The Nebula's Tide

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How to Proceed

The engine room blast doors slowly opened, moaning under the begrudged weight of grinding metal. Steam shot out from the opening, the air quivering with the escaping heat. Through the cloudy mirage, an alien emerged. Oblivious to the suffocating temperature, he casually walked on, carrying with him a Glass Pad on which his four eyes were glued with focused intent. Nyoto, the Monoceros’ head engineer, was a Star Child, a rare subspecies celestial whose people were most well known for their immunity to the universe’s harshest conditions. This included the vacuum of space itself, from which -it was hypothesized- the Star Children were born.

Walking on four legs, The Star Child boarded a nearby elevator and pressed a button for the top deck. A summons from the Captain was the only thing that could pull him away from his beloved Quantum Drive, especially after such a successful jump. Scrolling through his Glass Pad, he analyzed the waves of data as they rolled in from the engine’s computer. He made note of the cells’ bonding rate, their level of depletion and the circus of chemical activity taking place within the drive as it settled and cooled. Most technology spoke to him, its electricity and currents singing in a language only he could understand. The Quantum Drive, however, was something completely different. As far as Nyoto was concerned, the drive was alive, and it had become his pleasure and purpose to study and maintain it. The Quantum technology, after all was one of a kind, not unlike himself.

Even for a Star Child, Nyoto was a conundrum. Most Star Children took on an ethereal appearance, choosing not to contain their essence within the limitations of a carbon body but encompassing themselves in a gossamer cloud of consciousness. It’s no surprise that the first astronauts to encounter their species traveling freely through the depths of space confused these beings for ghosts or angels. Unlike his space-wandering siblings, however, Nyoto surrounded himself in the permanence of a material form. His quadrupedal stature made for an immovable stance, his second torso and arms allowed him to interact with objects and his environment, and -most permanent of all- his impenetrable skull, from which sprouted sharpened tusks, twisting horns, and a beak-like plate that ran down the center of his long face like a protective helm.

One might have thought he designed his form for battle, though in all trueness Nyoto couldn’t remember his forming, let alone the reason behind it. One of the downfalls of being an ageless celestial: his body lived forever while his memories did not.

The elevator doors opened, revealing the towering frame of Cono the Calian. Nyoto looked up from his Glass Pad at the swaying creature. Cono took a deep sniff and smiled, his lips peeling back to reveal the sharp jaws that made up his long muzzle.

“Ahhh, Nyoto. You’ve been summoned too, eh?” the Calian said in his slow, deliberate way of speaking. Bowing his head to stoop into the now cramped elevator, he sauntered inside. Nyoto said nothing, side-stepping to make room for the ghoulish creature. Once Cono’s long tail finally crossed the threshold, the doors closed and they continued their journey up.

Nyoto would have liked to finish the ride in silence, but his comrade, oblivious as always, continued his attempt to engage him. As he spoke his head bobbed back and forth, swaying on the long extension of his sloping neck.

“Must be about the newcomer,” Cono said. “I haven’t lost her scent since she came aboard. It’s almost like, a mountain breeze.” Nyoto ignored him, working instead on his report for the engine log. The Calian’s head hung heavy as it swayed over the engineer, peering lazily through his mess of hair to look at the Star Child’s Glass Pad.

Tossing his nose back to the door, he said, “Well done with the jump, by the way. It was one of our smoothest yet.”

The elevator doors slid open and Cono strode out. Nyoto followed suit. The bone shield that masked his face made him almost expressionless. But a glint of pride shone in his alien eyes. It had been an excellent jump.

When the pair entered the Captain’s office, they found Treta and Dioli waiting for them. The room was dark, save for the light of the surrounding monitors. A slight glow was added from Nyoto’s starry hair as it floated, suspended and defiant of the artificial gravity around them.

The Star Child tucked his Glass Pad into a satchel he wore. Upon approaching his Captain, he touched two claws to his forehead and dipped them through the air in his usual greeting.

“Captain Treta,” he said, awaiting his orders.

“Thank you for joining us, gentleman. We need to discuss our assault on the Tractatio Center.” Treta tapped the desk screen as he spoke, causing star maps, blueprints, and pirated contracts to appear on the cabin walls around them.

“Negotiations with the Hantae captive have been successful, all thing considered,” he continued. “She’s agreed to help us, but we need to keep a close eye on her at all times. Her loyalty to the Federation makes her a serious risk, even with our threat to her sister.”

