Chapter Twenty-Seven – A Green Glow of Hope
They ended up all getting up and following Citlally back to her room. She closed the door securely before going over to her bags and pulling out one of the decorative boxes that she’d bought at Nebula Station 246 right after her money had been re-established. It was made from materials harvest from denser areas of the nebula, including metal and stone, as well as crystalline dust, all polished and smooth. It was a puzzle-like closure, and Citlally had sat with the vendor for several minutes in order to perfect the correct method of opening it.
Endan and the others watched her slide one piece, rotate another, then left the next part open so that she could pull out the only thing inside: a bag made of Lixfelian velvet, hardly bigger than her hand. In it where several green shimmering stones, some as small as pebbles, a couple an inch or two in general diameter. They looked something like emeralds or turquoise, but with a much stranger, more mystical air to them.
“I remember her slipping this into my pocket,” Citlally explained, “but not much more than that.”
Dhruv leaned in close, and gaped when he saw what she had in her hand. He looked up at her, wide-eyed, and stared for a moment. “I can hardly believe that you actually took this off of the planet.”
“Why?” Citlally wanted to know. “Is it dangerous?”
“No,” Dhruv replied, “but…”
She looked over at Jalingan to realize that he had a huge grin across his face.
“What?” she asked him.
“This is fantastic!” he told her. “You actually got it. I was really hoping that Allanah would be able to make it happen. She would’ve had a hard time getting you more than this, but this… wow!”
“Is it valuable?” Citlally asked him.
“And then some!” Dhruv answered before Jalingan could get a word out. “They took a big risk, giving you this to try taking off of the planet. I’m not going to tell you what they do when they catch someone trying to steal it.”
“But nobody goes looking for you…” Citlally reminded him.
“And a good thing that is,” Dhruv told her.
“So how much is it worth?”
“Now that the mines are in chaos?” Jalingan replied. “More than I can imagine.”
“What is it?” Endan asked them.
“Millefinluxium,” Jalingan said. “It’s a rare element as far as the galaxy is concerned, but there is lots of it on Sardonia.”
“This is an element? Endan looked surprised. “Not some kind of compound mineral?”
“Number one hundred forty-two,” the half-lion went on.
“So what do we do with it?” Citlally asked him. “Will the mechanic take it as payment?”
“No way,” Dhruv told her. “He would never take that risk, especially knowing our flight history.”
“He looked up where we have been?” Endan looked worried.
“It is standard practice for space station mechanics,” Dhruv explained. “Do us all a favor,” he added, “and don’t breathe a word of this to anyone else on the station. The mechanic probably doesn’t care where you get your money from, and it’s a pretty safe bet that he would be glad that the Wilang on Sardonia are having some struggles. I doubt that he likes the K’zzyrch any more than we do. The thing is, if you take into account where we’ve been and the fact that you have this, it can mean a lot of trouble for all of us, the mechanic included.”
“But if I can’t spend it,”Citlally said, “what good is it? How can it still have value if we can’t use it anywhere?”
“That is where you’re mistaken,” Jalingan told her. He looked as though he was thinking of something on the sly. “It has tons of value, I can assure you – if you know the right buyer.”
Dhruv gave the half-lion a cautious sidelong glance. “I don’t think that I like where this is going,” he said.
“Of course you don’t,” Jalingan replied. “You are probably not going to like any of the stuff that I have to say right now.”
“In that case, I think it’s time that we got Mannarius in here,” Dhruv went on. He looked down at his comm bracelet and pushed a couple of buttons.
Jalingan grabbed his wrist. “We don’t need to get him involved.”
“He has a right to know,” Dhruv insisted.
“But the mineral… It’s not even his,” Jalingan reminded him. “Besides, I don’t like the way he gets angry at me when he is drunk.”
“And whose fault is that?” Dhruv asked, narrowing his eyes at him.
“We are not going to bring that up now, are we?”
“Here?” Dhruv shook his head. “I know better than to say anything more than that. …At least in front of our new friends.”
He pulled his hand free and pressed the button on his comm bracelet again. “Captain, this is Dhruv calling. Where are you?”
