Chapter Twenty-Five – The Blue Glow of Deneb
Dhruv had been right; there were a great many space stations on their way that serviced and upgraded star-ships. Mannarius sat with his co-pilot, trying to choose one that best suited their needs. It had taken hours to weed out the stations that did not work on sigma-class ships, or those that had K’zzyrch traffic near them, or even K’zzyrch on the station itself. Then he took out the ones that did not have the parts that they’d need, and after that, the ones where the prices were too high.
“Talk about astronomical!” Mannarius complained as he looked over one station’s listings. “How are we going to help Citlally get to the Heart Nebula if the prices for the parts we need are this high?” He groaned and laid his head on the table.
“I know you don’t want to let her down,” Dhruv said, laying an arm over his shoulders. “Just don’t give yourself a headache over it.”
“Too late,” Mannarius told him, and he groaned again.
“Look, captain, why don’t I search the database for a while? Go walk around the station, have some coffee or something, come back in a while and see if I found anything.”
Mannarius peered up at him. “I would rather go have a few jugs of mead!”
“Well,” Dhruv said, “if that’s what my captain wants…”
A slow, toothy grin crossed the Lion’s face. “You are the best copilot a man could ever ask for!”
“What about a Leomian?” Dhruv asked him with a wink.
“Yes,” he teased, “you are the best Leomian co-pilot a man could ever ask for!”
Dhruv chuckled a bit. He could tell that he was not about to get a serious answer out of his captain. Mannarius stood up from the chair, slowly, feeling sore from having been sitting for so long.
“All right, Dhruv. I’ll leave it in your hands, but don’t sign any contracts on my behalf!”
“Would I ever?” Dhruv asked, winking at him. The captain was soon out of the room, leaving Dhruv to browse through the computer on his own.
Finding a workshop that could upgrade the Lionstar turned out to be a lot harder then Dhruv had anticipated. The high-speed drive and shielding, plus extra plating for the hull, were ridiculously expensive. Even at the cheapest station, where he questioned the quality of the parts and the integrity of the mechanic, the prices were very steep.
He ended up sending messages to a few stations, hoping that some of the head mechanics would be willing to negotiate their prices, and he hadn’t yet heard back from any of them when Mannarius returned.
“How goes the hunt?” he asked as he stepped up to the table and stood behind Dhruv.
The co-pilot looked up suddenly, startled. “Oh, captain!” he said. “You’re back.”
“I am indeed,” Mannarius replied. “It looks like you were having a little cat nap.”
“Only the best kind,” Dhruv admitted. He stretched before sitting up straight.
“I brought you a drink,” Mannarius said as he set a cup on the table beside the computer. “It’s your favorite.”
“Captain, you’re too kind!” Dhruv said as he glanced over at the cup. “You really don’t have to go to so much trouble.”
Then he realized that someone was at the captain’s side. “And a very good evening to you!”
Citlally leaned in and grinned. “Good to see you, too!” she said.
Drew took a long drink from his cup and smiled contentedly before he did anything else. Then he punched several commands into the computer, and a screen popped up. “This is the list of the best that I could find,” Dhruv told his captain.
He got up out of the chair and moved aside so that Mannarius could sit down and get a closer look. The co-pilot did his best to distract Citlally away from the screen so that the captain could look on in private. Mannarius was busy with the computer, typing things as he scrolled through the list, and muttering to himself every now and then.
“Alright,” the captain said as he stood up at last. “Here’s what we have to do. We go to the space station, and we negotiate. Once we get the ship upgraded, our next destination will be the Heart Nebula!”
Dhruv stared at his captain, glanced over at Citlally, then back to Mannarius. He decided that it was best to say nothing.
“So,” the human woman said cheerfully, “which station will it be?”
“I leave that in your careful hands,” he told her. “Any of the ones on this list would be fine.”
He held the chair so that she could take a seat. She clicked a few buttons on the screen, and the text converted to something that she could read. “So we have the Cannelis Station, Deep Space Station Lloryn 13, the Brennick Run Station, the Harrit Station III, or the Tanoora Prime Station near Outer Deneb. What am I supposed to use as criteria for choosing?”