Nyoto folded his arms behind his back, “My knowledge of the female’s involvement only goes as far as her purchase, Captain, I haven’t been briefed since. We have her sister?”

“No, we don’t,” Dioli cut in. His tone was heavy with frustration, causing Nyoto to assume the two had been debating this prior to his and Cono’s arrival. “It’s a foolish bluff. The Federation has eyes on her sister, we do not. Treta just tapped into their video network from the cold face’s I.D chip and used it to scare her.”

“A fortunate find, really,” Treta said calmly, unfazed by his first mate’s demeanor. “Alien satellites aren’t allowed in the Ursusian atmosphere, not even the Federation. They’re breaking the treaty by spying on her family and Kala clearly doesn’t know. That intel will come in handy later on.”

“Kala?” Cono asked, his head bobbing up curiously.

“The Hantae prisoner,” Treta said. “Dr. Kala Leahy, she’s the individual we’re discussing.”

The Calian nodded, though he appeared as oblivious as ever.

“We can’t trust a word she says.” Dioli shook his head as he spoke, “We’re risking this entire mission on the likelihood that she believes we have men on her home planet, which we don’t. If she even stops to think about if for a moment she’ll realize how impossible that is. We only picked up the woman a few days ago. How could we have gotten someone to Ursus that quickly? Your intimidation on her must have worked in the moment, Treta, but I doubt it will last. And when she realizes the truth, her intel will lose all validity. Chancing our assault on that could result in drastic losses and that is not a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Neither am I,” Treta said coolly. “Which is why we’re going to turn our bluff into reality.”

“How?” Dioli asked, already disliking where this was going.

“I made the girl a bargain: That my men would keep an eye on her sister until the job was done. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

“And which of us do you expect to infiltrate a Federation occupied planet?” Dioli scoffed.

Treta looked intently at his old friend.

“Fuck you. No.” The devourer pushed away from the desk. Rubbing a hand over his face, Dioli met his Captain with a challenging glare. “It can’t be done, and I’m not interested. I conceptualized this assault, there’s no way you’re sending me away during it!”

“Vico,” Treta reasoned, “of all the aliens aboard this ship, you are the most likely to pass as a Federation species. I know you can enter a colonized atmosphere because you’ve done it before. So I’m ordering you to accept this mission. Go to Ursus, find Veska Leahy and inform her that her sister is alive and in our care.”

“Captain,” Dioli tried to protest, but Treta quickly cut him off.

“You will remain with the girl until our arrangement with the Hantae is complete. Is that understood?”

The first mate could only stare at him in silent disbelief. An uncomfortable tension hung in the air between them. Even the Calian and Star Child could feel it. When Dioli didn’t protest, Treta turned back to his desk monitor, confident that the matter was settled.

“Once you make contact, you will send a cross-quadrant-communication to prove you’re with the girl. We’ll use that to solidify the doctor’s cooperation. You’ll depart as soon as this meeting concludes.” Dioli leaned against the back window, his arms folded, his head down. For the time being, Treta would let his first mate’s insubordination slide. He knew Dioli would do what he asked and had faith in the Devourer’s ability to complete his task with stealth and precision. It was unfortunate that he was the one to be sent away. But that was the way it had to be.

The Asmurian turned his attention to the Star Child. Treta and Dioli had consulted with Nyoto on the Tractatio strategy since its earliest conception. After they initially acquired the station’s blueprints from their Federation mole, the ship’s head engineer was the first person they called to examine them. He had quickly identified that the prints were not only incomplete, but intentionally deceptive. The location of the Aceso power-cores within the facility was unmarked. On top of that, the blueprint’s lack of a Power Center and delusional layout of electrical channels raised some serious red flags. Even within the private medical database, the Federation and Tractatio corporation were keeping their secrets. Realizing this had forced the pirates to put their plan on hold, at least until they could acquire insider information that would make the mission viable. With the purchase of Dr. Leahy, they now had the info they needed.

Captain Treta brought up Kala’s files, casting them on the cabin walls for his team to see. “Let’s get you caught up, Nyoto. Dr. Leahy, a Federation starship surgeon, was recently stationed at the Tractatio center. As a high-ranking medical officer, she was granted access to their primary research facilities and should have first-hand knowledge of the cores exact location within.”

