Chapter Thirty-Three – Rho Ophiuchi and Gliese 1214 460 Light Years from Earth
There was no way that Nurse Iratze was going to change her mind about wanting to go home. She had carried out her promise to Citlally to make sure that her child was put to rest on planet Mekse, and now she wanted to see her family again. What Citlally said after the ceremony didn’t change her mind in the least. In fact, it made her all the more determined to get home safely.
The fact was, Citlally didn’t leave the Forest of Eternal Hope right away. She had spoken with the woman who had been in the procession after her, she had walked with Mannarius, and let him show her where his beloved had been buried. She had spoken with several other attendees about their own losses at the hands of the K’zzyrch, and when she did at last emerge from the Forest of Eternal Hope, she carried with her a new determination.
“This isn’t right,” she’d said. “We cannot continue to let this go on like it has. I want to know what these dreams mean. I want to know why it is they think they can kill everyone in the galaxy, what spurs them to take and destroy so much. I want to know everything about the K’zzyrch, and then I’m going to put a stop to them. I will end the reign of terror and tyranny that they’ve cast upon this galaxy!”
It wasn’t exactly her words that had Nurse Iratze on edge. Plenty of people wanted to put a stop to the K’zzyrch. There was Jalingan’s group – the best-kept secret in the galaxy – and other groups that refused to give in to those lizards. Neither was it the pain that she’d been through that worried the nurse. It was the way in which she said her words, the tone of almost fanatical determination, the threat that she intended to pose to the entire K’zzyrch species, the determination to stop at nothing.
Citlally had suffered so much, and she knew that so many others had suffered terribly at the hands of the lizards. She would make sure that they suffered the same fate, felt the same pain and loss; she would make sure that they never hurt anyone ever again. Iratze feared that she could not help Citlally in such an endeavor.
“I cannot go with you,” Nurse Iratze insisted every time Citlally invited for along, telling her how nice it would be to have someone who could dress their wounds. “I cannot be a part of this. Truth be told, I don’t think you should either. I healed you once, and I cannot watch you hurt yourself again.”
“I would not be hurting myself,” Citlally told her. “If I do get hurt, it would be at the hands of those foul creatures. Anyway, I don’t intend to let them do it.”
“You need a combat medic,” Nurse Iratze told her. “If you really have to do this, get someone who can go into combat and help you. It cannot be me.”
“We will miss you,” Mannarius told her. “I might have hired you just for one job, but we’ve gotten pretty used to having you around.”
Nurse Iratze nodded. “I should tell you,” she replied, “if you weren’t about to go on this fool’s mission, I might consider staying on board with you. Exploring the galaxy is a lovely endeavor.”
“That’s what we left home to do,” Citlally told her.
“It was?” Endan asked her.
Citlally scowled at him, not appreciateing the reminder of how the k’shyrk venom still affected him now and then.
“That’s what I keep telling you! Anyhow,” she turned back to the nurse, “these lizards messed that up for me, and they messed up the lives of people who weren’t even trying to leave home, people trying to live out their ordinary lives, and the K’zzyrch had to go and hurt them.
“I can’t let this go on,” Citlally added. “That ceremony… all those beautiful words and love and peace… Liileni said they hold one every month. The hundred or so losses that were remebered today are just the fraction of people willing to come out this way to put their loved ones to rest. Think of how much more pain is out there because of the K’zzyrch, the species who only take their bodies to their home planets, the aetherial burials… everything else. I can’t go on exploring the stars knowing the danger that’s out there. Neither can I go home, knowing that I may never be able to venture out again.”
“So now we’re not out here on our exploration honeymoon anymore,” Endan noted. Citlally gave him an angry look.
Iratze couldn’t promise Citlally anything. She couldn’t agree to help her find the right person to join her crew, to help her with her new mission. Citlally seemed to understand. She didn’t press her on the issue, but as nothing was keeping them on Mekse, she asked Mannarius if they could depart after just a couple days’ stay on the planet.
Getting to Gliese 1214 wasn’t that difficult. Dhruv turned up the shielding and took the Lionstar to top speed, racing across light-year after light-year. Jalingan still had his ship docked with the Lionstar, and Dhruv said that he could detect a great deal of radio frequencies coming from to the Silver Lynx.
“He keeps using this unusual call sign,” Dhruv said when Mannarius asked him about it.
“Can you pick up what he’s sending out?” the captain asked, as though suspicious of what his cousin was saying to other ships.
Dhruv shrugged. “Not really. He has it encrypted. It needs a pretty strong key to be unlocked.”
“Must be an important message,” Citlally said. “At least he’s taking care so that only certain people can read it.”
Mannarius wasn’t nearly as impressed as she was. “If he’s looking for his idiot friends, I don’t want him doing it while he is connected to my ship!”
“He doesn’t exactly have a choice, does he?” Citlally asked him. “He would never be able to cross these distances with us if he wasn’t linked to the Lionstar.”
“He should just shut up then,” Mannarius grumbled.
“His encryption can’t be hacked,” Dhruv assured him.