Mannarius shrugged. “They’re all pretty similar; all fairly standard facilities.”
“What about this one?” Citlally suggested, pointing to one of them. “It’s the only one near a jump-gate. Can we take the gate at Nebula Station 246 to this one?”
“Sure we can,” Mannarius said. “The rest are easy to get to even without being right next to a jump-gate, but this one is as good as any.”
“So when can we go?” Citlally asked.
The captain though for a moment. “Well, I suppose we should make reservations, and for that I will have to ask the doctor whether or not he plans to come along. We also have to put in a request to travel through the gate.”
“Will we be able to leave tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “If not tomorrow, then certainly the day after.”
“Let’s do it, then,” Citlally asserted, her smile lighting up her face.
“Do you need to ask Endan about any of this?”
Citlally shook her head. “He’s fine with whatever I choose.”
“Alright, then,” the captain beamed. “I’ll go talk to the others and see who’s coming along with us.”
“Mannarius?” she called as he was turning to go.
He paused and turn to look back at her. “Yes?”
“Thanks for all of your help. It’s such a relief to have your company right now.” She took a breath and added, “I think this is going to be the start of a really great journey. I’ve always wanted to get a closer look at Deneb!”
Mannarius gave her a warm smile, then took Dhruv’s hand and left the room, the door whooshing closed behind them.
* ** *** ** *
Leaving Nebula Station 246 felt bittersweet to Citlally. She supposed that it was because it was where she had been reunited with her beloved Celtic warrior, or where she’d been able to recover from so much of the suffering she’d been through since leaving Earth. It might also have been a little bit because Nurse Marine and Nurse Lanna were both going to miss them so much. Endan seemed only too glad to get away from their doting natures, whether or not he was willing to complain about them openly. Everyone knew, however, how glad he was to be leaving Doctor Tahkuta behind.
Doctor Sendrick had decided that he would not be going to the Heart Nebula with the others. Instead, he would be spending some time with Callina and Mesilde on his new home planet, New Sypherie. The Sypherian government was helping citizens who’d managed to escape the burning Rakka Rakka to establish new homesteads, and for the old doctor that meant a laboratory equal to what he’d back on the old home-world. He said that he might meet up with Citlally and Endan later on, when they were no longer out exploring distant nebulae. For now, he said, he would free Endan from any further research obligations.
Nurse Iratze went aboard the Lionstar with them. She wanted to help them make the delivery to planet Mekse, and Mannarius had promised her a ride home after that. The captain seemed less thrilled to have Jalingan following them in his star-skipper, cousins though they were. Citlally got the feeling that there was much more that Jalingan had done to upset Mannarius than what he was willing to tell them, and she wondered if she would ever be able to find out what it was.
It only took them a couple of days to get clearance for their flight. They had the Lionstar loaded and ready to depart, and were able to say their good-byes with one last dinner together. Then they were off the space station and passing through the shimmering light of the jump gate.
Deneb, giant blue star that it was, glowed brightly in the distance. It was one of the largest stars known from the vantage point of Earth, and Citlally told the others that part of the reason that she’d chosen this space station was so that she could see Deneb up close. Space Station Tanoora Prime was a good distance away from the planetary system, and since the blue star was sixty times larger than Earth’s star was, even the planets had to be a considerable distance away from it in order to sustain life.
Space Station Tanoora Prime was quite a sight to behold. As soon as they passed through the jump-gate, Citlally could tell that it was a fabulous place. Rather than the standard steel and aluminum plating, Tanoora Prime had been largely made from titanium. Its hull had been etched with gold, or at least something like it, with a beautiful sort of filigree. It had a fine detail that really impressed her.
Endan wondered aloud whether it had been etched out there in space, or if the design had been added before being assembled. He supposed that he would have to look it up later, researching the station where they would be staying. The design was something similar to Celtic knots, with some influences from tribal designs – at least, that is how someone from Earth might have described it. Still, it also had some unique aspects, and flairs all its own.
“It’s a beautiful station,” Citlally said as the Lionstar came in closer.
Mannarius nodded. “This one had a lot of Gliesian designers working on it,” he said. He smiled over at Nurse Iratze.
