Chapter Twenty – Running with the Lion
Citlally rested in the medical center for the next two days. With Iratze’s gentle tone, she relaxed enough to allow the doctors to place a new IV in her arm and give her more fluids and nutrients. They recorded a decrease in the amount of foreign fluids in her bloodstream, but only a slight increase in her blood hemoglobin levels. Their best advice was still for her to get to her husband as soon as they could, and receive a blood transfusion from him or some other human source.
On the morning of the third day, they agreed that there was nothing more that they could do for her, and they released her. Her medical record was given directly to Nurse Iratze, and still nobody questioned the details of where she’d been or how she had gotten away. The nurse showed Citlally down to her room, which had two beds neatly made inside.
“We weren’t sure how long we would be staying, nor how long you would be in the medical center, so the captain had the room set up for two,” Iratze explained as the girl looked around curiously.
“They keep things pretty simple this far out, don’t they?”
“I suppose they do,” the nurse agreed, though she was more focused on securing the disc that the data file was stored on than anything else.
“Where is the captain, anyway?” Citlally asked. The room was of no interest to her, having no windows and no remarkable decorations. She was more interested in getting back to the Lionstar and heading towards the Skull Nebula.
“His room is right across the hall,” Iratze said, not putting much thought into the matter.
Citlally left with hardly more than an ‘okay’ and was across the hall in seconds. She knocked on the door, waited for only a moment, and then pressed the button on the side of the door.
“Mannarius?” she asked as the door whooshed open. She assumed that since it had not been secured, he was already up an about.
As she stepped into the room, however, and her eyes began to adjust to darkness, she realized that the lights were out, and that he was still asleep. Once the door shut behind her and her eyes got used to the shadows, she could see his form sprawled out on the bed. He turned and looked over at her.
“Citlally?” he groaned, still half asleep. “Is that you?”
“Did she come to see us?” another voice asked. “Tell her we need a couple more hours.”
Citlally’s heart skipped a beat when she recognized the other voice, and she realized that there was another form curled up beside Mannarius. The other man looked up sleepily, then laid his head back down on the captain’s chest.
“Oh!” Citlally cried. “I am so sorry. I had no idea –”
She turned to go, hurrying towards the door. The captain’s voice stopped her short.
“You don’t have to go,” he told her.
“No, really. I can come back. I didn’t mean to intrude. I really didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?” Mannarius asked. He gave a wide yawn as he reached over to turn on the bedside light. Beside him, Dhruv groaned and pulled the blanket over himself.
“That you two were together,” Citlally told him.
“Did you hit your head?” the lion-like man asked her. “Dhruv is my co-pilot. We’re nearly always together.”
“Is that… Is that common among the Leomians?”
“Having a co-pilot? I would not get very far without one.”
“No, I mean – uh, well…”
“What is it?” Mannarius asked her, clearly not understanding what she was hinting at.
“She thinks we’re a couple,” Dhruv told his captain, his voice exhausted and irritated. “Get her out of here. I want to sleep.”
“A – a couple?” Mannarius repeated, raising his voice as he stood up from the bed. Dhruv complained that he was being too loud, but Citlally realized that the captain wasn’t angry, but rather surprised by the notion. “My dear human, how would I have any cubs with Dhruv? Heh, even if I did, he sleeps too much to take care of them!”
Dhruv threw a pillow at his back. “Put some clothes on before her eyes really adjust.” He turned off the small light and rolled over again.
Citlally blushed and felt relieved that she was not facing their way.
“Fine,” the captain grumbled, kicking the pillow back at him. “Sleep all you want. I ‘m taking her to breakfast.”
There were a couple minutes of noises, the sound of clothes going over a body, then shoes, and then footsteps towards her. Mannarius slid past her and clicked on a light in a small inner room. Citlally peered over to see that he’d put on his well-fitting tan pants and a rustic white shirt. The inner room was a bathroom, and he was hurrying a brush through his mane-like hair. After a moment, he grinned at her, shut off the light, and headed out of the room.
In the hallway, Mannarius shook his head at her. “You are a very interesting human.”
“I’m really sorry about that,” she repeated.
“It’s fine, Citlally, I promise you” he told her. “You’re the one who seems the most embarrassed.”
“I assumed you were already awake.”
