The double doors to Treta’s office opened, welcoming the captain and the doctor back to the dimly lit quarters and the small party of pirates that awaited them there. Kala’s hand remained in the crook of Treta’s arm, held in place by his paw in a somewhat reassuring, somewhat controlling way. As they approached the Captain’s desk, Kala scanned the faces in the room. Only one was familiar to her.
The Calian’s head followed her movements as they approached, his eyes obscured by the thick blond hair that hung around his snout and long sloping neck. She could hear him sniffing the air as he studied her scent. Kala thought back to her xenology studies and what she had read about the impossible speed of the Calian’s deadly strike. The way he was watching her now, she couldn’t help but hold onto Treta’s arm a little tighter. Cono, if she was remembering his name correctly, gave them a sleepy smile.
Kala could not identify the other two species who stood with him. The closer of the two reminded her of the creatures of legend from her planet’s mythology, its body starting one way and then twisting upward to become something else. The third being stood back from the group, observing in the shadows with its hands folded politely. This alien appeared female, and apart from her fin-tipped tail, looked for all intents and purposes like any Federation species might. The bioluminescents on her violet skin, however, made her stand apart, cloaking the woman in a soft, starry glow.
“Dr. Leahy, may I introduce Nyoto, our head engineer,” Treta gestured to the quadrupedal creature, “and Syita T’sanara, the ship’s therapist,” the woman in the corner bowed her head, giving Kala a polite smile. “You’re already familiar with Cono, our assault specialist. Everyone, this is Dr. Kala Leahy. She’s graciously agreed to act as our informant for this mission.”
Kala cleared her throat, pulling her hand from the Asmurian’s grasp. Not seeming to mind, he touched her shoulder and motioned to his captain’s chair, “If you would please take a seat, doctor.”
Kala, doing her best to feign confidence whilst surrounded by such foreign company, cautiously made her way through the pirates and around the desk to sit on the Asmurian’s throne. Treta pushed in the chair behind her, causing Kala’s muscles to tense as she recalled the last time she sat with her back to her captor. As soon as she was settled however, he politely stepped away.
“Nyoto, Cono, Dioli and I have conferenced on the strategy for our attack, all we require now is your knowledge of the cores’ location within Tractatio and the security postings and rotation schedule of the Gen-Eights that are guarding them.” As Treta spoke, he activated the screen on his desk, pulling up a fairly accurate schematic of the medical station where Kala had been assigned. She skimmed the shimmering outline and looked again at the other faces in the room. All eyes were on her.
It was then that she noticed the absence of the first mate Dioli and his Heterochromia gaze. Kala couldn’t help but wonder where the man was, especially since his name had been specifically mentioned.
Before she could ask about it, Treta spoke again, “Are you familiar with Athanians, Kala?”
Her mouth shut as she glanced between the two individuals whose species she couldn’t identify. “I am not.” She said plainly, glancing back at the captain.
“Syita, here, is an Athanian.” He said coolly. “Which means she’s also an empath. I’ve asked her to stand in for this meeting and monitor your responses. If you lie to us, Kala, or attempt to give us deceptive information, Syita will inform me. Let’s not lapse on the progress we’ve made thus far. Be truthful in your responses, and this mission can conclude swiftly and painlessly for all parties involved.”
While Treta spoke, Kala studied the woman in the corner, trying to decide if she believed the captain’s warning. For all she knew, he could be bluffing to force her cooperation.
Kala had heard tell of alien species that had developed something akin to psychic abilities, but never to the extreme that Treta now implied. In her research, the only academic account in the Federation’s records she had come across pertained to some plants and a few small mammals. If a sentient species existed that could read other people’s emotions, wouldn’t she have known about it?
Before this experience, Kala had been fairly confident in her understanding of the universe. The more time she spent on the Monoceros, however, the more she began to question what she knew to be true. It inspired a great deal of uncertainty for the doctor which in turn challenged her studious mind.
“How can I be certain of this?” Her question was aimed at the captain. “So far as I know such abilities….” Kala stopped. A strange feeling surrounded her suddenly. She turned again to the woman in the shadows. Of all her lights, the brightest shone from the center of Syita’s chest. Waves seemed to pulse from that spot like blood from a heartbeat, igniting each glowing dot on her skin consecutively across her shoulders, down her arms and across her flesh to all the points on the Athanian’s body.