“Should have.” Dioli said, just loud enough to be heard. Treta’s large ears twitched at the snarky remark but he chose to ignore it.

“According to her file,” The Captain continued, “Leahy concluded a six-month service at Tractatio just before we acquired her, which means her knowledge of the guard shifts and rotation schedule is current enough to help us avoid them. Which brings us to our primary conflict.” Nyoto and Cono watched as the doctor’s files were replaced with private military contracts. The Tractatio center, it seemed, had decided the usual protection of Federation officers wasn’t enough. Instead, they had contracted a team of Gen-Eight Auto-Soldiers from the Federation’s Circuit division.

“Is everyone familiar with this model?” Treta asked, crossing his arms as he studied the reactions in the room.

“Now I see why you’re being so cautious,” Nyoto said quietly, walking closer to the nearest monitor. A 3D model of a standard Gen-Eight spun slowly before their eyes. Most android soldiers were a nuisance, but not impossible to deal with. The Monoceros had spent a great deal of its treasure investing in EMP weaponry and other similarly disruptive technologies designed solely to disable such enemies in combat. The Gen-Eight, however, proved so-far immune to such tactics. Nyoto hypothesized that the Federation was using a unique power source, perhaps even the Spectral Flame, to keep them so resilient. As his four eyes poured over the automaton and its data, he couldn’t help but crave the chance to get his hands on one. If he could find a way to restrain it, perhaps he could get past its armor and learn how it worked.

“This intel just came in from Kit,” Treta said. “The footage we managed to hack from the Tractatio security cameras confirms their presence but gives no clue about their rotation or overall movement. Of course, the rooms we want to see, are not included on the general feed.”

“What’s the big deal?” Cono asked, his bobbing head sloping sleepily toward the Captain. “Just another imitator, right?”

Treta looked to Nyoto to answer. “Thus far, typical EMP attacks have proven ineffective against the Gen-Eights,” the engineer explained. “It could be something with their modded exterior plating, or their internal power source, we don’t yet know.”

“What we do know,” Dioli chimed in, “is that when Captain Lucan encountered theses autos during a recent skirmish in the Janal system, it resulted in his death and the lives of his crew.”

“Captain Lucan is dead?” Nyoto was shocked. “…He was a commendable fighter.”

“Lucan was a warrior. His death will bring him honor and guide him to the divine.” Treta’s voice rumbled deep within his chest, the melodic stoicism of his words striking each man in the room with a weighted sense of reverence. Their heads bowed in respect for their fallen comrade.

“Without sufficient intel on the Gen-Eights’ defenses, engaging them in combat is too high a risk,” Treta continued, “We’ll need to focus our strategy on avoiding them if possible; take advantage of any shift changes, rotation schedules or else attempt to draw them away with decoy assault tactics.”

At this, Cono perked up. “Is that where I come in, Captain?” he asked, his tail dipping through the air.

“That’s what we need to discuss. Personally, I’m not comfortable chancing your savagery against their weapons, Cono. If we weren’t dealing with autos, it’d be another matter.”

“I’ve taken out imitators before,” the Calian stated confidently.

“Yes, but only after we disabled their artillery,” Dioli chimed in. “Each Gen-Eight is packing a fully modded particle cannon and Federation-grade obsidian assault rifle. Even with your speed, you couldn’t avoid that barrage in these confined corridors. Now, if we could get you into some armor…”

Cono rolled his head, a hacking sound rising from his throat in protest. “I hate armor. Too restrictive. I can’t move, can’t kill right in that body prison.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Nyoto said, still studying the Gen-Eight files. “Armor would do little against this tech. Our shields could absorb one strike, maybe two at the most from one of these.” His eyes shifted at last from the screen to his Captain. “Pardon my hesitation, but are you certain we want to risk this now? Even if the Hantae’s intel is accurate, these autos will no doubt be glued to guarding the cores. Their programing is relentless. We can’t rely on morality to manipulate the situation if things get messy. Which, considering all the factors at play, is a very real possibility.”

Treta leaned over his desk, the orange glow from the center screen casting dramatic shadows across his face. Leading up to this day, he had pondered the same question. The Monoceros was successful in its plundering because they were smart about their attacks. They studied their prey, examined its weaknesses, and never took on a challenge if the danger significantly outweighed the reward. But with Kit’s most recent report, new information had emerged. The Tractatio Station and its valuable treasure was no longer fair game to plunder whenever they pleased. Time had now become a factor. If they wanted this bounty they needed to seize it quickly.

