The Nebula's Tide

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The Long Wait

When the doors of Veska’s shuttle opened, she and Dioli were treated to an exceptionally violent crack of nearby lightning. The accompanying cacophony of its thunder made the mechanical doors shudder and tremble before touching the mossy face of carpeted stone. Directly ahead of them was Dioli’s ship: black, sleek and practically glistening under the veil of rain that flowed over its pristine exterior.

Headless of the ship’s owner, Veska was drawn to the cruiser like metal to a magnet. The transparent umbrella she carried shriveled under the aggressive assault of rain, but this went unnoticed by the young woman carrying it. Her gaze and attention were locked solely on the starship ahead.

Dioli, who had no umbrella, waited inside the shelter of Veska’s craft. Activating the gangplank with a flick of his wrist, he waited until the steps fully unfurled before sprinting forward, quickly covering the distance between in several bounding strides. To Dioli’s surprise, Veska did not wait for him but started up the gangplank steps. He knew she was excited, but this level of oblivious confidence was almost alarming. Picking up his pace, Dioli sidestepped the Hantae and made it to the top before her.

Veska casually took the stairs one at a time, watching Dioli notably relax once he’d crossed the open threshold. Now inside, The Devourer turned to her, the glossy brim of his cap dripping with stowaway rain.

“Clearly you’ve never been on a foreign star cruiser before,” he said, his breathing slightly hitched. Veska stopped and looked at him, unsure of what he meant by the statement. “Never enter an alien ship unless the pilot or captain goes first,” he said, pointing a stern finger at her to emphasize his point. “Most personal vessels like this have security systems that scan the DNA signature of the first person who boards them. If it doesn’t detect the one who owns it, it could react, sometimes violently.”

Veska shuffled her feet awkwardly, but didn’t’ look away from the Devourer’s serious stare. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know. What would have happened if I had gone first?”

“Incapacitation, then lockdown. I’m supposed to keep you safe, Miss Leahy, so please, if something looks unfamiliar to you, just… don’t touch it.” he said, and turned back toward the interior, the shadows of the ship engulfing him as he stepped inside.

Veska, still standing on the gangplank steps, looked cautiously at the doorway. Experimentally, she extended her bat and waved it around in the empty space between the two walls.

Nothing happened, so, casting another backwards glance at her shuttle, she collapsed the umbrella and stepped inside.

Dioli hadn’t bothered to activate the lights, leaving Veska to examine the spacecraft through the dimness of a shadowy dusk. Apart from the occasional lightning flash, the soft, muted glow of green safety strips provided the only interior illumination. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Veska took in the tall and narrow space around her.

The cruiser was built on a larger scale than any Federation-grade vessel Veska had ever encountered. Even Hantae ships didn’t feel quite this big and it made Veska wonder about the species the star cruiser had been designed for. She was standing at the back of the ship’s primary cabin which held seats for six passengers, four on the bulkhead floor and two that curved around on the second level above. As Veska walked beneath the suspended chairs, she reached her hand up to them, the tips of her fingers just barely grazing their base with her arm fully extended. Her eyes searched the tapered darkness that stretched above them, wondering about the nature of the ship’s conical design.

The cockpit was just ahead and comprised of two intimidating command hubs. The one to the left where Dioli was now sitting, appeared to be navigation. Veska looked at the right hub, but was unable to initially decipher its purpose.

Dioli’s face was lit by the light of his center screen, his sharp eyes skimming over the inflow of alien characters that scrolled across its glowing surface. While he engaged with the interface, typing and scrolling through the incoming data, he instructed Veska to take a seat, they would be taking off soon. She looked back at the passenger hull and decided to stay up here with him. Hanging the crook of her umbrella on the back of the second chair, Veska sat down, resting the metal head of her bat against the floor with a soft thunk.

“Alright,” Dioli said, “we’re clear for ascent.”

“Are there safety restraints I should put on?” Veska asked, looking around for a belt or strapping mechanism. This ship looked advanced enough to be the sort of craft that would buckle you in itself, but she figured she should ask, just in case.

“You can if you want to.”

Veska glanced at the Devourer. Noting that he wasn’t wearing any, she decided to forgo it as well.