Kala could feel Syita’s presence with her. It made her skin prickle, but the sensation chased away all thoughts of doubt. She swallowed. “I see.”
Syita gave the doctor another polite nod. Her essence remained.
Wetting her dry lips, Kala faced the orange glow of the master screen, trying to focus on something that she knew for certain.
Before her crystal blue eyes shone the familiar hallways and med bays of the Tractatio center, each room cradling a specific memory. There was the docking bay where she first stepped off the Federation shuttle, eager for the good work she was about to perform. And here was the research lab where she consulted with colleagues about their most recent developments and the new tests they could try.
To Kala, this had been a place of great importance, that imbued its importance onto her and all who worked toward its cause. The Federation entrusted them with a valuable power and an almost sacred task: to not only stabilize the rapid acceleration of one of the universe’s most cancerous diseases, but to manufacture a cure that would banish it forever. The work was noble enough, let alone the relationships she had built with her patients along the way.
Kala had memorized each of their faces. The stories of their lives and families, she knew by heart. What would happen to them, if the one thing that was keeping them alive was suddenly ripped away? What would happen to them if it wasn’t? Pestilentia was a merciless killer that chose to savor its victims, eating at a person for as long as their body could stand it. Those infected could live on for several years before the disease finally consumed them. It was a miserable existence, but it was life. A few shots from the Monoceros’ plasma cannons would mean an instant death for everyone she had worked so hard to save.
In a sad attempt to justify her actions, Kala tried to reassure herself that at least this way the pirates would leave her patients in peace. The station’s officers could call for help and return the sick to their home worlds and families where other coping remedies could be applied. They could live a little longer. Was that worth her betrayal? She hoped… in some way…
Kala sniffed, wiping the little drops of guilt from her eye before they could fall. Scooting closer to the desk she enlarged the image on the screen. The men gathered closer.
“Um, I was never -uh, in the room where the cores were kept. The Tractatio scientists were the only ones with clearance. They kept the cores secluded in the central wing of the facility, here.” She spun the diagram 90 degrees and pointed to an area marked ‘Drainage and Filtration.’ “There’s a reinforced blast door here that leads into the central wing and two autos posted outside.”
“Were you ever present when the doors were open?” the one named Nyoto asked. Its arms were folded across its armored chest, the gaze from its four eyes as heavy as stone.
Kala paused, taking a moment to study the fascinating features of the creature’s face. “Once or twice. But I couldn’t see much,” she added hastily. “I only ever glimpsed it in passing.” She looked again at the blueprints, trying to fill in the empty spaces with what she could recall. “I remember seeing a short hallway beyond the door and what looked like a circular room at the end. It had glass windows and I could see some of the scientists walking around inside.”
“How many Gen-eights did you see beyond the doors?” Treta asked. His tone was serious, this was all business now.
“None,” she said, blinking up at him. “Not that I can remember any way. Like I said, it was just for a moment.” Kala watched as his cat-like eyes jumped toward Syita, checking his lie detector -or whatever she was- to see if the doctor was telling the truth. The therapist gave another confirming nod and Treta returned his gaze to Kala.
In the low light of the dark room, she noticed, the Asmurian’s pupils were drastically dilated. It gave his face an animal quality, the depths of which mesmerized her. Orange lights from the screen reflected off the infinite black of his eyes, like far away beacons peering through an inky night.
Kala knew she was staring, and if she were in different company she would have stopped, not wanting to be rude. But with Captain Treta, and with all of his alien crew, Kala found she couldn’t look away. These people were so different than any she had encountered before. For one thing, their faces made different expressions than the ones she was used to, and some of them, like Nyoto, made no expression at all. How else could she tell what any of them were thinking? How else could she be aware of what they might do if she didn’t watch them as carefully as they watched her?
The part of her mind capable of a bigger-picture perspective, marveled at the game they all seemed to be playing: studying one another though calculating glances with an infantile chance of actually pertaining any real understanding or motive. Still, that wouldn’t stop their shared innate sense of curiosity. It was the same sense that possessed all astronauts and space travelers regardless of race, planet or creed. It was the unwritten law. No one left their home for the cold expanse of space without a need to wonder, and a wish to understand.
“So there are two autos posted outside,” Treta continued, tapping the screen on either side of the blast doors where two dots now stood guard. “From what you’ve described, there must be an interior chamber which would require at least two more guarding the cores from within. Where else have you seen them?”
