Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Heart Nebula
7,500 Light Years from Earth
By the way Citlally counted her time, it was a little over two weeks before the upgrades on the Lionstar work completed. In that time, Dhruv paid several visits to the security center, talking with Mannarius and the security team. They were worried, the way they’d seen him rage against Jalingan, the way he’d shown so much hatred towards him. They were concerned that it would happen again, and that next time Jalingan would be far more injured.
Dhruv was lucky enough to learn that his new girlfriend had connections on the station. She was familiar with all the other Leomians who were working there, and was able to introduce him to a counselor who could talk to Mannarius about his anger. While Jalingan was healing from his physical injuries in the medical center, Mannarius was healing his heart with a counselor.
By the end of it, the security team was satisfied that he wouldn’t be attacking anyone else, most especially Jalingan. He hadn’t completely given up on the grudge that he held against him, nor had he explained what it was about – at least, not to Citlally – but he was at least more in control of his feelings about it.
Besides that, Dhruv was able to talk him down from his frustrations about the financial situation that he’d been in. It turned out that he’d been saving money for ages, and had every intention of paying for the parts for his ship himself. He ended up putting spending the vast majority of his savings on the mechanic, and only accepted what he absolutely needed from Citlally and what she’d gotten for selling the millefinluxium. He was still not completely happy with the situation, but he felt that he’d put in enough that he could at least live with it.
Dhruv and Mannarius didn’t talk about the fact that the co-pilot was the one who’d given Citlally and Jalingan more information than he should have. Citlally could see that the bond between them was incredible; Mannarius trusted him absolutely, listened to him, and even relied on him. The security team was aware of that as well, and it helped them make their decision to release him from the security center. As long as Dhruv was with him, he was in control of himself.
Jalingan was mostly healed by the time the repairs were finished. There was still a yellowish off-color to his skin in some areas, the remnants of his bruises, but he looked a lot better. He only stayed in the medical center for a few days, resting and receiving medicine for the pain, and bandages for his shoulder. Citlally went to see him, Endan going with her when he could, and let him know how worried she was about him.
“You don’t have to be so concerned,” he reassured her. “After all, I’m just another mercenary of the K’zzyrch.”
Citlally gave a sort of half smile and chuckled. “You say that, but you’re also part of the best-kept secret in the galaxy.”
They were in his room at the time, and that was the only reason that he didn’t immediately hush her about the matter. Anywhere else, and he would have reminded her that secrets don’t stay secret if you talk about them.
Jalingan still wanted to go with them to Mekse. It was a place of healing, after all. He and Mannarius had come to enough of a truce that he would be able to tag along, even if it was only under very specific conditions. Citlally was glad that he was coming, and hoped that it would help improve their relationship, even if nobody else felt that way.
All of them went to see the new ship together when Finneryl contacted Mannarius to let him know that it was done. They awed at the way the hull plating shone in the light, the titanium sleek and dark. The captain was the most impressed of them all by what he saw, and Finneryl was glad to see that he was pleased with how he’d spent his money.
“Finneryl does some good work,” the captain said after running his hand over a smooth panel. “No more looking at the rivets along the outside.”
“The rivets were part if its charm,” Dhruv reminded him.
“The Lionstar has plenty of charm being smooth like this, too,” Mannarius told him with a wink. “This is strong… I can feel it even now.”
“Are you ready to look inside?” Finneryl asked him with a proud smile.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time!” Mannarius grinned. He opened the bay door in the belly of his ship and rushed up the platform, Dhruv following close behind.
Citlally noticed Jalingan lingering behind, and let Endan and Nurse Iratze go on ahead without her.
“Aren’t you coming in?” she asked him as she walked up to his side.
He shook his head. “I know better,” he admitted, as though the very idea weighed heavy on his heart. “I haven’t been inside the Lionstar for years, and today is not the day to change that. I know where I’m not welcome.”
“Are you sure? Maybe he wants you to see it now that…”
He did not look hopeful. “You go on ahead,” he insisted. “If Mannarius wants me on board the Lionstar, he’ll let me know.”