Mannarius shook his head again and started walking down the hall. “Many species don’t like that kind of behavior – assumptions, I mean – but I think it’s what makes humans so charming.”
“The doctors told me that Leomians are so friendly to humans because they want them as mates,” Citlally said as she followed him along the hall. “Is that true?”
“I am not trying to make you my mate, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he replied. “Although, if you wanted to introduce me to some other humans as a thanks for me rescuing you, I wouldn’t complain.” He gave her what she supposed what his most endearing smile.
“So it’s true?”
Mannarius ushered her into the next hallway, which was filled with the smells of food. They walked into a large diner-like eatery and he requested a table for two.
“There are many Leomians who like to have their cubs with humans, yes.”
“Then what were you doing with Dhruv in your bed?”
“Certainly not making love to him, if you must know,” Mannarius told her as he picked up his menu. “Why is that so strange to you?”
“Mannarius… I’m sorry,” Citlally sighed. “You seem to have put a lot of effort into studying humans, but I know nearly nothing about Leomians.”
He stared at her for a long moment, and she was fully prepared for him to give her an earful, when he gave her a wide smile instead. “You really are charming! Listen, Leomians have what you might call a feline ancestry. For us, sleeping is not the intimate thing that humans see it as – not between those who aren’t a mated pair, anyhow. We are used to curing up together to keep warm. It’s too lonely otherwise. So when Dhruv and I are traveling through space together, we sleep in the same bed. When the day comes that I choose a life-mate, I will sleep in her bed, and Dhruv will have to sleep on his own. He is my co-pilot and my best friend, not my lover.”
Citlally peered across the table at him as she thought over what he’d said. “Does that mean you’ve never been with a woman before?”
“Not a human one,” he replied, and he winked at her.
Citlally blushed deeply and buried her face in the menu.
“You don’t have to act so coy,” Mannarius told her. “You can ask me whatever you want.”
“What should I order for breakfast?” she asked.
Mannarius chuckled and pointed out a picture of a platter on the second page of the menu. It looked remarkably familiar to her. “You have no idea how popular the full Irish breakfast is.”
Citlally smiled at first, thinking of how the meal reminded her of Endan. “My husband warned me against eating black pudding. He said it would bring out my feral side.” Then she sighed. “I wouldn’t eat that, either way. It makes me miss home too much.”
“In that case, try the Leomian breakfast. You won’t regret it.”
The human had no reason to argue with that idea. She nodded, and Mannarius called over the waitress and ordered for them both. The alien waitress came back promptly with a tray loaded with mugs, cream, honey, hot water, and an assortment of dried leaves and ground beans.
“Tea?” the captain asked her, holding up the caddy of leaves.
“Please tell me they have some kind of coffee,” Citlally replied, her voice practically begging for it. “Coffee… or at least hot cocoa.”
“They have both,” he grinned.
“Oh, thank goodness!” Citlally took them from him, and loaded them both into the percolator, stirring them together methodically.
“Is this really customary?” he asked her curiously.
“No,” Citlally admitted. “But trust me, you’ll like it my way.”
Mannarius shrugged, and let her go about her way. As the ground beans steeped in the hot water, she rifled through the spices on the table, smelled several of them, shook in a little of this and a little of that, and stirred it all together rapidly. “On Earth, I prefer to use cinnamon and cayenne, but this will do for now.”
Once it was ready, she poured them both a mug of the brew. Mannarius watched her as she took a long sip and sat back in her seat, a relieved smile crossing her face.
“Is it good?”
“Incredible,” she told him. “It’s been far too long since I’ve had coffee like this.”
Mannarius looked at the rich brown liquid in his own mug, shrugged, and took a sip. “Wow! That really will wake you up in the morning!”
“Glad to be of service,” she grinned. “So, about Dhruv… If he stays in your room, what happens when you have a woman over?”
“I usually play my cards at getting into her home.”
“But… don’t the Leomian females have their friends over?”
“Sometimes… other times not. But I’m not always with a Leomian.”
Citlally blinked. “Well, aren’t you mister cavalier!”
He chuckled again. “Either way, if I wanted the bed, Dhruv would leave it to me. He knows when to take a hike.”
“Take a hike?” Citlally repeated. “I thought he was your close friend.”