It took a moment, but a tired groan came back through the speaker. “Captain, are you okay?”
“Maybe you should just let him sleep it off,” Jalingan suggested.
Dhruv glared at him. “I’m going to go get him,” he said. “I don’t like what I’m guessing you have planned.” He got up and walked out of the room, Citlally watching him go.
The room that he shared with Mannarius was right next to hers and Endan’s, but as close as it was, it took him a few minutes to get his captain out. Citlally wondered what he had to say to him to get him out of bed. In the end, he had him back with them before too long, practically carrying him over his shoulder.
Mannarius eased himself down into a chair and turned to look straight at Citlally. “Dhruv said it’s important,” he groaned out. “What in all the stars is going on?”
“I really didn’t mean for him to wake you,” she told him, her voice true to the regret that she had expressed. “We were just talking…”
“Talking can get anyone into trouble,” the captain said, his voice weary, his words slow. “Especially when he is involved.” He glared over at Jalingan, his eyes filled with contempt.
“Should I even bother being hurt – or rather, acting hurt – by your criticism?” Jalingan asked him. “It’s gone on for so long, and I’m really sick of it.”
“Don’t start that nonsense now,” Citlally told them, surprising herself with the way her tone was so much like that of a mother scolding children who weren’t getting along. “Especially not if you’re still refusing to tell me how this rivalry started. Dhruv went and got you because he wanted to you to see something that I have.”
“What is it?” he glanced over at Dhruv for a moment. “This better not be something that could’ve waited for the mead and sake to wear off.”
“It will make you feel better,” his co-pilot assured him.
Mannarius did not look hopeful.
Citlally shared a look with Endan, who nodded to her, and then walked over to press the velvet bag into Mannarius’s hand. He looked down at it, perplexed, and had to bring one of the stones closer to his eyes in order to figure out what he had been given.
“What are these,” he asked her groggily, “emeralds?”
She shook her head.
“Try again,” Dhruv told him, trying not to grin too widely.
Mannarius peered at it again, and looked several times between the mineral and Citlally. “I have an idea of what it looks like,” he said, “but it couldn’t be…”
“It could,” Jalingan told him. “Just think about where you picked her up.”
“No way,” the captain said. “They would never allow this stuff off of the planet – not outside of the carefully-guarded hauls that they export!”
“They didn’t stop me from leaving,” she reminded him.
“You’re kidding me, right?” Mannarius gaped. “You took that risk?”
“Not exactly,” she admitted. “I hardly knew what was going on at the time. Like I told the others, Allanah slipped it into my pocket before she sent me off. I haven’t had any idea what to do with it since.”
“Dhruv,” Mannarius said, stumbling over his name and all the words that followed, “is she serious? Is this really it?”
“Yes,” Jalingan answered for the co-pilot, “and it’s not enough enough that it would really hurt anybody’s quota for the day.” He shut up as soon as he got the cold stare.
“He’s right,” Dhruv told him. “It is millefinluxium, true as can be.”
Mannarius stared at it for a few more minutes before meeting Citlally’s eyes. “So tell me, Aztec princess, why did you need me to see this? Why now?”
“Dhruv was the one who thought that right now was so important,” she told him. “I was just wondering if we could do anything with it.”
“You could do a few things with it” the captain told her as he handed the pouch back to her. “Most of them wold be pretty wasteful, though, considering its value.”
“So it’s worth it to sell it?” she asked him. She hated having to pretend that she did not know better, but she had the distinct feeling that she’d better not let on that she knew about his upgrades costing too much. She figured that hurting his pride would probably not be conducive to getting him to let her help out.
Mannarius shrugged. “Unless you know anyone who can build a compound one-forty-two engine, then yes, you should sell it. Not on this station, though.”
“Why not?” Endan asked him.
“Because my flight records show that I’ve been to the Skull Nebula,” he told her, his voice all seriousness, “and as soon as someone in my party turns up with loads of money out of nowhere, suspicions are going to start flying.”
“Then how do I sell it?” she wanted to know.
“You find another station,” Mannarius replied, “and you go there either without getting your flight records checked, or a ship that has not been so close to the Skull Nebula.”