“Okay, then,” Citlally conceded with a disappointed sigh. She gave him a light hug before she headed up the ramp and into the ship.
“It’s really been cleaned up,” Mannarius was saying when she found him in a hallway. “Oh, and Nurse Iratze…” He took the nurse into to the tiny sick bay. “It’s all been restocked,” he told her, “and some of the equipment was updated.”
“A wise decision,” she replied as she looked over the room. “This will do very nicely. I hope that I shall not have need of it, though.”
“I hope so, too,” the captain replied.
They spent nearly half an hour fawning over all the improvements the Lionstar had received. Then, just as quickly, Mannarius left his ship, closed the bay door, and headed back to his room. The others followed, and they sat together for a few minutes. They made plans about the departure, and were just as soon off to their own rooms.
They left Space Station Tanoora Prime station the next day. Mannarius helped everyone make sure they had all of their things together, including anything they’d bought while on the station. That mostly applied to see Citlally and Endan, who’d had to buy quite a lot of new clothes since their financial accounts had been restored and a recuperation fund had been granted to them.
Mannarius gave his final words of thanks to Finneryl for the excellent work that he had done, and then opened the bay door to his ship one more time to let everyone inside. Finneryl bade them all farewell, and watched as the door to the ship closed. Then he noticed one last person standing behind him.
“Aren’t you going on board the Lionstar?” the head mechanic asked Jalingan.
The half-lion shook his head.
“But I thought you were going with him,” Finneryl said, sounding confused.
“I am,” Jalingan replied, “but I’m not welcome on theLionstar.”
“So how does that work, then?” Finneryl wanted to know.
“I’ll be taking my star skipper,” he explained.
“That’s not going to get you to the Heart Nebula at the same time that they get there,” the mechanic told him.
“I know,” Jalingan said. “I’m going to dock with the Lionstar, and ride along attached them.”
“Is that so? Are you sure your ship you can handle the high speeds? You might just be hitching a ride, but you don’t want your hull breaking apart.”
“It can handle it,” Jalingan assured him. “It’s a pretty fine ship, even if it’s tiny.”
“How soon are you going to meet with them?” Finneryl wanted to know.
Jalingan shrugged. “How soon are you opening the airlock?”
“As soon as we get out of here,” Finneryl replied.
“Let’s clear the air lock, then,” the half-lion said.
Finneryl led them back out to the main office and picked up the intercom. “Docking bay two ready to depart,” he announced.
Some of the crew members cheered, remembering what a privilege it had been to work on such a ship, adding such interesting things to it.
“Docking bay cleared!” one of the crew members called back to him.
Finneryl punched a code into a nearby keypad, and a broad door came down on the docking bay, creating a wall between the Lionstar and the rest of the workshop. Then he pulled up his station communications system. “Flight Control, this is service station 574. Finneryl Langxan speaking.”
There was a pause, and then an image came up on the screen and a voice replied, “Go ahead, Finneryl.”
“I have a class-S ship serviced and ready for flight,” he told the station’s flight agent. “The Lionstar has my leave to depart and awaits your clearance.”
“Thank you, Finneryl,” she replied. “Contacting the Lionstar now.”
Finneryl looked over at Jalingan. “You’d better get going,” he told him. “You need to start your clearance procedures, too.”
“Time to go, then,” Jalingan said, his voice tired. “I’ll see you around, I guess.”
“Of course I will,” the mechanic replied, “as long as you don’t get into any more fights with the Lion!”
“I don’t plan to,” he replied with a smirk.
He headed out the door and made his way down to the station’s loswer docking bays. He punched in his access code to the bay door where his star skipper was waiting for him and climbed into the pilot’s seat. He sat there for a few minutes, lost in thought, before shaking his head back to his senses and getting to work on the controls.
“Flight Control, this is Jalingan Klavernning I, pilot of the Silver Lynx.”
“We hear you loud and clear, Silver Lynx,” the flight control agent came back. “Are you ready for departure?”
“All systems are on and working,” he replied. “Ship is sealed and ready for air lock procedures.”