“Have you been here before?” Citlally asked her.
The nurse shook her head. “No, but I’ve heard of it,” she said. “We sent a great many engineers and architects out to help design it decades ago. It’s nice to finally be able to visit; I’ve heard it was one of their best projects.”
Dhruv made contact with the station’s flight control center. It turned out that the station was a busy place, and he had to wait for several other ships to dock before flight control got around to letting him know where he going. He was sent to one of the lowest docking bays, considering how small the Lionstar was. Jalingan was assigned to a level below them, since his star-skipper was a lot smaller.
They met up in decontamination.
“Another innoculation?!” they heard Jalingan shouting from his section.
“Filthy animal,” Mannarius grumbled. He gave fewer complaints when he saw that Citlally and Endan were also administered boosters for their space-faring immunizations.
“Citlally has some fine taste,” Jalingan told them once he’d been allowed pass through decon, rubbing his arm again.
“I didn’t even know what it looked like when I chose it,” she replied. “I was mainly interested in the fact that it had a jump-gate so close to it. And the blue giant, of course.”
“Well,” the half-lion went on, “you’re in for a treat. These Gliesian-designed stations are some of the best.”
Dhruv was the last one to be cleared for entry to the rest of the station.
“Everything okay?” His captain asked him as they were shown out to the main hall.
“Yeah,” Dhruv said. “Apparently I need a shower, though.” He frowned deeply.
“A shower?” Mannarius repeated, raising a brow. “You smell fine to me.”
“Of course he does,” Jalingan added. “He was flirting with one of the ladies in decontamination.”
“Mind your own business,” Mannarius told him. Then he looked back to Dhruv. “Why does she think you need a shower?”
“I think the case is that he needs a cold shower,” Citlally told them with a giggle. Endan gave her playful smile.
Mannarius looked baffled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Citlally started giggling too much to explain it.
“What’s gotten into her?” Dhruv wondered out loud.
“It’s a saying back on Earth,” Endan explained. “If someone is acting little to… desirous, rumor has it that a cold shower might help calm them down a wee bit.”
Mannarius chuckled and patted his co-pilot’s back. “Always a gentleman, eh? Which one was it?”
Dhruv sighed. “The Leomian one,” he admitted, still looking disappointed. “And it’s been so long, too!”
“Don’t let it worry you too much, ” the captain told him. “She probably isn’t allowed to go anywhere with anyone passing through decon.”
Dhruv grumbled. “She was really cute…”
Their rooms were in the middle section of the station. Mannarius had reserved a room for Citlally to share with her husband, one for himself and Dhruv, and two smaller ones for Iratze and Jalingan. They weren’t nearly as fancy as being in the garden on Nebula Station 246, or what they’d had back on Regulus Station II, but they were roomy, and the beds seemed comfortable enough.
Mannarius stayed only long enough to drop off a couple of duffel bags, and was soon away with Dhruv in tow. He took them down to the industrial level, where the ship mechanics were, and searched for lot 11235. The sign over the double-wide doors read “Finneryl’s Upgrades and Repairs.”
“Here we are,” the captain said.
“You don’t waste any time, do you?” Dhruv asked him with a smirk.
“At least the mechanic won’t be telling us to take a cold shower,” Mannarius relied with a shrug.
“That hurts!” Dhruv complained.
“Probably not as much as his prices will,” the captain replied as he stepped through the doorway.
“Maybe this mechanic is the one in need of a cold shower,” Dhruv grumbled.
Mannarius gave him a silencing look, one that told the co-pilot that it was time to be serious, and together they walked up to the counter. It was unmanned at the moment, so the captain leaned over it to try to peer into the next room.
“Hello?” he called out.
Dhruv noticed a door off to the other side, the door open just enough for him to glance inside. He grabbed his captain’s arm. “We should leave,” he hissed into his ear. When Mannarius gave him a quizzical look, he added, “There is a K’zzyrch in that office!”
Mannarius craned his head so that he could see what his co-pilot was talking about. Then he looked back down at him and shook his head. “Hello!” he called again.
“Captain, are you crazy?!” Dhruv looked ready to bolt out the door.
“Just a moment,” a voice from the office called back.
