which he supposed looked much like a cargo trailer. He assumed that this was the Plexferan that Callina had mentioned.
“Are these friends of yours?” Endan asked the doctor.
Sendrick chuckled. “Friends of the captain, really. They have a crew of engineers who can get the place taken apart in no time.”
Callina giggled, but stopped when her grandfather looked at her.
“Of course, boy,” the old doctor said. “They figured that if nobody is being left behind, then there is no point in leaving all of this perfectly good steel behind.”
“You mean they’re actually going to dismantle the whole thing?” Endan asked him. “Won’t the K’zzyrch notice?”
Sendrick shrugged. “I doubt they’ll even know the difference. This place is useless to them, anyway.”
“It sounds like a dangerous plan.”
“Somebody has to do it,” the doctor replied. “Now come with me. We need to get our suits on. You never know when this place is going to blow an airlock.”
Doctor Sendrick had Endan in a spacesuit within the hour. The human admired the way the suit was flexible, nowhere near as bulky or difficult to move in as early Terran spacesuits were. He was given a close-fitting cap to keep his hair out of his face, and then a crewman lowered the helmet onto his shoulders and clicked the seals into place.
“Just breathe normally,” Sendrick told him once his own helmet was on. “The air will regulate for you in a moment.”
Endan nodded. The air felt and tasted strange at first, but after a couple of minutes of breathing, it became fresh and pleasant. The crewman adjusted a couple of the tanks on his back, and then gave him a pat.
“You’re all set,” he told him. “The carbon dioxide that you breathe out will filter into one tank, and I set you up with an extra canister of oxygen just in case. Keep your helmet on until you get back to the Nebula Glider. The crew of the Plexferan is going to dismantle the asteroid station as fast as they can move, so you need to be ready in case they break seal. You focus on getting the workers to our ship.”
“You have gravity boots, too,” Sendrick told him. He showed him how to use the panel on his arms to activate them in case they did not do so automatically. “If you get an atmosphere warning, get back to the ship. It means your canisters are low. You should be fine, but in case they get damaged…”
Endan nodded to him, too dumbfounded at being sent on a dangerous venture to even reply.
“Remember,” Sendrick told him, “your girl could be out there.”
“Treat everyone as though they’re precious to you,” Callina added. She had a spacesuit on, too. “They’re certainly important to somebody out there.”
The captain joined them, and they headed down the docking platform and into the main room of the asteroid station. It was a somewhat cramped place to be, all that way out in space. Endan supposed that there was just enough room for the asteroid miners to have room and board, a place to wash up, and somewhere to keep any useful ore that they managed to mine out of the floating rocks.
Once he had the attention of everyone in the room, the captain made an announcement that he was there to collect the lot of them. They seemed thrilled that they would no longer be expected to mine anything, and were quick to follow instructions to collect anything that they wanted to take with them before making their final boarding onto his ship.
“I feel like I’ve mined enough for a lifetime,” one of them mentioned when he returned with all of his things rolled up with his blanket and pillow.
“There’s nothing valuable out here, anyway,” another added.
“Not unless you need the minerals,” a larger alien corrected her.
She looked up at him with an unpleasant expression. “You’re the only one here who can actually eat asteroids.”
“He can eat them?” Endan asked.
“Yeah,” the female told him, looking his way. He noticed the way were pale yellow skin seemed to glow very faintly. “This great lummox chews on the rocks to help us check whether any of them contain anything valuable. Usually they’re just a crumbly snack for him.”
“Is that all he eats?” Endan wanted to know.
She had shaken her head, and was about to say something when Doctor Sendrick called out from across the room, “Endan, get the line moving! Don’t let it stop unless you see that girl of yours, got it?”
Endan sighed, but nodded. He would have liked to meet more of the aliens on that small station, but he understood that there was too little time. He moved the rock-eater and the pale yellow woman along, and they walked up the ramp that led into the Nebula Glider.
By the end of the third hour, most of the workers of the mining facility were on board the ship, being registered by the crew within. Endan had seen several alien women, and perhaps three humans, and a fourth that he could not be certain of, but none of them looked like the woman who had imprinted so deeply in his heart. He began to wander the station slowly, checking each room to make sure that everyone was out.
Several sections of the station had already been dismantled, and he was cut off from entering certain areas. He could hear the work of drills on the other side of some walls, and made haste to get away from them before an air seal was broken.
“Varilax Lefallon reporting,” he heard a voice behind him say.
Endan turned around to see an alien in a dark spacesuit, and raised a brow. “You’re reporting to me?”
The alien blinked his metallic eyes when he saw Endan’s face. “You have the uniform from Spirracee’s ship…” he said. “You’re not one of his crewmen?”
Endan shook his head. “Not unless they made me one without telling me,” he replied. “Do you need to find Captain Spirracee? I think he went to talk to the captain of the Plexferan.”