“Do you have a flight plan?” the agent asked him; a typical question that pilots were asked.
“I’m going to dock with the Lionstar and travel with them.” He didn’t know why he sounded so disappointed to be saying that; he was glad to be able to join them, even if he was going to be confined to his own ship for the entire journey.
Flight Control took several minutes to process him, but eventually the air lock was opened and he was released into the æther. Jalingan guided his ship over to his cousin’s and went through docking procedures in order to lock their two ships together. He wished they had a hatch to share, just so that Citlally or anyone else could come up to his ship and visit him. Instead, he would be alone on board the Silver Lynx, save for the comm system.
Once they were linked, the Silver Lynx lying on top of the Lionstar like a cap, Jalingan shut down his flight system and let Mannarius and Dhruv do all of the steering. The Lionstar took the jump-gate gate as far out as it could get them, then traveled a good distance away from it before loading up the high-speed systems.
The Lionstar whirred and hummed with energy as the new systems loaded up. It was a soft sound, nothing intrusive, but it was there, the gentle tone of energy that flowed around the ship.
“Raise all shields,” Mannarius told his co-pilot, who acknowledged the order and pulled up the new shielding system.
Outside, the Lionstar began to glow with pale blue energy; it encompassed the Silver Lynx as well. “Shields are up and strong,” Dhruv told his captain. He looked at the blinking screen on his monitor and added, “High speed drive is ready to go. Would you like to do the honors, captain?”
“Excellent!” Mannarius grinned he stepped up to the computer console and Dhruv scooted aside.
“Take a seat everyone,” the captain said. “It’s time to jump too high speed! We’re going to be traveling faster than light for a little while.”
“Ready when you are,” Endan told the captain once he and Citlally had sat down and strapped in. Nurse Iratze callin in from the medical bay to confirm that she was secure.
“Let’s get to the Heart Nebula! It’s been long enough already.” Mannarius winked at her, and said, “For you, anything!”
He took a seat at the console, typed in the required commands, and said, “Jumping to FTL now!”
The ship lurched, and the view-screens went to a white blur. Up in the Silver Lynx, Jalingan felt it, too. There were a few minutes in which everyone sat still and quiet, feeling the way the ship move ti its highest speed for the first time. The hum and whir of the engines changed, not necessarily louder, but different. The readings on the screen changed, showing their speed, and they watched as it increased all the way to the maximum setting.
“We’re in open space now, captain,” Dhruv said after a while. “Nothing but space dust out here, and I doubt that we will meet any stray rocks.”
“Excellent,” Mannarius replied.
The ship settled into its current speed, and everyone felt that it was now safe to stand up and walk around. They kept the shields up just in case, knowing that they were traveling too fast to avoid even a pebble. The high-speed drive automatically enhanced the radar systems, expanding the view so that if a larger asteroid did appear in their vicinity, they would be able to avoid it in time.
“We’re holding steady now, captain,” Dhruv added.
“Well done,” he just told his co-pilot, patting him on his shoulders. “The controls are yours now.”
Dhruv grinned up at him. “You really are the best captain,” he told him.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mannarius replied. He turned to Citlally and Endan. “There is a remote outpost at the edge of the Orion Galactic arm,” he told them. “We should be there in a couple of days. We can stretch our legs there, make sure that everything is charged, and then head back out.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Citlally replied.
The rest of the journey went a lot like that, traveling at high speeds for as long as they could, dropping out of it when they came near a station, resting a while, and continuing on the journey. It took them a few weeks of this to get to the Perseus arm of the galaxy, but Citlally didn’t seem to mind, for there were a great many beautiful sights to see along the way. They passed by other nebulae, past beautiful planets and magnificent suns, with colors that Citlally had never before imagined.
“From Earth, its hard for scientists to find out about these things,” she noted at one point.
“And some of your scientists don’t so much as bother to travel out this far,” Mannarius added.
“Maybe they should,” Citlally said wistfully as she gazed at the view-screen and the image of the rosy sun that was on it. It wasn’t a red dwarf or anything of that sort, but a softer color, bright and vibrant.