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” he said. This statement, quiet and cold, earned a stare from every member in the room. “During his surveillance, Kit intercepted a correspondence from Tractatio. Apparently, the center has ’served its purpose’. Their tests are complete, and the results are confirmed. They’re planning to pull the cores next month.”

“What?” Nyoto all but shouted, “And take them where?” Even as a secondary addition to this mission, the engineer had set his sights on acquiring the cores and the rare opportunity to study them up close. Yes, the plan was to sell them, but with the understanding that he would be allowed exclusive access to analyze them first.

“Where else? To their military lab in the central ring.” Dioli said.

Cono let out an eerie chuckle, “They go in there, they’re gone for good.”

“Which is why it needs to be now,” Treta stressed. “We’ve committed too much time and too many resources for this haul not to pay off. One too many opportunities have evaded my eye while in pursuit of those cores. I’ll not let that sacrifice be in vain.” The Captain’s words hung heavy in the air, tempting any man to challenge him. No one dared.

Straightening again to his commanding height he addressed his crew. “This mission means more than a bounty. We all know what the Federation will do once Tractatio finishes their research. We’ve been fortunate with the Quantum technology thus far. Its gifted us the upper hand, but if the Federation dissects an rebuilds the Aceso molecule it’ll mean a significant power shift in their favor.” He paused, reading the uneasy energy in the room as it rolled off his men in waves. Given the chance to dwell in this uncertainty, it would surely drown them. But not today.

Much to their surprise, Captain Treta smiled, his predator’s teeth cutting brightly through the darkness. “Which is why we won’t postpone. We will be strategic. And we will succeed.”

Nyoto stopped to consider the facts. Curiously, rising above his logistic assessments and weighing of outcomes, a very different thought emerged. “Why are we not telling the Hantae about this? She’s gained your favor, Captain, so she must be at least somewhat reasonable. If she knew Tractatio’s intensions, what they’re actually using the cores for, she’d be more willing to help us.”

Treta’s smile faded then, his features settling under a solemn shade. “She’s not ready to know the truth -not to that extent. It’s too… foreign from what she thinks she knows.” He shook his head, as if dissuading himself from something. “No, she wouldn’t accept it. If we want to bring her to the light, we’ll need to do so gradually.”

Dioli looked between his captain and the other men. The room remained silent. Pushing off from the wall, he leaned over the Captain’s desk and quickly engaged the screen, summoning the facility blueprints to the surrounding displays.

“If this is going to work, strategy will be our primary ally. Now, I’ve already identified the best location for a hull breach so all we need to discuss is extraction. Cono, I think it would be best for you to stay on board and don’t neglect your medication for this one. The goal of this mission is stealth. We use the Coldface’s intel to place our lure. Then, once the breathing guns are out of the way we, ideally, drop in behind the Auto’s, take what we need and leave.” Cono and Nyoto gathered around the screen, following the jumping dance of glowing lines and markings as they appeared beneath Dioli’s fingers.

While the two nodded, weighing in with their individual expertise, Dioli cast his captain a sideways glance. He wasn’t happy with the order, and swore he’d only deliver to its most fundamental request. But he respected Treta’s word and would perform the deed assigned to him. If the old stray thought Dioli wouldn’t see the planning of his mission to the end, however, he had another thing coming.

My goddamned mission, Dioli thought. But the Asmurian met his gaze with the same glowing optimism that the Devourer had come to lament. Despite his darker demons, he couldn’t help but be comforted by it and returned the look with a goodhearted nod. Treta’s grin split his face and he clapped Dioli on the back with enough force to bowl him over. Luckily for the first mate, his stance had grown sturdier over the years… practically built to expect such fervent shows of affection. The pat knocked some of the air out of his lungs, but he returned the gesture with a smile.

Rejuvenated by his comrade’s engagement, Treta’s whole body electrified. With a flourish, he whipped off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and joined the Devourer, Calian and Star Child in their huddle. All faces were alight, cast in the neon orange of the command screen’s luminous glow. Soon their plans would be complete. All that remained after that was the summoning of Dr. Leahy. Then the assault could begin.

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