The Nebula's Tide

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The Mess and the Rain

On the vast expanse of the particle horizon, Federation Space was a blur comprised of seven colonized quadrants. The Zeta Quadrant, number six of the seven, was a hydrogen-rich, malachite sea -its breast blossoming with the civilizations and cultures of ten thousand worlds. One after another, these islands blinked to life as dots of light against the black of Dioli’s screen, only to extinguish as suddenly as they arrived. Entire solar systems, encompassing a plethora of planets and people, were reduced in an instant to a mere blip on the trans-celestial radar, before vanishing again into the darkness of space.

Dioli, slumped in the deep curve of his pilot’s chair, watched the passing light show with disgruntled boredom. Traveling from one quadrant to another took several days, even with a one-man shuttle jumping at top speed through hyperspace. Wearily, he checked the navigation system again for the thousandth time.

Destination: Ursus. Estimated travel time: eight hours and twenty-three minutes until expected arrival.

When Dioli had envisioned the execution of his Tractatio heist, he had seen himself on the Monoceros’ battle deck, flanked by a small team of his best men and cloaked in the electric thrill that possessed him before every assault. Sitting here now in the mind-numbing silence of a cramped combat cruiser was a pathetic replacement for that once noble dream.

Hours of space travel lay before him as the Tractatio Center drifted farther and farther behind. With the autopilot engaged, there was nothing more to do now than prepare for his “mission.”

“Go to Ursus, find Veska Leahy and inform her that her sister is alive and in our care.”

The first mate sighed. With a push from his boot against the dashboard he sent his seat spinning. Dioli grabbed a Glass Pad from his bag as he swung past, activated it and stopped the chair once he again faced the particle shield. Feet up, and jacket unbuttoned, he proceeded to scroll through the files downloaded from Kala’s chip, looking for any specifics that would help him locate his target.

The first half of this trip had already been spent researching Ursus’ border protection and tans-planetary travel customs. Not surprisingly, Hantae airspace was hyper regulated. Nothing entered their atmosphere without someone in Homeworld Security knowing about it. Not wanting to draw attention to his arrival, Dioli determined that the most discrete approach would be to enter “legally.”

After cross-referencing the Monoceros’ archive of purchased ship credentials and interplanetary travel permits, he settled on a package that he was fairly confident would grant him passage without requiring an interior scan. Certain dignitaries and some elite tradespeople received preapproved clearance like this when traveling between worlds. Paying said individuals for access to their authorization was a high priority investment for the Monoceros and her crew.

Dioli predicted the credentials chosen would grant him 42 hours of undisturbed travel on the planet’s surface. In that window of time he needed to isolate the girl, deliver his message, confirm with the Monoceros and exit the atmosphere before suspicions could arise.

As Dioli read through the report in his hands, he again noted the unusual amount of intel the Federation had gathered on Dr. Leahy’s life outside of service. Surely, keeping records this detailed about an officer’s extended family couldn’t be standard procedure, he thought. Though if he really stopped to think about it, the idea didn’t surprise him. Keeping tabs on unexpecting civilians played perfectly into Dioli’s view of the Federation brand.

However, regardless of protocol, the fact remained that someone in the Federation was monitoring the doctor’s personal contacts, which reemphasized for Dioli the need for discretion when the time came to approach Veska. He recalled the satellite feed of their family property and the ever-watching gaze of Federation eyes.

With a few flourished taps, Dioli pulled up the video. Seeing what the Federation could see meant he would also know their blind spots. His trained eyes scanned the scene, quickly identifying possible points of entry. Lucky for him, the Leahy home was backed against a large geological formation, a cliff face by the looks of it, covered in active vegetation growth which could provide a fair amount of coverage if approached from behind. With a pair of zero gravity climbers, he was sure he could descend the cliffs without much problem.

With time to spare, Dioli began scrolling back though the hours of recorded footage. He would do as the Federation had done and monitor the young botanist’s comings and goings, planning the opportune moment when Veska Leahy was most likely alone. As he watched, he tried to dissect what he could of her behavior. If he could somehow gage the woman’s temperament, he might better prepare an appropriate approach when the time came to engage her. Would she respond more to reason, or persuasion? Intimidation or fear? Whatever her nature, she would listen to him. Given the circumstances, she had no other choice.