“He’s the best friend I have. Did I not say it right?” Mannarius asked. “I’ve have been trying to study English phrases…”
“Well…” She thought it over as the waitress walked up with their plates of food. The table was soon brimming with platters, side dishes, and a variety of sauces and syrups. “Wow, this is a real feast!”
Mannarius nodded emphatically, grinning at her from across the table. “Eat like a king at breakfast, as they say. So what’s the problem with ‘take a hike’?”
“It means the same thing as ‘get lost,’ really. It’s not a nice way to tell someone to go away.”
“In that case, what should I say to Dhruv?”
Citlally watched him cut into something akin to the love child of waffles and cannoli as she thought about it. “I suppose the better choice would be, ‘give us some time to ourselves.’”
“That one sounds so vague,” he said as smeared something like peanut butter, but darker in color, over his food.
“At least it isn’t mean. What is that stuff?”
“It’s a lot like chocolate,” Mannarius explained. “That plant that it comes from grows all over my planet. Here, try it.”
As he held the food towards her, she gave a faint smile, leaned forward to take a bite, and nodded as the rich flavors filled her mouth. It really was a lot like chocolate, but nuttier and very creamy.
“Let me help you with that,” he said as he set his fork down and reached across the table to wipe the chocolate-like spread from her lips using one finger. “It tends to make a mess.”
Citlally stared at him as he licked it off of his finger and smiled back at her. “Mannarius…” she whispered.
“Are you okay?” he asked her. “You look troubled.”
“Just confused. Listen, Mannarius, I have a husband. You know that. You’re taking me back to him.”
“Of course I know that. What’s the problem?”
“So… You cannot flirt with me. You’ve been very kind to look out for me, but…”
“I told you, Citlally, that is not my aim. Just like with Dhruv and myself, don’t read into things so much. I promised Endan that I would keep you safe and make sure that you’re happy. My cousin already told him about Leomian friendliness. He gave me his scarf to show you, even so.”
With a long sigh, Citlally nodded. He was going to take some getting used to, she could tell, but he didn’t seem to have questionable intentions. She changed the subject, and they went on talking for a while. The breakfast turned out to be amazing, and she ate every bite of it (and perhaps a couple bites of his). She was about to ask for another plate of the waffle-and-cannoli concoction when Dhruv entered the café.
“Captain!” he called out as he rushed over. “Captain, we have to get going.”
“Why, Dhruv? What happened?”
“There’s a K’zzyrch spacecraft requesting permission to dock with the outpost.”
Mannarius’s eyes widened, and he wasted no time in calling the waitress over so that he could pay for the meal. With that out of the way, they hurried back towards their room.
“Have you told Nurse Iratze?” the captain asked his co-pilot.
“Yes, captain,” Dhruv replied. “All of our luggage is ready to go. I put in the departure request as soon as I heard about the K’zzyrch coming in.”
“So they haven’t docked yet?” When the co-pilot shook his head, he grinned. “There is hope for us yet. I have to get down to the shuttle bays to sign the paperwork. Get Iratze and our bags and meet us down there.”
Mannarius turned to the human. “Come with me. We have to get off the station immediately.”
“What?” she asked, confused by all of the rushing about. “Why are you in such a hurry all of a sudden? What is a K’zzyrch?”
Mannarius grabbed her hand and hurried her down to the transport lift. Once inside, he pressed a button and leaned nervously against the railing. “They’re worst kind of alien,” he explained as they descended. “No morals, no mercy. They take what they want and don’t care who gets hurt along the way.”
“Why are they coming here?” Citlally asked.
Mannarius shook his head. “Stars know… Hey!” All of a sudden, he was pulling off his leather jacket and holding it towards her. “Put this on.”
“But… why?” she asked, taking it from him for fear that he would soon drop it.
“Just keep your arms covered,” he told her in a worried tone.
Citlally did not argue. She pulled on the jacket, which was much too big for her. As the lift came to a stop, he stepped closer to help her, and the doors opened to the sight of him pulling the zipper up all the way. Mannarius turned and led her out of the lift, then down the hall to the control center.
“Captain Mannarius Klavernning III on deck!” he announced as he entered the room. Several of the Restherian workers looked his way. “Where is the flight-master?”
“He is on call with an incoming ship, captain,” one of them told him. He recognized her as the one who’d taken his call when he’d brought the Lionstar in.