The most beautiful thing that she saw, besides the Heart Nebula itself, was when they had at last reached the Perseus arm of the galaxy, and the nebula was just barely coming into sight.
“Is that really…?” Citlally began.
Mannarius gave her a knowing smile and nodded. “Ætherians,” he said.
“They look amazing,” she breathed as she watch them floating out in the blanket of space. She took Endan’s arm and held onto him so that they could watch them together. “I mean, usually it’s so hard to be able to see them.”
The captain nodded. “They’re hard to see when they are near civilization,” Mannarius told her. “Near planets and space stations, they become shy and hide in the darkness. Out here, where there’s hardly anything at all, they can really shine.”
“They look like nebulae themselves,” Citlally cooed, “but their colors are so much brighter! It’s amazing that they are really a living thing.”
“Alive and well,” Dhruv told her.
Citlally stared for a long time, watching the way they floated, reminding her of the way that jellyfish drifted in the ocean. Their bodies were wider than cnidarians, though, more vast, almost like an octopus with its body spread out, its arms outstretched. They hardly had a body to them, made up more of light and plasma than anything tangible. They lived in the æther, without water, without food, quiet, but always moving. From what she knew, they lived on starlight.
“By the light of a thousand stars,” Citlally breathed as she watched them, “they roam the galaxy…”
“Not just this galaxy,” Mannarius told her. “They could go to any galaxy they wanted to.”
“They live for so long,” she said, knowing that the distance between two galaxies was more than she could imagine.
“Longer than any of our lifetimes,” he replied.
“Longer than all of them put together,” Citlally added. “You know what I like best about them? The colors. It’s like they are all colors at once, swirling together.”
“You have a real fascination with beauty,” Mannarius told her.
“It’s not just the way they look,” Citlally explained. “Their entire existence is like… I guess you could say poetry.”
“Poetry?” the captain asked, raising a brow.
“Endan knows what I mean.” She smiled up at her husband, and he smiled back.
“She did just recite part of the old poem,” Dhruv noted, winking to his captain.
“Ah, yes,” Mannarius recalled. “The one about the mysterious life-forms that live out in space. Ætherians aren’t the only ones, but they are one of the more fascinating ones.”
Citlally was disappointed when they had to fly on, but was satisfied that at least it wasn’t much farther to Mekse. The Heart Nebula was an amazing sight to take in. From where they were the last time that they dropped out of high speed, they could also see its neighbor.
“The Heart and Soul of the galaxy,” Dhruv said as the two nebulae came up on the screens.
“And It’s not even the center!” Endan chuckled.
Citlally couldn’t help but giggle as well. “Which star is Liaris?” she asked after a bit.
“It is… that one,” Mannarius told her, pointing to a bright spot on the screen. “Did you ever figure out what it is called back on earth?”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t find it in the database. If it was named at all, it is probably just a code of letters and numbers. I don’t think that they study the stars out here as much as they do the nebulae.”
“What a shame,” Mannarius replied. “The stars out here are full of all sorts of things.”
Something began to blink on Dhruv’s panel, a soft beep sounding along with it. “That’s the radiation warning, captain,” Dhruv said.
“Increase shields,” Mannarius told him. “Looks like it’s time for a full scan of the area.”
“Scanning, now, captain,” Dhruv replied as he went to work on the console. His workstation became busy with data flowing down the screen, and for several minutes he was completely focused on skimming it.
“We have a few anomalies detected already,” the co-pilot informed them after several minutes.
“What do we have today?” The captain asked, leaning over to read the screens. Citlally recalled that in the area around the nebulae, anomalies of all kinds tended to come and go. “Ooh, gravitational flux. Good thing we avoided the steel.”
“There are some temporal anomalies at some coordinates, too,” Dhruv went on, “but we can avoid them now that the computer has them mapped out.”
“What about the asteroid field?” they captain wanted to know.
Dhruv pulled up the field scan on one of the main screens. “There are lot of smaller pieces right now,” he told them.