Mannarius did not seem satisfied with his co-pilot’s statement, but he was even less inclined to argue at that moment. He kept his complaint as mere grumbles to himself for the rest of their journey to Gliese 1214.
They flew past the Ophiuchi cloud complex on their way to the nurse’s star. Mannarius let Citlally sit in his room while they glided past the nebula. She leaned back on his old couch, warm in Endan’s embrace, and gazed out the large windows with him. The captain sat with them, off to the side in his armchair, sipping from a warm mug.
“This is always been one of my favorite nebulae to look at,” she said to Endan as she laid her head on his shoulder.
“Why is that?” Mannarius asked her when she didn’t offer up any more information on it.
“She’s always staring’at this one through the telescope,” Endan told him. “Tae her, it’s different from the others.”
“It’s one of the most beautiful nebulae out there,” Citlally explained, though she seemed more interested in watching the nebula than in speaking. “I mean, they’re all beautiful – everything out in space is beautiful – but this one…”
“I think I might know what you mean,” Mannarius said. “Rho Ophiuchi is not a diffuse nebula, and not a supernova remnant; it’s not even a stellar nursery.”
Citlally nodded. “It’s a dark nebula. I mean, not dark in a bad way. I guess… Most of the universe is darkness, isn’t it?”
“I see what you mean,” Mannarius said with a nod.
“Rho Ophiuchi being a dark nebula,” Citlally went on, “means that it has this beauty about it without being bright and sparkling. It says to the rest of the galaxy, ‘this is what I am, and being different isn’t a bad thing’.” But you know what I really love about it?” She paused, wanting to make sure that Mannarius was listening intently. “From Earth, I’ve always thought that it looks like a bird in flight. Something majestic, like a hawk or an eagle. But not just a regular one, something with a little magic to it.”
“You mean like a phoenix?” he asked her.
“You know about those?” she asked him, a smile crossing her face.
The Lion nodded. “It suits you,” he told her. “It’s just like your own story. You’ve been through a lot out here, but you’re coming out of it strong, and you want to help so much, even with all the hurt that you’ve been through.”
“That sounds like a pretty good rebirth story to me,” Endan agreed, smiling down at her.
Citlally shrugged. “Why should I let that stop me? If anything, it spurs me on, knowing that other people have been hurt the same way. I can’t let the galaxy go on like this.”
“You’re something else, aren’t you?” Mannarius asked her, giving her a knowing grin.
“If being something else is what it takes to make the K’zzyrch stop hurting everybody, I’ll take that any day.”
* ** *** ** *
A few hours later, Mannarius was on the bridge when Dhruv saw on his data screens that they were coming upon the right coordinates.
“Red dwarf in sight, captain” the co-pilot told him.
“Great,” the captain said. “Let Nurse Iratze know that she’s almost home.”
Gliese 1214b was bigger than Earth – a lot bigger, Citlally would have emphasized. It was a massive sphere of green plains and snow-capped mountains, and vast oceans that had ebbed and flowed for ages. Nurse Iratze’s home was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, on a wide and vast continent. Mannarius had no trouble getting permission to land the Lionstar, and before long everyone was walking on solid land once again.
Iratze had notified her family ahead of time that she was returning home, and they had replied back inviting everyone over to their home to share a dinner welcoming her back. That was how Citlally learned that the Gliesians lived in homes that were grouped together by family, with a plaza in the middle of all the homes, where long tables were set out for everyone to gather together.
The homes were large and sweeping, each branch of the family living in one section, and each section having many rooms. To Citlally, it was somewhere between a small village and an old mission. Even the structure of the buildings reminded her of the old buildings back on Earth. They were brick and clay, painted with warm and inviting colors.
Iratze took them into the main building, and as soon as the first Gliesian family member saw her, she was lost to embrace after embrace. Everyone wanted her attention, and the ruckus that they caused invited more of the family over. Citlally could hardly see Iratze among all of her family.
“I miss that,” Citlally said as she watched Iratze being welcomed back home.
“Me, too,” Endan agreed, “although I don’t think my family is quite that big.”
“You do have a lot of brothers,” she teased him.
“And sisters,” he reminded her.
“And cousins,” she added.
He chuckled and gave her an embrace of her own. “You have a large family yourself, my Aztec princess, and we’ll be back home to all of them before you know it.”
“I hope so,” she sighed.
“We don’t have to interfere with the K’zzyrch, you know… If it doesn’t feel safe to you.”
“Those monsters are the ones who make it unsafe out here,” she reminded him. “They’re the reason I have to do this!”
Before Endan could reply, Nurse Iratze came over and took her hand. “Come,” the Gliesian nurse told her, “everyone in my family is eager to meet you!”
Citlally quickly found herself caught up in the family of Gliesians, with their fox-like ears and small eyes, everyone surrounding her and smiling. Iratze made as many introductions as she could, but everyone was rushing in to see the special someone whom the nurse had been taking care of for so long.
It wasn’t much later than that when Citlally found herself being escorted outside, into the open plaza in the center of the compound. The tables were already laid out, and people dressed in some sort of uniform – what she thought meant that they were servants – were setting up platters on the long, wide tables.
