Chapter Twenty-One – NGC-246, The Skull Nebula 1,600 light years from Earth
Citlally grabbed onto the edges of her seat as the Lionstar was engulfed by the shimmering blue for what seemed like ages. The images coming up on the view-screen were dizzying, and the captain realized nearly too late that he hadn’t turn them off. It felt as though the ship was being tossed about the same way a body was when it went through the most intense water-slide tunnel at the park. By the time calm returned, Citlally was glaring at Mannarius as she panted, trying to steady herself. Even sitting down, the jump-gate had been too much for her.
“I really am sorry I did not warn you sooner,” Mannarius said, his expression one of deep regret. “We had to get through that jump-gate before the K’zzyrch decided that we were interesting enough to follow.”
“What is so bad about the Ka… Kezzirch?” Citlally asked as the dizziness began to subside.
“Plenty!” Dhruv and the captain both said at once. Then Mannarius went on to add, “The K’zzyrch will hurt anyone in order to pursue their own desires.”
“And just what is that they desire?” the human wanted to know.
Mannarius shrugged. “We still have yet to pinpoint an answer to that question. There have been days when I would have said that it was power, and others when I could have sworn that they were only out for profit. They claim to be in a state of revolution, trying to free themselves from… how did they word it, Dhruv?”
The co-pilot chuckled and said in a tone of mocking officialism, “The K’zzyrch ‘seek freedom from the yoke of an oppressive regime, honor-bound to bring about a new age on Vaharrish the Glorious.’”
“I still say that they are oppressive ones!” Mannarius chided. “Whatever they want, they’re unpredictable and dangerous.”
“And venomous,” Dhruv added. His comment got a warning glare from his captain, and he gave back a sheepish look.
“Dhruv, have we cleared the jump-gate?” Mannarius asked, changing the subject in a commanding tone.
“Jump-gate cleared, captain,” Dhruv replied. “We’re out of its range and it is powering down, sir.”
“Good work, Dhruv. I knew I could count on your talent to get us through. Take us within hailing range of the next space station and let them know we’re here.”
“Understood, captain!” Dhruv replied, his face taking on a cheerful grin as he turned around to input the commands into his control deck.
As they floated along, Citlally gazed at the view screens before her. One of them showed the view from the aft of the ship, with the jump-gate slowly getting further and further away. Its shimmering shades of blue light were fading away, giving in to the blackness that surrounded the circle. Citlally imagined that the Lionstar must have seemed so small against the backdrop of the æther, especially in comparison to the size of the gate.
Ahead of them, she could see a cloud, a circle, more or less, of faint lavender gas on the outside and dusty yellow on the inside. Its pattern of colors reminded her of an above-view of the plates in a human skull, the reason for its namesake. The Lionstar was headed into it.
“The Skull Nebula…” she whispered, hardly considering that the others were listening to her. “So this is what’s left of a star that died but never went supernova.”
“When stars die, they become nebulae,” Mannarius said, as though reciting some kind of poetry.
“A beautiful way to go,” Dhruv added. “It’s no wonder the ancients spoke of going to live among the stars when we died.”
“The Leomians, too?” Citlally asked. “Many of Earth’s cultures once thought the same thing.”
“I know,” the captain told her with a grin. “It’s one of many reasons that we like humans so much. Dhruv, are we ready?”
“Hailing Nebula Station 246 now, sir,” the co-pilot replied as he tapped away at his keyboard. “We have just entered their range.”
“Excellent!” Mannarius grinned.
It didn’t take long for the image of a blue-furred alien to appear on the screen. “This is Nebula Station 246 reading your hail,” she said. She looked a lot like Doctor Quelliros, except that she was a soft shade of blue rather than pink. They had the same white edging that accented their fur, the same piercing feline eyes. “Please identify.”
“This is Captain Mannarius Klavernning III of the Lionstar, returning from my mission.”
“Welcome back, captain,” the alien replied. “Your acquaintances have been eagerly awaiting your return, space cowboy.”
“I’m popular in this part of space!” he noted with a proud grin. “Shall I dock in my usual bay, Miss Laryth?”
The blue feline flashed him a charmed smile. “Go right ahead, captain. Bay 131 is waiting for you. Nebula Station out.”
“Much obliged, miss,” Mannarius replied with a nod. “Lionstar out.”
With the comm disconnected, Dhruv steered the ship towards the docking bays.
“Is she Leomian?” Citlally asked as the bay doors opened.
Mannarius shook his head. “Lixfelian. But our species are compatible,” he said with a wink.
“All this time I thought you wanted a human girlfriend,” she teased while the co-pilot slipped into the bay and set the ship down.
“Oh, I do,” Mannarius confirmed. “But why forgo charm when it works so well?”