With a few deliberate taps, Dioli called the engine to waking. The exterior lights came on, catching the rain outside in the white blaze of its luminance. Without a sound or tremor the ship started to rise, catching Veska by surprise with the smoothness of its take off. Gripping the armrests of her seat, she leaned forward excitedly, watching the jagged terrain of her home fall away beneath them through the head-to-toe lens of the ship’s forward spaceshield. The familiar vista of black shale transitioned to a sweeping view of the expansive mountains. The tooth-like peaks of the Acaleerah were captured in moments of scattered brilliance each time the lightning hurled itself toward the ground.

Personal shuttles like Veska’s were restricted to level one air space, so not to interfere with faster commercial air traffic. Though she had lived in these mountains her entire life, Veska had never seen them from this vantage before. Flying over them now as they skyrocketed higher and higher towards the face of the storm, filled her with wonderment.

When they entered the cloud layer, their view of the world below was lost. The Cruiser’s lights couldn’t penetrate the black walls of condensed moisture and reflected back at them as if in the ship were encased in a shaft of stone.

With less to look at out the window, Veska turned her attention to the command hub she was sitting in, intent to decipher its purpose. Her dash had significantly more screens than Dioli’s, though none of them were currently active. A control stick was built into the right armrest of her chair and a keypad was within arm’s reach on the left side dash. Veska looked down, and noticed several distinct pedals sticking out from under the forward panel. The pedals were exceptionally large and came with four slots for, what Veska imagined had to be a four-toed pilot.

She stuck out her leg and wiggled her cloven foot. If the pedals were essential to using this station, Veska feared she wouldn’t be much help. Not that there would be a need of course, but still. With the level of uncertainty surrounding this situation, she wanted to be prepared.

The darkness around them shifted as the ship breached the dense sea of the storm. Now the aggravated mass of clouds was below them. A few stray giants loomed nearby, haunting the higher atmosphere with the near-constant flashes of intra-cloud lightning.

With the Ursusian pulse of the monsoon beneath them and the galactic shine of the star field above, Veska felt something swell within her that quickened her heartbeat and dared her to dream. The sight was breathtaking. Tonight’s events were unreal. And they had only just begun what they came here to do.

Dioli rose from his chair, seemingly unmoved by the splendiferous view, and activated a ceiling control in the cockpit’s central panel. After entering a long series of numbers and making a few frequency adjustments with some of the dials, his hand fell back to his side. He let out a long breath through his nose and looked to Veska.

“Do you have something with you to help keep you busy? It’s going to be a while.”

Almost an hour later and there was still no response from the CQC. Veska was too anxious and curious to just sit and wait in the command chair, so she got up and started pacing. After a few laps around the small ship however, Dioli seemed to fizzle and ordered her to stop. Her interest in exploring any of the cruiser’s interior functions was also shut down, and Dioli even denied her request to put on some music, even after Veska assured him that she knew all the best Ursusian stations. He said it would interfere with the CQC’s broadcast signal, but Veska was starting to think the man was just opposed to anything even remotely fun or engaging.

He does look sort of old, she thought, maybe in his late forties by Hantae standards. Still, with the exuberant way he dressed she’d expected a little something more from him than just wanting to sit in an uncomfortable silence.

Veska looked down at the Devourer from her perch on one of the lofted chairs. He was keeping himself occupied by polishing his sword, which Veska now knew was made of black Bavanti glass. One thing was for certain: whatever faction Dioli represented, they were certainly wealthy enough.

Bored of her limited view in the loft, Veska made her way back down to the main level and went to lean on the bulkhead wall opposite from where Dioli was working. Thus far, any attempts to make conversation with him had failed, so she opted for silence and simply watched the precise movements of his hands as he meticulously cleaned the alien blade.

Dioli looked up at her then. She half expected him to tell her to stop watching him, since it seemed that practically everything was outlawed on this ship, but he surprised her by posing a question instead.

“Can I ask you something?”

Veska blinked and straightened her posture, “Sure.”

“What is the significance of the jewelry you’re wearing? I noticed your sister had them too, but hers were hung around her turban.”

Veska looked down and touched one of the bead strands dangling from the cloth head band that covered her ears, “These?”