A couple minutes passed before they heard the creaking of someone getting up from a chair. The door opened wider, and a lizard-like man walked through it. He might have seemed taller if he stood up straight, but his species’ natural stature was to be bent over somewhat. His scales were a sort of brownish tan, and mottled with rustic orange and a foresty shade of green. His snout was long, but the really impressive part of him was his tail; it was almost as long as the rest of him, and crested in a sort of jagged wave pattern.
“I can see how you’re looking at me,” the lizard said, looking straight at Dhruv. “I can assure you, I’m not K’zzyrch. Curse them all for making the rest of the reptilian species look bad!”
“Wh- what…” Dhruv wasn’t sure whether or not it would be appropriate to ask the big question on his mind just then.
“Spit it out, mammal,” the lizard replied. “You want to know what I am.”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Dhruv told him.
“Oh, quit being like that,” he said. “I’m from Deneb’s fourth planet. We have three dominant species there, and I am part of the Kalta-Ajdar.”
“I see,” Dhruv told him.
“Trust me,” the lizard added as he walked over to the counter, “I don’t like the K’zzyrch any more than you do. Now, what can old Jogar Miqyo do for you today?”
“I have an appointment with Finneryl,” Mannarius explained. “Is he around?”
Jogar glanced over towards the other room. “Probably in the workshop,” he said. “Who should I tell him is here to see him?”
“Mannarius Klavernning III,” the captain told him.
Jogar nodded. “Just let me go check.” He slithered off towards the workshop, his tail waving behind him as he walked.
He passed through a pair of swinging doors and disappeared for several minutes. When he finally came back, there was a man following him, a more mammalian alien with creamy white fur that was mottled with red spots. The fur on his face was thick and had the combed-back look of a Terran tiger; white and cottony in the back, with a layer of red in the front. Mannarius recognized his species as Lixfelian.
He looked at the captain with bright silver eyes; eyes that shone and sparkled even in the space station’s artificial lighting. “You were looking for me?” he asked.
“Are you Finneryl?” the captain replied.
“Finneryl Langxan, yes,” the Lixfelian man stated. His coveralls were a deep shade of green, darker than pine, darker than hunter green, but the knitted cap that he wore was a much brighter shade of green. “My assistant Jogar here says that you’re Captain Mannarius.”
He nodded. “Mannarius Klavernning III. And this is my co-pilot, Dhruv Caralynx.”
“Leomians, the both of you,” Finneryl noted with a grin. “Nice to have you here. I looked over your recent travel logs when I got your work proposal. Quite a journey you’ve been on.”
“I suppose you could say we have,” Mannarius agreed. “And we have a lot further still to go.”
“I suppose you do, considering some of the parts you want.” Finneryl Langxan looked around the room for a moment. “Why don’t we go back to my office? Jogar, you have the counter again.”
“Of course, sir,” the Kalta-Ajdar replied.
Finneryl led Mannarius and Dhruv through the first bay of the workshop, where a pair of crewmen were repairing a station transport vehicle, and halfway through the second bay – this one empty – to a tall door. It had to be tall, if the head mechanic was going to fit through it without bending over, for Lixfelians were considerably taller than Leomians and humans.
The door led into one of the nicest offices Mannarius had seen in a long time. It had a wide table made from wood that he assumed came from the Lixfelian home-world, shelves lined with what looked like manuals, and several antique-looking parts in glass display boxes. There was a computer on the table, and on the wall behind it there was a tall but narrow cabinet of darkly-stained wood with a locking door.
“Please, have a seat,” Finneryl said as he gestured to the velvet-upholstered chairs that sat around the table. He went around to the other side of the table and opened the narrow cabinet. “Can I offer you some Avrian mead?”
Dhruv glanced up at his captain.
“I thank you for the kind offer,” Mannarius told him, “but before we drink your finest stock, I should be up-front with you: we came to haggle like we have never haggled before.”
Finneryl gave them a warm smile. “Your honesty is endearing, gentlemen, but not necessary.” His voice was smooth, just like the velvet he’d chosen for his chairs, like the purr of a tiger, although there was no dangerous tone hiding in the background. “I can tell you that I have had a great many hagglers come my way, and I am not above sharing my drinks with them.”