The alien thought for a moment. “No, I shouldn’t interrupt them. What about Doctor Sendrick? Is he around? He’s the one who called me here, anyhow.”
Endan looked him over again, noting that most of the crew of the Plexferan had a blue hue to their suits. Besides that, his rough-looking indigo skin was nothing like he’d seem on any other alien at the site. “Which ship are you from?”
“I came here in my own ship,” the newcomer replied. “It’s just a star-skipper, y’know.”
“Oh…” Endan glanced around. “I guess Old Sendrick is back by the main hall.”
“I was just there,” Varilax sighed.
“I’ll walk back with you,” Endan told him. “They’re about to take this section apart anyway.”
“Yeah,” Varilax added as he started walking. “The Plexferan has some fantastic engineers, y’know? So you know Old Sendrick?”
“I do,” Endan replied, although he felt wary of giving him too much information.
They walked on together, and Varilax seemed to catch on that Endan was being guarded, and decided to change his line of questioning to something more general. They had to return to the Nebula Glider to actually find the Old Doctor. He was already in the medical bay, trying to deal with some of the more stressed miners, plus one who’d recently been injured.
“Varilax Lefallon reporting,” the indigo alien tried again, this time removing his helmet. It turned out that he was a hairless being, Endan noted.
Doctor Sendrick took a moment to look up from the stitches that he was administering. “Ah, Varilax! So good of you to finally arrive.”
“My ship isn’t as fast as this one, y’know?” Varilax replied. “But here I am, ready to help out.”
“You can start with that one,” Sendrick told him, pointing straight at Endan with his needle before going back to his stitching.
“Me?!” Endan asked, clearly incredulous. “What is he supposed to do to me?”
“Relax,” Sendrick told him. “He’s something of an expert on k’zshyrk venom. I invited him here knowing that we’d be picking up a lot of victims of the venom. I thought that we might as well compare notes on it.”
“Oh…” Endan looked over at Varilax, unsure what else to say.
“You’ve been injected with k’zshyrk?” the alien asked him.
“Have you?” Endan asked back.
Varilax blinked and looked to Sendrick.
“Don’t mind him,” the old doctor explained, tying off his stitches and cutting the thread. “He’s had a few injections, and it’s wrecked havoc on his brain. I take it that you haven’t found her here, Endan?”
“What gave it away?” he asked the old man.
“Well, it was worth a try. Why don’t you and Varilax get out of those suits and get to talking? I have to get these new passengers settled in before we take off.”
“Sure,” Endan replied.
He and Varilax headed back into the hall, ready to take Sendrick’s advice and get to know one another.
* ** *** ** *
It turned out that a star-skipper was small enough to fit inside the cargo hold of the Nebula Glider, and that Varilax Lefallon was more than happy to be on a vessel where he could actually walk around and stretch his legs. He needed the leg-room, in fact, what with him being over six feet tall.
Varilax spent his time between Old Sendrick and Endan, sharing his knowledge with the doctor as well as collecting new data from the human.
“You need to make sure that you don’t tell anybody else about your k’zshyrk dreams,” he told Endan a couple days after the Nebula Glider and the Plexferan had left the asteroid belt and gone their separate ways.
“But why?” Endan wanted to know. He had just told Varilax a few details about the dreams he’d had when his injections had been fresh.
“Stuff like that will get you killed, y’know,” Varilax explained as he shook his head. “Now I wish I hadn’t asked you.”
“What’s so bad about them?’ the human asked. “They’re weird, I know but –”
“You don’t know the meaning that the K’zzyrch attribute to the dreams brought on by their venom.”
“So why not tell me?”
Varilax shook his head more insistently. “We shouldn’t talk about it. Just trust me when I say that you should never tell a K’zzyrch, or one of their allies, what you just told me. …And moreover, don’t believe what a K’zzyrch tells you about the dreams.”
“What is this all about?” Endan demanded, furrowing his brow. “They’re just dreams.”
“Out here,” Varilax explained, “dreams aren’t always just what goes through you’re mind while you’re asleep. There is more to that venom than we understand, and that’s why I’ve been studying it.”
“But why kill over it?”
“Forget I said anything like that, y’know? You’re better off that way.”
Varilax quickly changed the subject. Endan saw that there was no getting around it, and gave in. They talked instead about how each one had met Doctor Sendrick. It turned out that Varilax had known him for a good many years, and that he often ran errands – in the form of small missions – for the doctor. They shared their knowledge openly with one another, as though working towards the same goal.
The indigo alien did not stick round for long once the Nebula Glider got to the next space station. He seemed to have business elsewhere, and he left not long after he had helped the former miners disembark from the ship. Endan was curious about why he had left so soon, but he had so much on his mind that he couldn’t linger on it.