Kala turned as the doors to Treta’s cabin opened. Syita emerged, followed closely by her Captain. The doctor dared a quick, albeit impertinent glance at the Athanian as she passed, taking in the woman’s full form as it was cast in the light of the outer stardeck.

Kala had known only one other intelligent species that went without clothing. Since Syita was the only of her kind that Kala had ever seen, she was left to wonder if the therapist’s nudity was a personal choice or one practiced by all her people. True, the woman’s body lacked the common ‘vulnerability’ shared by most alien females, and she didn’t’ appear to be cold or uncomfortable. So, Kala could see no logical reason why she should cover herself. Still, the childish questions that arose in her mind remained, and as such Syita’s name was decisively added to Kala’s mental list of people she hoped to speak with while still aboard the ship.

“Shall we make our way to the mess hall, doctor?” Treta asked, the sudden confidence of his voice making her jump. Kala blinked and glanced once more over her shoulder as Syita descended down the staircase by the bow, the tendrils of her hair waving a hypnotic goodbye before disappearing from view.

“Sure, why not.” She replied, meeting the Asmurian’s gaze.

“By your leave,” he said, leaning forward in a slight bow. “Follow me.” And he strode forward, leading Kala toward the same stairway and down into the ship’s interior.

The Monoceros’ mess hall was buzzing with activity. Standing in the doorway with the Captain at her side, Kala scanned the length of the room, trying her best to identify as many species as she could. Most of them she recognized from her xenology studies, but some remained unfamiliar.

The energy here was alive with conversation, debate and laughter. As a stranger to their camaraderie, Kala found herself equally trepid and yet wanting to engage. The mess at Tractatio and on board the Federation Cruiser had often felt intimidating, but in a way she’d since grown accustomed to. Kala was used to the quick glances from her fellow officers, the polite, closed-mouth smiles they made when she sat beside them. Every true intention there, was masked beneath several layers of calculation and courtesy. It had taken Kala almost a year offworld to understand how to interpret this behavior, let alone learn not to be offended by it. After all, she once reassured herself, they’re at least trying to be nice. And that’s what really matters, right?

On this ship, and in this company, similar gallantries were clearly not in use. Some of the crew blatantly stared at Kala, others, it seemed, couldn’t care less. But what struck her most about their behavior was the honesty of it all. After making eye contact with several individuals in the room, Kala felt fairly confident that she instantly knew whether or not they liked her. There was no guessing here, and this realization relieved her, in a way she couldn’t have expected.

Treta, noting her intense study of the room, leaned down to her level so he could speak clearly in her ear. He kept his voice low, mindful of her hearing. “I’ve made a ship-wide decree guaranteeing your safety. Lude behavior is not permitted aboard my vessel, regardless of your arrival, but I thought you’d appreciate the reassurance.”

Kala turned to him, the Asmurian receiving her full attention. His words were very reassuring, but she wasn’t sure she wanted him to know that. Of all the things she could have said in response, nothing felt quite right. So, Kala swallowed the words on her tongue and nodded.

“Thank you, Captain.” She said, quietly. He returned the gesture, nodding his large head in reply. Resuming his daunting posture, Treta gestured to their left where several Federation-grade Canteens were installed.

“You can conjure any food you like, Ursusian delicacies included. And at the other end of the mess, we have a fully equipped kitchen, which is also at your disposal. Mind you, your knife privileges have been locked, so if you’d like something diced, you should request it at the Canteen ahead of time.”

There was a glint of humor in his gaze, not that Kala could really blame him.

“Not even a butter knife?” She asked, half-jokingly.

He grinned. “I’m sure you could find someone here who would be happy to assist you. Just imagine,” he said, his sparkling eyes scanning the other faces in the room, “What a way to start a conversation.”

Kala looked away, trying to suppress her smile.

“Go.” He said, touching her arm. “Help yourself to something. I’ll be just over there.” Kala watched as the Captain approached the nearest table. The handful of crew members sitting there all greeted him with smiles and gestures of respect. Kala put her hands in her pockets and took a few steps backwards, studying the scene a few moments longer before finally turning away.