“You’re going to run into trouble one of these days if you keep that up,” Citlally warned him.
“I keep telling him that, but he never listens,” Dhruv added. “Beginning power-down sequence. Really captain, you break the wrong heart and somebody is going to come after you for it. A father, a brother, who knows.”
“It’s not about breaking hearts,” the captain insisted. “Come on, we have to get to the medical bay, and the quarantine protocol here takes so much longer.”
Dhruv gave Citlally a hopeless look, but nonetheless, they all followed Mannarius off the bridge and down to the lower deck. The captain released the locks on the stairs, and together they descended onto the floor of the bay.
“Welcome to Nebula Station 246,” Mannarius said as he led them out of the bay and into the quarantine sector. “Endan’s home away from home.”
“Endan is here?!” Citlally nearly screeched. Her heart began to pound at the thought of seeing him again.
“Didn’t I tell you that he was at the Skull Nebula?” Mannarius asked as the medics came to the window that partitioned off the room.
“Well… I suppose you did but…” Citlally sighed as she thought back over the days. “I didn’t expect him to be at the first space station we came to, I guess.”
“Happy to be of service,” the captain said, flashing her a grin before turning to the window. “Captain Mannarius Klavernning III, reporting.”
The medics asked all four of them a series of questions, most of them exhausting and unoriginal. Then, one by one, they took them through the showers, and then on to the bio-scanners. Citlally was not thrilled with being inside a tube again, but she put up with it because, in the end, she had no choice.
“Captain, you are cleared to enter the space station,” one of the medics told him after what felt like two hours of testing. “Your co-pilot and nurse have been cleared as well. I did have some concerns about your human passenger, though.”
“She is classified as a patient,” Mannarius reminded him as the medic ushered them through to the next room. “What is the problem?”
“She has a dangerously low blood hemoglobin level,” the medic explained. “We’re worried that she has a blood parasite.”
“Oh, that. My nurse can explain her recent medical history,” Mannarius told them. He looked to Iratze as though transferring the conversation over to her.
“Nurse?” the space station’s medic asked.
“Please, if we could talk in your office?” Nurse Iratze suggested.
The medic did not entirely understand her reasoning, but after she insisted, they stepped into another room and closed the door. Mannarius glanced over his shoulder and looked through the window. Citlally was slowly sliding out of the bio-scanner, the medic working with her still dressed in safety gear. She gave him a worried look.
“It’s just another formality, my dear,” her medic told her. “We take a good many precautions at this space station.”
“I just want to see my husband,” Citlally told her, ready to cry if she wasn’t allowed to continue through.
“I’m sure you will see him soon,” the medic reassured her.
After over a dozen minutes of frustrating tension, Nurse Iratze stepped out of the office with the medic. Citlally scanned her face, hoping that the Gliesian’s contented look meant good news for her.
“Captain Mannarius, you have had quite a journey,” the medic commented as he closed the door to his office. “I understand now why you didn’t tell me sooner.”
“Thank you,” the captain replied.
“What troubles me,” the medic went on, “is why you’ve had her on her feet at all lately. Blood hemoglobin of 4.8, are you serious?”
“That was her lowest point,” Mannarius countered, feeling the need to defend himself. “She went up to 7.5.”
“And she is at 7.75 now,” the medic told him, sounding very frustrated and even condescending. “That’s with twelve being the minimum to be considered healthy for humans, captain. Thank goodness you’re not a doctor, or you’d have a lot to explain to the medical board. This patient is severely anemic. She’s lucky to be alive, I daresay.”
“I rescued her just in time, then,” he replied with the proudest grin that he could muster.
The medic scoffed. “If you can call it a rescue.” He turned to his assistants and ordered them to bring a transport bed for the human.
“I did the best I could with the resources I had.” Mannarius was starting to sound irritated. “Nurse Iratze was the only one willing to come with me, and I had no time to look for anyone else.”
“Relax, captain,” the medic told him, not sounding at all impressed. “I know you all too well. You’ll take on any fool’s mission just for the thrill. You could have been captured by the K’zzyrch yourself, yet off you went!”
Mannarius didn’t look pleased to hear the medic chastising him. “What else was I to do? When my cousin told me their story, I knew I couldn’t let this human couple remain forever apart!”
The medic shook his head. “The galaxy is a big place, Mannarius, but you and that cousin of yours make it seem so much smaller.”
“And friendlier,” the captain added.
Within a couple more minutes, the assistants arrived with the transport bed. It looked much like a long hover-board with an assortment of buttons and panels along its sides. The medic pulled it over to the door leading to Citlally’s room and pressed a button to open the double doors.