The miners were taken through Nebula Station 2-4-6’s medical center, and even Endan was given a thorough check of his health. Most of the aliens were cleared and returned to Captain Spirracee’s supervision. From there, the captain was assigning his own crew to contact various home-worlds and arrange for the terms of their return home. That is, Endan heard, unless they wanted to stay and become a part of something else.
“What is Spirracee talking about?” Endan asked the doctor one day after he’d heard Spirracee talking to the rock-eater about his abilities.
“Nothing that you need to worry about,” the dark-eyed doctor told him. “You’re Sendrick’s anyway, so Spirracee won’t be bothering you.”
Endan narrowed his eyes at the doctor. “You say that like Sendrick owns me.”
The doctor gave him the sort of look that a teacher might give to a child who has brought up an inappropriate argument. “He did get you out of a life of slavery, Endan.”
The human was not pleased to have that fact pointed out. “Let me make this clear to you, doctor: I am my own man. I am grateful to Sendrick for what he’s done, but he doesn’t own me. I’m helping him with his research. I helped him get those people out of the asteroid facility. But I’m nobody’s property.”
The doctor sighed, leaving Endan frustrated that he was being treated like a child whose arguments would not be abided. Before the doctor could get a chance to say anything else, the door slid open and one of the nurses rushed in.
“Doctor Tahkuta!” she cried. “It’s that human patient…”
“What’s wrong, Marine?” the doctor asked her, keeping his own tone calm as he approached the door.
“He’s really upset,” Nurse Marine explained, her crystalline blue eyes shining. “He started throwing things in the exam room we we tried to get a blood sample. I think you need to tranquilize him before he hurts somebody.”
Doctor Tahkuta started to follow the nurse into the hall, abut stopped when he realized that Endan was tagging along. “You should stay here,” the doctor told him in a tone of finality. “I do not need non-medical staff in the exam room.”
“But you could use some human expertise,” Endan pointed out. He knew which man was still in the medical center. “Shen Liu has signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. I can help talk him down; it would help him to see another human.”
Tahkuta looked offended that he had even mentioned it. “You have no medical training.”
“But I know my own species!”
The doctor looked to Marine, then back to Endan, his expression ridden with distaste. He sighed and took a few steps down the hall, where he opened a door without so much as pressing the call button. “Doctor Sendrick.”
“What is it?” Endan heard the old man say from down the hall.
“I need you to get your human out of my medical center,” Tahkuta stated, his words heavy with urgency. “There is nothing that I can do for him, and as it is, he is only interfering with me treating my patients.”
There was a crash at the other end of the hall, and both Endan and Nurse Marine looked in that direction. A second nurse ran out of the room where the noise had come from.
Endan shook his head and started down the hall.
“You shouldn’t go,” Nurse Marine told him. “Doctor Tahkuta already told you…”
“I don’t care what he said; I’m better qualified to help Shen than someone who doesn’t understand humans.”
Endan was halfway down the hall when Sendrick stepped out of the lab he’d been in. He glanced at Tahkuta, then followed the human curiously.
When Endan stepped into Shen’s exam room, he found the man breathing hard, staring at the doorway in sheer anger.
“Looks like the glass cabinets broke,” Endan noted. “Maybe you should get yourself to a different room before you get cut.”
“I don’t even want to be in the medical center,” Shen told him. “I’m not going to have aliens examining me!”
“Are you sure? You look pretty stressed out. You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you? A little medical attention cou –”
“Get away from my patient,” Tahkuta interrupted.
Endan gave him a deep frown. “You’re not making him feel safe here. What is he supposed to think?”
“You have no say here,” the doctor reminded him. “You need to leave.”
“I can’t leave when someone from my home-world –”
“Endan,” Doctor Sendrick cut in. “There’s no use arguing with him. Tahkuta has a lot of pull on this station, and you don’t want him calling security about you.”
“But Shen –”
“This is not a battle that you should try to win,” Sendrick told him. “You’re better off exploring the station. Come on, I can show you another way that you can try to find your woman.”
Endan stared at Sendrick in sheer disbelief. “You’re not going to let me help Shen?”
Sendrick looked over at the other human, who was by now distracted from what had upset him earlier. “He seems to be calming down.” Then he told Tahkuta. “Humans don’t do well under stress, doctor. They take their suffering and pain to heart, and they don’t easily forget it. Perhaps you would be better off forgoing the blood sample for now. I’m sure you can find other ways to examine him.”
“I will take that into consideration, Sendrick, if you get him out of here.”
“Sure, sure,” Sendrick replied, taking Endan’s arms and starting off towards the exit. “You could have been surprised by how much humans understand one another, but if you’d rather we leave, I will leave you to it.”
Endan only went with Sendrick because he saw the way that the old man was not on Tahkuta’s side. He glared back at the other doctor as they left, determined not to let him have the satisfaction of having made him leave altogether obediently.