It wasn’t until she activated the Canteen’s touch screen that Kala realized just how hungry she was. As her stomach started to rumble, she quickly typed in the name of her favorite dish from back home. A whirring sound was heard and the panel of fogged sea glass rose, revealing a hearty salad of bitter forest grass and poko greens topped with toasted lekin roots and a large fillet of grilled cave bass. Eagerly, Kala retrieved the plate, delighted by the weight of it in her hand, and swiftly entered her desired beverage and eating utensils. With a click and a whir, the glass panel revealed these as well. Now, hands full, she made her way back to where the Captain was waiting.

The group he had been talking with appeared to be leaving just as she arrived. They said their goodbyes, took the remains of their meal and departed. One of them, a short female with bionic enhancements, glanced back and smiled at Kala as she left. The moment of kindness was unprovoked and unexpected, and Kala was so comforted by it that she gladly smiled at the stranger in return. Hers was a tentative, sweet smile, one that did not go unnoticed by the Captain.

Kala set her plate down and stepped over the bench, glancing up as Treta took the seat across from her. He folded his large hands on the tabletop and stared, as if her eating was to serve as his entertainment. Kala’s smile faded. Avoiding his eyes, she picked up her serving sticks and occupied herself with fluffing the leafy greens.

“Aren’t you going to eat something?” She asked, bringing a large chunk of fish flesh to her lips.

Treta shook his head. “I typically take my meals in private. How is your food?” He asked, shifting the conversation’s focus. “If something’s not quite right -the texture, flavor, whatever it may be-we can make necessary calibrations to try and authenticate it for you.”

Kala thought for a moment, playing with the flavors on her tongue. Swallowing she said, “It’s alright. The bass is too dense though. It should be airier. Almost every Canteen I’ve encountered gets it wrong the first few times. But it’s an easy fix once you update the most recent Ursusian catalog.”

“I’ll see that we download it.”

A minute of silence passed between them; Kala too hungry to pause for conversation, Treta simply content with observing her. But before the atmosphere could slip from odd to uncomfortable, the Captain reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a holocard which he placed on the table between them.

“It’s very important to me that everyone remain well-fed and fully rested on my ship,” he said. “My crew must be in pique physical and mental health at all times. This means maintaining a balanced diet, observing regular sleep cycles and practicing an active fitness regimen -all according to your species’ standard biological needs, of course.”

Kala looked up from her salad, a leaf poised between her mouth and the sticks in her hand. Treta had activated a map of the Monoceros from the holocard’s face and was zooming in on the center of the ship. He pointed at the diagram with a sharp, obsidian claw.

“This is the mess hall, here. It’s open day and night to accommodate everyone’s eating cycles. This,” he pointed further down, “is the gymnasium and training facility. You will be expected to spend at least an hour here every day.” Treta pushed the card toward her, indicating that it was hers to keep.

“You’re serious?” Kala asked.

“Dead serious. What, the Federation doesn’t require its officers to maintain any sort of fitness standards?”

“Not since the academy. If you’re a soldier, maybe, but science and medical officers don’t have time for that.”

“Interesting.” Treta leaned back, peering at Kala from over his glasses. “On my ship, we make time, Kala, and so will you. The Monoceros is a triumph, but like any vessel she’s only as good as her crew. By observing Asmurian order, I can ensure that each and every one of us is performing at their best. I will accept nothing less.”

“It’s safe to assume then that the Asmurian Code is the governing doctrine aboard your ship?”

“To an extent. Like with many things, I’ve taken from it what pleases me.”

Kala paused, the shimmer of the holomap between them making it difficult to interpret his expression. Treta’s tone didn’t possess any malicious inflections, but his words and unwavering eye contact, held her serious attention.

“And the parts that escaped you?”

He arched a large brow, “The outdated and undignified constructs of a civilization more obsessed with one’s actions than the reasons behind them.” The map dissolved, clearing their view of one another. Kala wanted him to elaborate, but the dull noise in the room around them discouraged her from asking for more. The public mess hall didn’t seem an appropriate place to ask an Asmurian warrior why he’d chosen to dissect the ancient code of his people. Perhaps the next time Treta secluded her in some private setting, as he seemed so inclined to do, she could turn the tables on her captor and put him on the spot instead.

Kala reached for her glass and took a long drink, holding the Captain’s gaze as she made up her mind. She would pursue this with him later, Kala decided. If she was to serve on his ship and follow his rules, Kala was determined to get something out of it in return. Understanding such a person as Varden Treta, seemed a good place to start.