He nodded.

Veska smiled a little, “They’re called Talas. They’re sort of like…meditation beads. Each strand set is unique to the person who wears it and each bead represents a life event that the wearer deems significant. Hantae wear them to remind us of what’s important.”

“Do all the Hantae do this?” He asked.

Veska nodded, “Since our civilization began. Much about our culture has changed, especially in the last two hundred years. But not this,” she said, still holding the small piece of glass. “The Talas are as Hantae as we are.”

“That’s very interesting,” Dioli said, pausing in his task. “There aren’t many species that have consistently maintained a global culture such as that, at least among the ones that I’ve encountered. It must be religious based, no?”

“No, but that’s a common misconception. On our world, Talas are worn by Unus and Atheists alike. It’s part of what unites us as a people.” Watching him mull over her words, Veska was pleased to see the Devourer’s curiosity. She wanted to keep his questions coming, partially to help him understand and partially to keep the silence from returning. So, leaning forward, she quickly continued.

“Think of it this way. You know how other species refer to themselves as individuals within a larger group? Like, for example, if you were to describe yourself to someone you would say ’I am a Devourer’ or one of the Devourer species. Well, in that same context, someone from Ursus would say ‘I am Hantae.’ The individual articles are left out since we embody a group identity and the Talas are a part of that.”

“But you are also individuals within a larger group. Unless I’m mistaken, the Hantae don’t share a hive mentality, do they?”

“No, we don’t,” Veska said, the lit of laughter in her voice. “Individual identity is both recognized and celebrated in our culture. It’s just that…” she tried to think how best to describe it. “We often think of ourselves as the many that we come from, before we think of ourselves as one of said many.” She leaned back, crossing her arms. “That’s the general idea, anyway. Some Hantae today might argue otherwise, but… it depends on who you talk to.”

The more Veska thought about it, the more she had to laugh. When Dioli cocked a dark eyebrow in her direction, she said, “There’s actually a lot of debate around the Tala’s for that very reason. They continue to unite us, as we all wear them, but each Tala is unique to the Hantae it belongs to. Unity. Individuality. It’s a balancing act bordering on something that practically political.”

To her delight, he cracked a smile. “So Ursus isn’t perfect after all?”

“Oh, far from it. We have wars and crime and hate, the same as everyone… which is probably why we’ve held on to the Talas for as long as we have. They help bring us back to balance.”

“They remind you of what’s important.” Dioli repeated.

Veska smiled, “Exactly.”

Just then, a yellow light shone from the CQC panel. In one fluid motion, Dioli sheathed his sword, returned it to his side and rose to his feet. Striding toward the blinking signal, he reached up and flipped a switch.

“Cardinal, Bantam, Seven, Nine, do you copy?” Dioli waited. He glanced at Veska, noting her curious expression. “There will be at least a 30 second delay between each response, depending on their movement.”

Veska nodded and started counting the seconds in her mind. Just enough time passed in silence to start making her anxious before a crackle came through on the other end. The voice they heard was otherworldly. It vibrated with a deep baritone, spoken from a throat that was used to growling. Veska wondered what it would have sounded like without her translators.

“Lighthouse, Freefall, Six, Seven. We hear you loud and clear. How’s the sky from your position?”

“Crowded with angels,” Dioli said back, “The horizon is dancing.”

Veska glanced out the window. The horizon, wherever it was, was obscured by wandering storm clouds. When Veska realized the two were talking in code, she brightened with excitement. Of course, she thought, they have to be sure the signal wasn’t intercepted on route.

When the deep voice came back, it sounded pleased, “You made good time Dioli. Do you have the girl?”

“Aye Captain, she’s here and we’re ready to cast.”

The channel was silent, waiting as its message hurled itself across the stars. “Perfect.” The deep voice said. “Switching to visual.”

Dioli returned to his pilot’s chair. Typing a command into the interface, he changed the spaceshield from window to video screen. Veska leaned forward, watching the green and black static dance in its spontaneous crackling. After a few moments, chaos blipped to clarity, revealing the owner of the baritone voice.

Veska froze. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been an Asmurian. In a dumbstruck silence, she slowly approached the screen, taking hold of her chairback as she studied the warrior’s animal-like face.