“Like mine! My star-skipper doesn’t have the Skull Nebula in its records because it was parked on another station while I rode with the K’zzyrch,” Jalingan chimed in. He leaned back when his cousin snapped his eyes over to him and snarled.
“I absolutely do not want you involved in this,” the captain told him, his voice firm, his tone warning him to not so much as dare to contradict him.
“I’ve been involved from the start,” Jalingan reminded him. “You can’t cut me out now.”
Mannarius mumbled under his breath, the words coming through the translator as static. Then he glared at his cousin and told him, “Your involvement would have been better spent dismantling their weaponry.”
“I’m not interested in discussing the impossibilities of that with you,” Jalingan snapped back with a scowl. Then he looked to Citlally. “You see, he thinks I need to fight them on my own.”
“But Mannarius,” Citlally said, turning to the captain, “he’s willing to help us here. If I am not supposed to have this stuff, then I want to get rid of it as quickly as possible.”
“But you also want the money for it,” Mannarius said. “Is that okay with you?”
“What?” she asked him, raising one eyebrow. “I’m not debating the morality of it here. I just don’t want to be caught with the stuff. After what I lost in the process of getting it, I have no qualms about selling it off.”
“Why does he have to be the one to help us?” the Lion complained.
“Because like it or not, Mannarius, he is my friend now. Think about it; he’s here, with us now, and more than willing to help us. And unless you can explain to me why we shouldn’t be talking to him and showing at least a little bit of thanks, I’m not going to listen to you talk so badly about him!”
Mannarius didn’t seem to like having been told so directly how to behave. He blinked, eyeing Citlally for a few minutes, and then leaned back in his chair. Truth be told, it looked as though the alcohol was having another wave of effects on him. “You know how to get down to where it’s personal, don’t you?” he asked her.
“Maybe so,” she admitted. “You keep refusing to explain what happened between the two of you, but you sure do let it get in the way of your interactions.”
“Get in the way of our interactions?” Mannarius repeated, sounding more irritated than Citlally supposed he meant to. “What happened between us means that I don’t want to interact with him at all! When Doctor Sendrick sent me to find out where you were, I never intended to get in contact with this idiot again! It just turned out that way, and I would be far happier if he left and didn’t hang around anymore.”
Mannarius didn’t bother waiting for Jalingan to leave; he knew that he wouldn’t be so easily moved. So he got himself up, walked out of the room, and went back to bed. Just before the doors slid shut, he told Dhruv not to disturb him again.
“Wow,” Citlally said. “He was pretty upset just then.”
“’Course he was,” Jalingan replied. “I don’t think he’ll ever forgive me.”
“Have you even forgiven yourself?” Dhruv asked him.
The half-lion shrugged. “I don’t know if I can. Still, I’ll never forget what happened back then… but I can’t make myself miserable every day either.”
“What are you two talking about?” Citlally asked, feeling as though something was missing from the conversation.
Dhruv shook his head. “Forget I said anything. You’ve heard too much already.”
“Oh, come on!” Citlally exclaimed.
“I’m sure that he’ll tell you in good time,” Dhruv assured her, “just not right now.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and sighed heavily. “It’s really frustrating keep being kept in the dark about this secret, and I don’t like getting caught in the middle of it all. I thought I considered you both my friends, but how am I going to keep friends with two people who hate each other?”
“Well,” Jalingan said, “you’re not going to be able to make up for what happened in the past, but you can certainly be his friend as well as mine. You see, I don’t hold anything against him. I don’t like the way he keeps treating me like this, but I’m doing the best I can. I’m helping out where I can, even if he refuses to so much as try to understand that.”
“In that case…” Citlally begin, as though wondering out loud.
“Go on,” Jalingan said.
“I want to ask you something, but I have a pretty good feeling that Mannarius isn’t going to like it.”
“You’re right about that,” he told her. “He hates anything that involves me. You can go ahead and ask, if it’s so important, but don’t expect him to be happy about it.”
Citlally looked over at her husband. “I think I want to do it anyway, though,” she told him. “I mean, you know I’m not one to go against friends, or to get in the middle of stuff like this, but it just seems too important to not do.”