“Very well, then” Mannarius said. “Thank you ever so much.”
Within a couple of minutes, they had their glasses of mead in front of them, and Finneryl had taken his own seat across the table. He typed a few things into his computer, then reached over to switch on the holographic projector in the middle of the table. Its glow produced a three-dimensional image of the Lionstar that rotated above the projector.
“This is your ship, correct?” Finneryl asked them as he took a sip of the mead.
“That’s her,” Mannarius confirmed. “A Leomian-built class-S vessel.”
“It is a lovely ship for its type,” the head mechanic noted. “Elegant in its simplicity. I can see why you’re so proud of it.”
Mannarius nodded, and Finneryl went on typing commands into his computer. A side projector came on, listing the parts that he’d received a request for.
“This is a lot of work,” the head mechanic said as he went over each part. “Tungsten-titanium alloy for the plating, a long-duration FTL drive, anti-matter shielding, and – wow, enhanced dense-matter detection. Where are you going, a war zone or the edge of the galaxy?”
Dhruv chuckled a bit. “Not quite that far.”
Mannarius had a more serious look on his face. “I have no intention on taking the Lionstar into battle.”
“That’s good to hear,” Finneryl told him, “considering that fact that you’re not adding advanced weaponry to your ship. Care to share your plans?”
Mannarius shifted in his seat and took a long drink from his glass. He glanced over at Dhruv before setting down his empty cup. “The Perseus Arm.”
“Is that so?” Finneryl asked with widened eyes. “That’s a good many light years away!”
“I realize that,” the ship’s captain replied. “It’s why we need the faster-than-light drive. I requested one that can sustain long durations of speed.”
Finneryl got got up, walked around the table, and refilled each man’s glass. Then he went back to his own seat and took a sip of mead. “What is your business in the Perseus Arm?”
It took Mannarius several moments to decide whether or not he really wanted to answer that question. In the end, he only did so because not doing so would make the mechanic suspect him of illegal activity. Perhaps part of him also hoped that a little sympathy would make it easier for him to get a discount. “We are going to planet Mekse,” he said in a tone of finality. Then he took another sip of mead.
“You do realize that plenty of transport ships can take you there, don’t you?” Finneryl asked.
“Of course I realize that,” Mannarius told him. “The fact is, I am absolutely not going all the way out there without my Lionstar.”
Finneryl nodded. “I can understand your attachment to your ship, as long as you understand that the upgrades you need would cost a great deal more more than the fare for transport out there – transport on a ship that’s already fit for the journey. Even taking multiple passengers into consideration…”
“We’ve been through the computer system,” Mannarius replied. “It was all too clear what kind of prices we’re looking at!”
Finneryl typed into the computer again, and another projection came up.
“I noticed in the code for your request that you have been through my inventory. You’ve made some pretty interesting choices, I daresay.” He paused and cleared his throat. “I take it by your intent to haggle that you’re working with a limited budget?”
“If only I wasn’t,” Mannarius told him in a regretful tone. “What can you do to help me out?”
Finneryl scrunched his mouth over to one side. “It depends on exactly what kind of funds you have available. Care to share that with me?”
Mannarius shook his head. “I know better than to do that.”
The head mechanic shrugged. “Suit yourself, but it would have made things a lot quicker.”
Mannarius didn’t seem too bothered by how long they were going to take. It was partly because the mead was starting to kick in, and he was willing to keep his slim funds to himself in order to keep the deal fair, especially if it meant it would keep the drinks flowing.
“What do you think you can do for us?”
“Well, it looks like the quote that you got through the computer system is pretty accurate. I can tell you now that I cannot discount the tungsten-titanium alloy you want below where it is now. It’s pretty expensive, and I hardly mark it up at all. You’re better off opting for the steel alloy I have that has extra tungsten and titanium in it.”
“Would that get us through the asteroid field?” Dhruv asked his captain.
Mannarius glanced over at Finneryl, turning the question over to him. The mechanic switched the projections to images of each alloy, the sample panels floating above the projectors as they rotated.