“Can you get him for me? I have an urgent matter to attend to.”
“Captain, I’m sorry, but we cannot interrupt him.”
“Please, I’m sure you understand. My ship’s medic needs to get her patient to the next space station for advanced treatment.”
“Is that your medic, or the patient?” the flight operator asked as she looked at Citlally.
“Listen, I don’t have time for this,” Mannarius told her sternly. His tone took Citlally quite by surprise. “Get me the flight-master.”
When the operator gave an exasperated sigh and stood up, the captain looked to another one of the workers. “Do you have my paperwork? I wanted to depart via the jump-gate. Is it loading?”
The second operator handed Mannarius a clipboard loaded with a stack of papers, and the captain started ruffling through them. Some he signed as he murmured to himself. A couple he yanked out of the stack and shook his head at.
“I am not signing this,” he told the operator. “I told you days ago, do your inspections early. I cannot be delayed by things like this.”
“Captain, if you don’t sign –”
“What, the flight-master might not give us clearance? It’s a sigma-class ship! Hardly bigger than a shuttle. He has no reason to hold us back.”
They argued for a few more minutes, until the flight-master at last walked over.
“Always a flair for the dramatic, Captain Mannarius,” the flight master said in an even tone. “I know your type.”
“Captain Mannarius Klavernning III, sir. If I may be so bold to ask, could you expedite our departure?”
The flight-master took the clipboard from him and looked over what he had signed. “Denying inspection, eh? On what grounds?”
“Medical urgency, sir.”
The flight-master looked the human up and down. “She can stand, can’t she? What is so urgent?”
“Please, patch us through to the medical bay. The doctors will explain it.”
Begrudgingly, the flight-master dialed in to the medical bay, and the comm was answered within just a few rings. Dhruv arrived just as the image of one of the doctors appeared on the screen. Nurse Iratze was at his side, and they looked ready to depart.
“Medical bay, Doctor Andryx speaking. How can I be of assistance?”
“Doctor,” the flight-master began, “What is this about your patient needing to depart from the space station immediately?”
“What?” Andryx asked, looking at everyone who had assembled with the flight-master. “She’s still here? I thought she would have left by now. What is holding them up?”
“I haven’t given them clearance to depart yet,” the flight-master admitted.
“Sir, are you aware that she is in critical condition?” Doctor Andryx asked. He looked down and seemed to be pressing a series of buttons on his console. “Commander, I do not even know why – or rather, how – she is standing right now. She needs to be resting,”
“Then why is she not still in the medical bay?” the flight-master demanded to know.
The image of Doctor Quelliros appeared in a sub-screen in the corner of Andryx’s screen. “Quelliros reporting. What is the medical urgency?”
“Doctor Jabiloy here,” the other doctor said as his image appeared in the other corner. “What is the situation?”
“Citlally is still on the space station,” Doctor Andryx told them, his voice disdainful.
“Commander, is their ship in need of repairs?” Doctor Quelliros asked the flight-master. “I know the best technician on the station…”
“Sir, we’ve done all we can for her,” Doctor Jabiloy explained. “She needs to get to Nebula Station 246 as soon as possible for further treatment. We’ve already submitted our paperwork and put in the request for the jump-gate to be charged.”
“Commander, in compliance Section 874-Tau of the Intragalactic Union Pact,” Doctor Quelliros said, “patients in critical need of treatment are expected to be granted leave to come and go as their health and treatment plans demand it.”
“I don’t want to explain to the health marshal why one of my patients had her health worsen,” Andryx added in a complaining tone. “This isn’t just for her physical health, commander. We have her mental well-being in mind as well.”
The flight-master didn’t look happy to hear that. He squeezed one of Mannarius’s unsigned papers in his fist and clench his jaw. “Very well,” he grumbled. “Make the final preparations on the jump-gate. I want this party gone by the time I finish talking to the K’zzyrch. Now if you will excuse me, they do not like their calls to be kept waiting.”
Mannarius gave the doctors a relieved look right before communication with them was ended. As the flight command center became abuzz with directions and requests, the captain hurried everyone out of the room and down to docking bay 755. The Lionstar was waiting for them, and they boarded quickly. Dhruv took the ship through his normal list of system start-up checks, and Citlally soon heard the hum of the engine rise to its familiar level.