She blinked, her eyes running over the charts, trying to remember if she’d seen Gen-Eights anywhere else in the facility. “Soldiers aren’t allowed in the infirmary and I’ve never seen an auto in there. Same goes for the common areas and mess.” She paused, thinking, the weight of everyone’s eyes on her not helping with her concentration. “Unless I’m mistaken… I believe the only other place I’ve seen them is in the docking bay, here, also a pair.”
Kala tapped the screen this time, marking two dots where she recalled them standing. Autos had always been a little unsettling to her, but the Gen-Eights were downright frightening which, in the very least, made them more memorable. They were built like men, with sleek, black armored platting that mimicked muscle imbued with a sense of metallic malice. Their facelessness only confirmed the truth of what these things were, emotionless soldiers that never disobeyed.
“Talk to us about security rotations,” Nyoto chimed in again. “According to your file, you’re of high enough rank to be included on emergency detail. That usually means a semi-regular overview of shift changes and turnover. Did Tractatio have something like that?”
“They did,” she said. “We were debriefed about it once every two weeks.”
“Shit, that often?” Cono said, suddenly thrusting himself into the conversation. “We’ve raided banks that weren’t that uptight.”
Treta cleared his throat and raised a warning eyebrow at his assault officer. “When was your last debriefing, doctor?” he asked.
“A week before I left.”
“Good.” Treta sounded pleasantly surprised. “Then we should have, what, three more days before the next change?” She nodded “Which means we’ll arrive with a day to spare.” This news seemed to brighten the pirates’ spirits. If she was reading it right, the group’s demeanor was changing. They uncrossed their arms, leaned in closer and spoke more animatedly to one another. Asking her questions with unguarded zeal and interest, they no longer hid behind the stoicism that had previously cast them in stone.
Kala couldn’t help but be caught up in the energy of it all and did her best to answer their questions as clearly as she could. They gathered her intel quickly, for there wasn’t much that she could share, and spent the next half hour debating how best to use it. The back and forth of ideas was so electric that at one point Kala caught herself almost chiming in, practically eager to offer her own solution of how to sneak by the Federation soldiers undetected. Her mouth opened and shut in the same instance, her face flushing purple, horrified by her almost-behavior.
A soft laugh, inaudible to all but Kala’s Hantae ears, twinkled from the corner. Syita, still monitoring her reactions, was evidently amused by Kala’s embarrassment. Luckily, none of the men seemed to notice.
“It’s settled then,” Treta said triumphantly, startling Kala back to the conversation at hand. “Just to be certain, Nyoto I want you to run a full diagnostic on our likelihood for success. We’ll go over the numbers in the morning and make any necessary calibrations then.”
“Aye, Captain. Unless you need anything more from me now, I’d like to take my leave and begin immediately.” Nyoto was already reaching into a satchel at its side, pulling out and activating a glass pad that looked as if it had seen better days.
“Of course, thank you for your input. You are dismissed.”
Nyoto gave the captain something akin to a salute and then turned its attention to Syita. The strange alien said nothing, exchanging only a look with the Athanian that must have conveyed some hidden message only she could detect. The corner of her lips turned up just slightly, hinting at a secret smile she was trying to hide. Their exchange came and went in a moment and in the next, Nyoto was on his way out the double doors, fingers already tapping against the glowing glass of its screen.
“How about me, Cap?” Cono asked lazily, his drowsy tones reminding Kala of his drugged-up state.
“You’re free as well. I’ll come to you tomorrow for more.”
Cono’s heavy neck bobbed in affirmation. When his body moved toward the exit, the Calian’s head swiveled back around, seeking out Kala’s slightly alarmed expression. “Oh, and it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Kala. I hope we can spend some time before you leave and get more… acquainted.” He smiled then, in what she honestly thought he meant as a friendly gesture. Seeing the Calian’s sharp jagged teeth made it difficult for her to smile back, so she gave him a polite nod instead.
The doors closed behind him, leaving just the three of them.
“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” Treta asked her then. Kala had to think. She should be starving but with everything that was going on, the stress of it all had successfully pushed any thought of food from her mind.
“A day? I think?”
“That won’t do,” Treta said, practically under his breath. He sounded disappointed. “Step outside for just a moment, Doctor. I’ll have a word with Syita and then we’ll get you something to eat.”