“Both alloys have pretty good ratings for taking damage,” Finneryl explained. “The tungsten-titanium alloy is a little bit lighter, since it doesn’t have the iron in it, but you only notice its difference in strength in certain situations.”
“Like flying through an asteroid field?” Mannarius asked him.
Finneryl shrugged. “Maybe, but you also requested a certain type of shielding that should help with that.”
“The thing I don’t like about the steel alloy,” Mannarius said after a moment of thought and another sip of mead, “is the iron. The less material I have that is subject to the magnetic fields out there, the better.”
“You have a point there,” Finneryl conceded. “I’ve heard about the magnetic fields over in the Heart Nebula. How much of the rest of your ship has iron in it?”
“We can determine that later,” Mannarius told him. “For now, the less iron, the better.”
“Okay,” the head mechanic said, “we’ll stick with the tungsten-titanium alloy, then. But if you want to save money, you have to give somewhere. Next on the list is your anti-matter shielding. We can downgrade that, especially since you’re sticking with the tungsten-titanium hull plating.”
They went over a few options for the shielding system, but Mannarius did not sound impressed by any of them. He ended up asking the mechanic to make him a quote with shielding that was one level below the anti-matter system that he preferred.
“We’ll see what kind of difference it makes,” the captain said.
“Next is your drive,” the head mechanic said. “It looks like you want to be able to stay at a pretty high speed for a long amount of time.”
“We’re traveling at least 7000 light years,” Mannarius reminded him. “We need that system.”
“Quite frankly,” Finneryl told him, “I don’t know whether your ship can even handle it.”
The captain furrowed his brow and frowned.
“I don’t say that out of disrespect,” Finneryl reminded him. “Quite the opposite, actually. I doubt that you want your ship breaking apart due to hyper-speeds.”
“That is why I need the reinforcements on the chassis,” Mannarius said.
“Still,” the mechanic went on, “it’s a pretty dangerous venture. Even with the reinforcements throughout your ship – and please do not think that I say this lightly – I don’t think I’m willing to put in the kind of FTL drive that you’re requesting.”
“Are you saying that you can’t do it?” Mannarius asked him.
Finneryl shook his head. “I can install it, I can get it running and everything. It’s just that if I do, and your ship breaks due to the pressure, I would feel terrible about it. It’s just not safe.”
“So what do you recommend?” Mannarius wanted to know. “Just don’t tell me that it’s going to be more expensive.”
The head mechanic shook his head. “It’s a couple steps below what you wanted, but it’s the safest thing that a class S ship can sustain without being built with it from scratch.”
“So what you’re saying,” Drew clarified, “is that you could build an entire ship around a particular drive, and it could still be a Class S?”
“In theory, yes” Finneryl replied. “It would be pretty expensive, considering the materials that I would need to use to keep it held together at its fastest speed for the longest duration, but I suppose it could be done.”
Dhruv looked up at his Captain, who was deep in thought, as though seriously considering the idea.
“I could pull systems from your Lionstar and install them in the new ship, and that would save you a good deal of money on parts, but then there’s all the labor of transferring those parts.”
Mannarius rubbed his temples and shook his head slowly. “We are not taking apart the Lionstar! What are the specs on the drive that you recommend?”
Finneryl pulled it up on the holographic projector and gave Mannarius time to read over the flow of text as quickly as he could.
“Can you configure it,” he began with a heavy sigh, “to take full advantage of the crystal cores – maybe even exceed the intended speeds?”
Finneryl stared at him as though he was completely addled and afflicted. “Why are you in such a hurry to get to the Heart Nebula? I mean, why can Mekse not wait just a little bit longer for you to get there?”
“Have you experienced a terrible loss?” Mannarius asked him, his tone bold, his eyes set on the other man with more seriousness than what should have been possible.
“I grew up on my home-world with my fellow Lixfelians,” the mechanic said, shaking his head. “Life is good there.”
“I have,” the Lion told him, forcing his voice to keep steady. “Dhruv here was the only one to help me get through it.”
“It was hell for you…” Dhruv noted as his voice broke, surprised that his captain had brought it up.
Mannarius nodded and gave Finneryl a serious look. “And now… we have a friend who went through something traumatic, and I’m not about to let her sort through it alone.”