“Is that good or bad?” Citlally asked, stepping closer to them.
“Well, it is bad for those who rely on guidance systems to avoid larger chunks,” Mannarius explained, “but good for those with shields and hulls like ours. It shouldn’t be too hard to get through. Dhruv, set up a route and load our shielding systems to their maximum parameters. Get us to Mekse without piercing the hull, if you would.”
“Of course I can, captain!” Dhruv assured him. He went back to work typing into his console, entering commands and data as quickly as he could. “Flight plan is ready, sir,” he grinned at last.
They were approaching light speed within a few more minutes. It was a turbulent ride, the shields dissolving a great deal of palm-sized asteroids. They broke apart a few larger ones, but the pieces were able to get through and bang against the outside of the ship. Mannarius tried not to look too worried every time they heard a clang; he knew that he had the best plating available, but he couldn’t help it. The Lionstar lurched in all directions, making Citlally stumble around the bridge and wish that she’d taken her seat sooner.
It was at least an hour of that, avoiding pockets of temporal anomalies and dealing with the brunt of the asteroids, before the star Liaris was close enough that they could see its planets orbiting around it. The star glowed brightly, a white star that sparkled like the silver glitter that Citlally had always used as a child to represent stars. She felt her heart flutter as she watched it grow on the screens, and felt Endan’s hand clutch hers.
“This is it,” he whispered to her.
Citlally nodded, felling her throat trying to swallow. “This is where it will rest.”
She half expected Mannarius to stay something, but she found him staring at the screen with a look that seemed to her like longing. She couldn’t help but notice the way that he gripped Dhruv’s shoulders. She wanted so badly to ask him if he’d been here before, but she held back, feeling something inside tell her her that now wasn’t the time. Nurse Iratze soon joined them on the bridge, taking a break from her work now that they were so close to landing.
The Lionstar slowed more and more as it approached Mekse. They could see its moons and satellites now, and Mannarius had taken a seat in his captain’s chair. He made contact with the planet, and before long they had permission to begin atmospheric entry procedures. His advanced shielding system made it a smooth ride despite the thick atmosphere.
Dhruv took the ship on a brief tour around the planet, gliding over the continents so that Citlally could see its lofty mountains and blue valleys, catching glimpses of glowing cities and vast countrysides. It reminded her of Earth, except much larger, cleaner, more cared-for, the world still lush and free of the need of having to recover from a careless industrial revolution. Even the cities looked as though they’d been developed with nature still in mind.
Much of it was cloudy, and as they descended, Dhruv powered down the shields and let the rain fall on the ship. Citlally breathed a happy sigh as she heard the sound of it pattering on the titanium hull.
“What season is it?” she asked as Dhruv switched form the view-screens to the actual windows, now that he was able to retract their metal coverings.
“Spring, it looks like,” Nurse Iratze told her. “Perhaps close to summer.”
“I can hardly believe how long it’s been since I’ve seen rain,” Citlally said, her voice wistful and longing. “Real rain, not the misters that they use in the gardens on the space stations.”
“You like the rain, then?” Iratze asked her.
“She loves it,” Endan answered for her.
“So does he!” Citlally added. “I don’t think that we’d be able to get along otherwise. We used to run through the woods back in Ireland, when it would rain during our hikes. Those were some of the best times we’ve had together.”
“You can do that here,” Dhruv told them. The trees come in so many vibrant colors. I really think you’ll love it!”
“Will you and Mannarius explore the forests with us?” Endan asked.
Dhruv looked over at his captain. who was staring straight out at the landscape, still saying nothing. “We’ll see,” the co-pilot told them.
They came down towards a sprawling countryside, gliding over farm fields and the houses where the farmers lived. They reminded Citlally of manor houses, large and ample, and she remembered reading that the Norameni people were wealthy, mainly due to the fact that they cared for one another. She could see the forests on the hills and mountains beyond the village, and on the other side – she didn’t yet have a feel for which way was was north – she could see the misty coastline. It looked like the ocean port shared land with the airport, they way there way the landing pads and runways were arranged.