A bolt of lightning cracked across the dense, midnight sky, illuminating the Ursusian landscape in a hellish blaze of suspended raindrops and halted time. Dioli was soaked. Even with the protection of his leather duster and visor cap, the incessant downpour of the late-night deluge left his long hair plastered to his neck; his boots squishing, sloshing, and overflowing with alien rain.

Somehow, a weather report had not been on his list of things to research when touching down in the black shale mountains close to the Leahy’s home. What Dioli didn’t know before his hour-long trek through the razor cliffs of Acaleerah, was that his arrival had coincidentally coincided with the start of the continent’s monsoon season, during which, the current rainfall would not cease for another two months.

Luckily, his anti-gravity boots had served him well for most of the journey down the cliffside, shorting out only a mere twenty feet above the valley floor.

Dioli’s rough and sudden descent was more embarrassing than it was painful and left him begrudgingly grateful for the merciful cover of nightfall. As the once proud Devourer slowly picked himself up, now dripping with a crude concoction of mud, grass and rain, he winced at the sharp pinch felt between his shoulder blades and tenderly massaged the dull ache throbbing from his hip.

Dioli was not the young adventurer he once was. Not that scaling alien terrain had ever been his calling… but still. For someone of his species, this was just sad. If only to prove to himself that he hadn’t become completely calcified by the luxuries of his now pampered life, Dioli rolled his shoulders back, locked his fingers together and proceeded to twist his wrists up and back towards his neck, popping the joints in his elbows out of their sockets and then back into place after completing a full circle without unclasping his hands. After a few more exaggerated stretches that included temporarily dislocating both arms and opening his jaw to its almost full extent, Dioli’s body -and his pride- had at least slightly recovered.

Looking around for his weapons, Dioli quickly located his phaser rifle and plucked it from the mossy carpet. Slinging the strap securely over his shoulder, he checked himself to see if anything else had gone missing. His sword still hung at his hip, its gilded hilt a painful reminder of the jab he had suffered after landing on it during the fall. Another blinding crack from the lightning cast the world in a blaze of white and helped confirm that everything else was intact and accounted for.

Satisfied, Dioli wiped the clinging strands of hair from his hollow cheeks and moved forward through the cover of the rain and the night.

Parting the low-hanging branch that hung before him, he revealed the house and the clearing beyond. The Leahy home, Dioli now realized, was carved from the same black shale as the mountain that birthed it. The ledge he stood on was actually one of many multi-layered rooftops that cut outward from the obsidian slate of the cliff side. Sheltered beneath each was a separate wing of the dwelling. It was a sprawling home, distinguishable even in the dark pitch of evening.

At this vantage point, Dioli could easily leap down from roof to roof until landing on the large stone steps that pooled before the entrance like a fan of black marble. But doing so would put him out in the open. With the frequency of the lightning and the eyes in the sky, he couldn’t risk being seen.

Instead, Dioli made his way to the trunk of the large tree that was currently giving him cover, and used its twisting body to descend the remaining levels of rock and architecture.

This time, Dioli landed silently. Keeping low to the ground, he carefully made his way through a thicket of waxy fronds that fanned beneath the nearest window. There was no glass, he noticed, and from the looks of it no force field barriers to keep out the elements. The window was nothing more than a carved opening in the stone, smooth and perfect, on whose sill the rain splattered and pooled, playfully dripping inside as if it were welcome there. An orangish glow shone from within, giving off the tempting promise of warmth and comfort. It was an endearing sight compared to the cold, wet, darkness in which Dioli was currently cloaked.

He knew from studying the video surveillance that Veska lived here alone. With Kala offworld, she was the last of her family to occupy their ancestral home and, apart from the occasional visiting classmate, was the only one seen frequently coming and going. When he approached her this night, he felt certain they would not be disturbed.

At this late hour it was safe to assume that once the lights were lit, she would be in for the evening. Dioli scanned the rocky expanse of the home as it lay before him. Several pockets of warmth shone from the scattered windows, smoke wafted sweetly from a nearby chimney, and beneath the drumming of thunder and rain, the gentle sound of instrumental music was softly playing. Dioli rose from the darkness -his black visage dripping with nature and warning- and confidently approached a nearby doorway.

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