Endan gave an understanding nod. “I know,” he said, his voice gentle and calm. “You’ve never been been a meddler before.”
She looked over at Dhruv. “What do you think?”
Dhruv shrugged. “I can only guess at what you are going to ask him. As a co-pilot, you probably think that I’m going to advise you not to. Maybe I should, knowing Mannarius’s past. Still, I am a man of my own, and I have my own opinions.”
“And what is your opinion?” Endan ask him.
“The galaxy is a big place, Dhruv said. There are a lot of stars – lonely stars – and a lot of hunks of rock with no life on them, a lot of gas and dust and pretty much empty space. It’s actually pretty hard to find a place with life on it out here in the galaxy. Even in those places that have life, you don’t always find forgiveness.”
“So what you’re saying,” Citlally said, “is that forgiveness is a rare thing in the galaxy?”
Dhruv nodded deeply, thoughtfully. “Rare indeed. I mean, it’s easy to forgive someone who has just stepped on your foot, or dented your ship, or when they lose is a bolt tightener that you just spent your last few galactic credits on.”
“I remember when you did that,” Jalingan told him.
Dhruv gave him a sort of half smile. “It is hard – really hard – to let go of something that cuts down into the heart of you, that strips away that which is most precious to you. I would say that it would drive you to hate the one who did it. That’s completely reasonable. But how can you forgive someone who allows that to happen, especially when it happens out of carelessness?”
“Or at least what they think is carelessness,” Jalingan added, his tone full of annoyance. Citlally assumed that they were talking around whatever had happened between him and the captain.
“So what are you trying to say?” she asked him. “Should we have him help us or not?”
The co-pilot shrugged again. “Mannarius will never never forgive Jalingan. Even if he knows somewhere deep down inside, and he’s just not willing to admit it, that his cousin’s work is for the betterment of the galaxy, that it really does undermine what the K’zzyrch stand for, he’ll never forgive and embrace what happened. But you he can forgive. With you, he’s more than willing to understand your choices. Ask Jalingan whatever you want, but don’t think that it will have an impact on how those two feel about each other.”
“I see,” Citlally said. She looked to Endan.
“Go on, lassie,” he told her, grinning.
She turned back to the half-lion. “So, Jalingan,” she began, “how about I give this to you?” She held up the valvet bag of green stones.
“What do you propose I do with it?” he asked her. He had in mind what she was probably going to say, but he figured that they had better be clear on what everyone expected.
“You keep saying that you’re part of the best kept secret in the galaxy. Nobody wants to talk about who else is part of it, but by now I know you have connections somewhere. Take this, take your ship, find a space station where you can sell it. Bring the money back to me, and I’m going to give it to Mannarius. He got me off of Sardonia, and he got Endan back into my arms. Now he’s going to get his ship upgrades, whether he likes it or not.”
A slow, wide grin worked its way across Jalingan’s face. He looked at her, trying not to chuckle too loudly. “Citlally, my dear princess, I like the things you have in your mind. He’s going to be pretty mad about me taking it, but since it’s you asking, and not me suggesting, he might actually end up being a little bit impressed. After all, he doesn’t usually have people standing up to him.”
“I can tell,” she said. “So you’ll do it?”
“Of course I will, young princess,” Jalingan told her. He seemed glad that she’d asked him to go against the captain’s wishes. “Anything for you. Although I should warn you, I won’t be able to sell it directly. I might have to go through a series of trades first.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” she told him, pressing the bag into his palm. “Just take it, and come back with the money.”
“You’re a lot bolder than what I first took you for,” Jalingan told her.
“Yeah, well, apparently k’zshyrk has a way of making you seem more docile than you really are. Between that and what we’ve been been through, I’m not in any kind of mood to give in or settle for less.”
“Good for you,” Jalingan told her. “I like that fire!”
“So do I,” Endan added. “It’s one if the things I really love about her.”
“You’re a lucky man to have her, then.” He stood up and stretched his back. “Tell you what, I’m going to get going now, before Mannarius wakes up and really tries to stop me.”
“But are they goin’ tae you let ye fly, lad, after all that sake?” Endan asked him.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Jalingan reassured them. “I didn’t drink nearly as much as everyone else did.”