“All systems are go, captain,” Dhruv said. “Doors are sealed. We are ready for the space station to open its airlocks.”
“Make contact,” Mannarius told him.
Dhruv pressed a series of buttons on his control deck, and after only a couple of minutes, a green light lit up. As the shuttle bay doors slid open, Mannarius started out at the vastness of space.
“There it is,” he said, pointing to a copper ship, its wings painted a bold shade of purple.
“The K’zzyrch vessel,” Dhruv half-whispered.
“It’s not as big as their normal ones,” the captain noted. “Bigger than mine, though. Let’s hope it’s not a scout looking for lost goods.”
“I don’t even understand why the flight-master would be willing to let them dock with the space station.”
“It’s a blessing in disguise, Dhruv,” Mannarius reminded him. “Once they dock, they cannot so easily depart. That means they won’t be following us. Better them dealing with the K’zzyrch than us.”
“Wait… Why are they hesitating?”
The captain glared out at the other ship, which was hovering suspiciously near the space station. “Don’t leave the bay until they’ve docked. I don’t need them changing their mind about anything.
They waited there for what seemed like an eternity. When Mannarius looked down at his control deck, he realized that it had only been three minutes. Then the communicator began ringing.
“Who is hailing us?”
“It’s from the space station,” Dhruv told his captain.
“Fine. You can answer it.”
Dhruv pressed a few buttons, and the station communicator came through on audio. “This is co-pilot Dhruv Caralynx of the Lionstar. How can I be of assistance?”
“Lionstar, you were cleared for departure over fifteen minutes ago. Are all of your systems functioning?”
“We are nearly finished with our pre-flight checklist, Remote Outpost,” Dhruv replied. “We will be at the jump-gate in only a few more minutes.”
“Understood, Lionstar. Remote Outpost out.”
Dhruv gave the captain a wary look.
“Relax,” the captain told him. “If there is anything that I’ve learned from my years in space, it is to not panic.”
“But captain…” Dhruv said. He glanced over at Citlally, but held his tongue lest he say too much.
“Just wait a minute… I said that I would get her to safety no matter what, but I’m not going to be reckless. Let’s see what they do.”
They watched, tense with uncertainly, as the K’zzyrch ship hesitated. Captain Mannarius worried, secretly, silently, that they were looking for the human. Had the Wilang seen her escape? Perhaps they had alerted the K’zzyrch that their purchased goods had departed, and were now demanding to have their funds returned. It wasn’t common for them to care about a single soul, but if they were now wise to how such behavior was affecting their finances…
“They’re moving,” Dhruv whispered at last.
“Not towards us,” the captain added with a sigh of relief.
He kept his eyes on the copper and purple K’zzyrch vessel as it drifted slowly towards the space station. It was a good distance above them when a docking port extended and linked up with their ship. After a few minutes, The captain turned back to the others.
“They are linked and releasing their air locks by now,” Mannarius told them. “They will not be able to leave for a while, knowing how long it takes to reverse all of those locks.”
“Just say the word, captain,” the co-pilot said with a grin.
“Dhruv, get us out of here!”
With a series of keystrokes, Dhruv had the Lionstar moving. It slipped out of the docking bay with ease, and the co-pilot steered it around the space station. They came up to an immense circle that floated in the æther like an ornament hung by some distant world’s gods. A light fluctuated with shades of shimmering blue within the circle as though daring them to try to pass through it.
“The jump-gate is ready for us, captain,” Dhruv informed them, turning around to look at everyone. “Signals show that our destination is set for Nebula Station 246.”
“Excellent!” the captain replied. “Send our signal over to Remote Outpost 3-1-4 so they’ll know when we’ve left, then take us through.”
Dhruv nodded, and was soon tapping away at his keyboard. There was a short series of beeps, and then he turned a dial on the control panel.
“Okay, ladies,” Mannarius said as he turned to Citlally and Iratze, “time for you to take your seats.”
He gestured to the few extra seats installed on the bridge, and they each took one. Iratze made sure that Citlally could get her straps buckled, then fastened her own, Mannarius nodded to them, and he and Dhruv buckled in as well.
“Hold onto your hats, everyone,” Mannarius called out as the ship lurched forward. “This could get a little bumpy!”