“It’s all right, she’s cleared,” he told the other medic. As she sighed with relief and began to remove her hazard suit, he walked over to Citlally. “Good morning to you, my dear. My name is Doctor Ishall Tahkuta. It is a pleasure to welcome you aboard Nebula Station 246.”
“Thank you, umm… doctor,” Citlally replied shyly as she looked up at him from where she was sitting.
He was much taller than he had looked from the other room, and the way his face narrowed at the snout reminded her of a deer. The even had a tawny hue to the peach fuzz that covered his skin, and small, dark eyes. His cervine qualities did not go too far, however, as though his kind had developed much further away from a more animalistic species than humans had from apes. He had long, dexterous fingers and a lean torso, and Citlally wondered at the exact form of his legs, for his uniform was not very telling. He wore what seemed vaguely like medical scrubs, though it made sense to her that whatever was worn this far from home would look different from what the doctors wore back on Earth. They were a soft shade of grayish blue, and he had pinned his badge to his pocket. She felt right away that she could trust him, and that he would be kind to her.
“I’m going to take you up to the medical center,” Doctor Tahkuta told her. “Do you think you can get onto the bed, or would you like me to help you?”
He was so soft-spoken that Citlally nearly felt as though she didn’t want to trouble him. “I… if it was lower, I could get on,” she told him.
“Of course,” he replied. With the press of a button, the bed descended, and Citlally took his hand to get off the bio-scanner. “This may feel strange at first. Just relax and let it hold you.”
Nodding, she sat down onto the bed. It gave gently under her weight, but as much as it sank in, so could also feel it supporting her. “I really do not want to lie down,” she told him.
“Very well,” the doctor replied.
He pressed a couple more buttons, and the bed bent at an angle. Citlally looked at it, impressed by its flexibility, and then leaned back. It felt good to have the soft material supporting her, to let her muscles relax as the bed cradled her. The sides were deep enough that she would have had a hard time falling out, although she also imagined that it had railing hidden somewhere.
Doctor Tahkuta thanked the other medic and led the hover-bed out of the room. He showed Mannarius and the others out of quarantine and into the main halls of the space station. As Citlally watched, a line of blue lights lit up on the ceiling, a soft sound coming from them every few seconds. There were a variety of aliens in the halls, and most of them moved out of the way when they noticed the blue lights.
“Medical transport coming through,” the doctor said to the few who had not noticed. “Please make way.” None of them gave any argument.
Mannarius, Dhruv, and Nurse Iratze followed them into a transport elevator, which took them up a few dozen levels. When they got off, they went down a wide hallway to a pair of blue-painted doors. Doctor Tahkuta scanned his badge at the door panel, and it opened up for him.
“Welcome, Doctor Ishall Tahkuta,” a female robotic said over the speaker system.
Once all of them were in the next hallway, the doors closed behind them. They walked only a little further before a pair of nurses came out.
“Doctor Tahkuta!” One of them said, beaming a wide smile.
“You brought up a new patient?” the other asked, smiling as well, but more demurely.
“How else do I get out of quarantine duty?” he asked with a wink. “This is Citlally Winterhawk. She’s been through a lot these past few weeks, and we need to take good care of her.”
“Oh, you must be human!” the more energetic one said as she looked to Citlally.
“If you need anything at all,” the other nurse added, “please let us know.”
“I just want to see my husband,” she told the softer-spoken nurse.
The nurses looked at one-another, then back at her.
“Marine, Lanna, please,” Doctor Tahkuta said before either one could speak, “don’t flood her with questions. Take her to room eighteen and get her settled in. I will meet you in the conference room in twenty minutes.” Then he gave Citlally a soft smile. “Don’t you worry; you’re in good hands with us.”
Citlally nodded and let the nurses take her down to her room. There was a rectangular base in room eighteen that the hover-bed connected to, even with it tilted so that she could sit up. One of the nurses picked up a clipboard and pressed a button on the side of the bed. A small panel slid out, like a miniature screen, and the nurse wrote down what she read off it.
“Does your heart feel like it’s fluttering?”
“Yes,” Citlally replied. “How did you know?”
“Your blood pressure is terribly low,” the other nurse explained. “You must be exhausted. You may not be used to resting your body, but you need to stay in bed. Your body has been anemic for far too long. If you push yourself, you will only do long-term harm to your body.”
“Do you want something to eat?” the other nurse asked her.
Citlally agreed, and as the nurses left, promising to have some food sent in, she gave a long sigh and rested her head on the pillow. She really was tired. Dizzy, her heart racing. She could allow herself to close her eyes for just a little while. Perhaps when she woke up, Endan would be there. Her eyelids refused to stay open any longer, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep in the medical center of Nebula Station 246.