He wasn’t looking at them, and seemed to be occupied with something beneath the transmission screen. Veska guessed it had to do with the signal lag and took the opportunity to observe him.

There was much about this man that challenged her textbook understanding of his race. To start, he wasn’t dressed like an Asmurian, and the fact that he was wearing a large feathered hat was especially surprising. It was then that Veska noticed the short hair at his temples and the way the tendrils of fur that flowed from his cheekbones ended just past his chin instead of curling down past his chest. Unless she was mistaken, this individual had lost his mane.

Veska’ knowledge of Asmurians was very limited, but everyone knew that what the warrior-race valued most about their mighty appearance was the length of their hair. It was a status symbol and, unlike other species, they never cut it. Sheering an Asmurian’s mane was an act of humiliation. This male had been outcast, and Veska was left wondering why.

When his large eyes landed on her, he smiled. Veska was instantly struck by the kindness and intelligence of his gaze. In that moment she knew, this was a night that she would never forget.

“You must be Veska,” The Asmurian said, revealing his sharp teeth when he spoke. Veska felt her stomach flutter.

She nodded and slowly lowered herself into the second command chair. “Yes, sir.” She didn’t know why she was suddenly so nervous.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked, cocking one large brow.

She shook her head silently, which made him smile again.

“Well, that’s a refreshing change. My name is Varden Treta. I’m the captain of the starship Monoceros and I currently have the pleasure of hosting your sister Kala. I’ve just sent for her, so you’ll be able to see her shortly. I trust that Dioli has treated you well?”

Veska nodded mutely, casting a quick glance at Dioli before eagerly returning her gaze to the Captain. Treta, why does that name sound so familiar? Veska knew she’d heard it somewhere before but for the life of her she couldn’t recall it through the noise that was buzzing in her mind.

Wetting her lips, she said, “Yes, he has, but… if you don’t mind me saying, sir, this is all very confusing and… somewhat alarming? How is it that you’ve come to know my sister?”

“Kala and I have recently entered into a temporary partnership. My crew and I require some assistance in her area of expertise and she’s agreed to help us. We’re reaching out to you because, unfortunately, if we didn’t there are other parties that would attempt to dissuade you into thinking the worst. This is merely a reassurance call to ensure your safety and understanding about what’s to come.”

“By other parties, you mean the Federation, right?”

“That’s right.” His voice was very gentle, his tone sweetened by a serenity that contrasted his massive form. Veska found it harder to scoff at the malicious Federation idea when he approached it, which confirmed for her that this was a man to whom words were as much a weapon as a phaser or a sword.

Veska’s emotions were at war, her curiosity and concern collided within her and the tension was growing with every passing moment. The mystery and suspicion of everything that was going on secured Veska’s skepticism towards these strangers but, thus far, they had remained courteous and kind. And the more she heard the Asmurian talk, the more she knew she wanted to hear what he’d have to say.

Still, her mind returned to Dioli’s words from before, of the Federation, her sister’s death and pretending to believe them. Once she saw Kala, she knew she would feel better. Veska just hoped her sister would arrive soon. Seeking some reassurance, Veska picked up the heavy bat and laid it across her lap. Feeling the familiar strength of the cool metal against her skin helped to calm her nerves, at least a little.

Veska was about to ask another question, but the Asmurian turned away from the screen, glancing over his shoulder at the dark room behind him. Looking back, he excused himself and retreated toward a large set of double doors barely visible by the transmission’s screen. Veska watched the swishing of his large tail with captivated interest.

She leaned forward, trying to see what he was doing. It appeared the Captain was talking to someone on the other side of the door, but the wall of his large body and broad shoulders completely obscured whoever was standing there. Gripping her bat, Veska glanced at Dioli, but his focus remained on the screen. When she looked again, the Asmurian was stepping aside, revealing the tall frame of someone clad in a Federation uniform.

Even in the pixilated darkness, Veska recognized the large blue eyes and soft face of her beloved sister. She held her breath through the transmission’s delay, waiting for Kala to see her. Several seconds passed before she met her sister’s gaze. Kala sprinted forward, coming into the light of the screen with tears already glistening in her beautiful eyes.

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