Citlally and Endan were given a seat together somewhere in the middle of it all, with Iratze across from them, and Jalingan, Dhruv, and Mannarius nearby. The Gliesians seemed more than happy to have Leomians as guests, which is about what Citlally had expected after Nurse Iratze had explained the friendly relationship between the two alien species.
The Gliesians had laid out an extravagant feast. Iratze admitted that it was more than they usually enjoyed, but that they never turned down an opportunity to celebrate any occasion at all. Her return to the planet after being out in space for so long – she had spent months working at various stations even before meeting Mannarius – was certainly a reason to be festive.
There were at least two roasted birds, various smaller pieces of grilled meat, vegetables that Citlally only hoped she’d have the pleasure of tasting again some day, and grains that were nutty and warm. She was even pleased that there was a spicy dish; the Gliesians took great pleasure in seeing that she not only tolerated spice, but very much enjoyed it.
Citlally found herself full before she’d had the chance to try everything, but her gracious hosts were in no hurry to let her stop eating. They slowed down, chatting on and on, wanting to hear all about their journey, giving her and their other guests dish after dish as soon as they felt able to eat another bite.
“The Gliesians really know hospitality,” Citlally remarked later, after they had been shown to rooms not far from Iratze’s.
“It’s great to be here,” Endan agreed. “It’s almost too bad that we cannae stay for long.”
The Gliesians knocked on their door every now and then, treating them to platter after platter of food to try, until at last they said good night. The next morning, they awoke to be served more of a feast than a breakfast. It reminded Citlally of the Leomian breakfast that she’d had with Mannarius, with all of its pastries and meats. They were hardly hungry, given the night before, but they ate as much as they could.
The real surprise came when a new guest was announced. He was a Gliesian, his fur more of a yellow than a red, but not part of Iratze’s extended family. They said that his name was Yatzerrin Minvul, and he had a grin wider than Citlally had ever seen on a fox back home. He sat himself down next to Jalingan and grinned at everyone around him before loading his plate with food.
“Who is this guy?” Mannarius muttered when he saw how familiar he seemed to be with his cousin.
“It’s a secret,” Jalingan told him with a wink.
Mannarius looked away, not the least bit amused.
“Don’t worry,” Jalingan assured him, “he’ll be riding in my ship.”
Mannarius turned back to him, wide-eyed. “Are you saying he’s coming with us?!”
“He doesn’t have a ship of his own,” Jalingan told him.
“I usually ride with some of my friends,” the fox told him, “but they’re already off-world.”
“This is some fool mission you’re going on,” Mannarius grumbled. He looked straight at the Gliesian. “You realize you could get killed doing what he wants to do?”
Yatzerrin shrugged. “My family already knows that what I do is dangerous. They’ve accepted that fact. Actually, they’re pretty proud that I want to stand up to the K’zzyrch.”
Mannarius shook his head in disdain. “Bunch of fools you are.”
“Would you rather let them go on ruining everything?” he asked the Lion.
Mannarius chose not to answer. Citlally, on the other hand, seemed quite pleased to meet him. “I’m really glad you’re coming,” she told him. “When we first encountered the K’zzyrch, I never dreamed that there would be a hidden group of people who actually fight back against them.”
“We’ve been around for ages,” the fox replied. “You just don’t know it because we keep our secret so well.”
“Back on Earth,” Endan told him, “we’ve ne’er even heard of the K’zzyrch.”
Yatzerrin’s eyes widened in surprise at what he’d just heard. “You’ve really never heard of them? They’re one of the worst menaces in this part of the Orion Arm!”
“Well, Earth is quite a few light years from here, you should know,” she replied.
“Most of their reach must be in the direction further away from your home planet,” the Gliesian replied. “So when do we leave, anyway? It’s too bad you don’t want to say stay and do any sightseeing.”
“Maybe another time,” Citlally told him. “And you can show me around.”
“I would love to!” The fox grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“We should leave after breakfast,” Jalingan suggested. “Iratze’s family has been very welcoming, but we need to meet up with some of our team at the next station. They’re expecting us.”
“I’ll be ready,” Mannarius agreed.
The Gliesians where sad to see Citlally and the others go, but once breakfast was cleared away, Dhruv and his captain started their pre-flight procedures.
“Promise me you’ll keep in touch,” Iratze said as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
“Of course I will,” Citlally assured her. “I have your contact information.”
She and Endan wrapped the nurse in their arms. Iratze blinked, but returned the embrace.
“Thank you for everything,” Citlally whispered.
“You saved her life,” Endan breathed. “I cannae thank ye enough for bein’ there for her.”
“It’s why I studied medicine,” Iratze replied. “I’m so glad she’s healthy now.”
“And we’re not going to let anyone else get hurt by those fiends,” Citlally added.
“I’ll be watching the news feeds,” the nurse said. “Farewell for now.”
Citlally gave her one last hug before taking Endan’s hand and heading into the Lionstar. Jalingan helped Yatzerrin climb up to his ship, and they sat together while Mannarius finished preparing to leave the planet.