“There’s something positive to hear,” Dhruv said.
Jalingan gave him a knowing look. “There are a lot of reasons for that, actually. Don’t let it go to your head that it’s all because of…”
Dhruv nodded, as though he knew exactly what the half-lion was talking about even though he had not finished his sentence.
Jalingan paused for a moment, lost in thought, then jumped into action. “Okay, I have to get moving. I’m going to grab a few things from my room and head down to the docking bays. Dhruv, do you still remember my signal frequencies in case you need to get hold of me?”
“You bet,” the co-pilot replied.
“Right, then. Don’t let Mannarius try to contact me; those are for you to use in case of an emergency.”
“I know,” Dhruv assured him.
Jalingan grinned at him and headed for the door. Citlally jumped up to follow him across the hall. He didn’t seem to mind in the least, and let her watch him load up his tanned leather travel bag. Then he looked around the room.
“Now where did I leave it?” he asked himself out loud.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, hoping that she could be of some help.
“It looks kind of like a really thick leather belt,” he explained, “but it has pockets on it.”
Citlally joined him in searching for it, checking under pillows and bags. Finally, she pulled back a blanket and called out, “Do you mean a bandolier?”
“Yes, that’s exactly it!” he grinned. “Thank you.”
Jalingan picked up the leather strap and placed it over one shoulder and under the other arm. He unbuttoned one of the pockets on he chest, slipped the bag of millefinluxium inside, and closed it securely once again.
“There,” he told her with a proud smile on his face. “I will keep it right here over my heart.”
Citlally smiled back at him and tied not to laugh. “Oh, is that where your heart is?”
“For Leomians, yes,” he told her, remembering that human hearts were on their left side, whereas he had positioned the pocket on the right side of his chest. “And don’t try to joke about otherwise.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she told him, this time giving a little chuckle.
He smiled at her for a minute, pulled his travel bag over his other shoulder, then glanced around the room for anything else that he might need.
“Did you get everything?” she queried, looking up at him hopefully.
“Yeah,” he said, although he seemed somewhat distracted. Jalingan turned to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Hey.”
“What is it?” she said, trying not to seem startled as he met his pale brown eyes.
“I like your spirit,” he told her. “I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you’re healing from the venom; not everybody gets that kind of recovery.”
“It was the worst feeling,” she admitted to him in a sort of half-whisper. “I never want that stuff in me again.”
“I doubt that you ever will,” he assured her, smoothing a lock of hair out of her face. “Not with Mannarius around; I may not have been able to stop them back on Regulus Station II, but I know for a fact that the Lion would take a needle before letting you get hurt.”
“You did o’ even know me back on Regulus Station II…”
“Maybe not,” he sighed, “but I can’t help but think that I should have thrown all their vials of k’zshyrk into the furnace before we docked.”
“I thought they had more than one ship…”
“They did,” he replied with a shrug. “Maybe I couldn’t have gotten rid of all of it, but I can still wish.”
“If you start spending all your time wishing now, you’ll not have any time left for traveling through space.”
Jalingan looked down at her with an endearing smile. “I’ve been wishing for years,” he told her, his voice filled with a sorrow that she’d never heard in him before. “There are only two girls I wish I wish I would have saved – even more than you. It’s too late for them now, but if I could have done it years ago, you probably never would have been hurt.”
She stared up at him for a long while, wanting to tell him that it was okay, that she was glad just to have his friendship now. She couldn’t, though. Her wounds were too deep, her losses too great to simply tell him that it was all okay. She knew that she couldn’t hate him in the same way that Mannarius did – his loss had probably been far greater than hers, even with all things considered – but she also knew that he meant well.
He stared back at her for hardly a moment before his face broke into a smirk. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” he reassured her. Then, without the least bit of warning, he bent down and kissed her forehead. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get you to the Heart Nebula!”
Then Jalingan took her hands, walked her back out into the hallway, and gave her one last hug before he set off. He paused at the corner, adjusting his shoulder bag as he looked back at her, and winked before disappearing around it. Citlally waited until she was sure that he was gone, gave a heavy sigh, and went back to her room to sit with Endan.