The Nebula's Tide

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Alone Together

Kala stormed across the deck. She wanted to scream with frustration. Her unvoiced yell burned inside the prison of her throat. Kala gripped the wood of a nearby railing and took several deep breaths, filling her lungs. How she wished to be home again, to feel the permanent strength of solid ground beneath her feet, to breath the calming freshness of real, unfiltered air.

She looked around. The three pirates who occupied the deck with her were three too many. She needed to be alone, and yet the image of her cramped cabin offered little comfort. It was then that Kala recalled an area of the ship she had seen in passing. The plaque outside the door had simply read “Meditation,” written in Galactic Common. Since that’s exactly what she needed, Kala figured it was the best place to go.

Kala found the room just down the hall from the Monoceros’ med bay. When she stepped toward it, the door slid open, welcoming her to the dimly lit space within.

The Meditation room was aptly named. It was a quiet area, warm and comforting. Kala looked around, glad to see that she was the only one present. Two clusters of seats took up a majority of the space. There was an assortment of plush cushioned chairs, simple wooden benches, and in some spots, a single rug or pillow was laid. Past the seating area there stood a humble altar on which several items were placed. Kala walked down the aisle and examined these objects. They were all familiar to her but she felt certain that, to different people, each item would hold a specific meaning.

There was a series of candles, most of them white but some were a variety of colors. Kala noticed that the green candle appeared to be the most popular; its remaining wax was no more than a hardened puddle, the metal base of the wick was all but exposed.

There were three bowls, one a gilded metal, one ceramic, one wood. Beside them sat several bottles of differing perfumes and oils. A box of matches accompanied them.

A collection of stones of differing sizes sat at one end of the altar, some with alien symbols carved on their faces, some left smooth and bare.

The last item was a projection cube. Kala activated it to find a library of alien totems. Most of the projections were unfamiliar to her, and it was only once she came across a handful of symbols from Federation cultures that she realized they were likely all religious icons.

Kala turned off the cube. It was curious, she thought, that a pirate ship would contain a room for prayer and meditation. More curious still was the abundant evidence that this space was frequently used. The room still smelled of incense from the last person who came here, a dusting of grey ash freshly sprinkled within the dish. Maybe like her, they needed time to reflect. Maybe they too had questions and problems and fears.

Kala reached for the candles. Taking three white ones, she arranged them in a triangle at the center of the altar. Kala lit the left one first, then the right, and the top candle last, whispering three words beneath her breath as each wick blazed to life after meeting the heart of the flame.

Returning to the nave, Kala chose a simple rug and placed it before the altar. There she knelt and watched the flames cast their shadows against the playful darkness. Instinctively she touched her Talas, taking her time on each bead as she summoned from memory their individual significance.

This one, a pristine glass of opalescent green, spoke of her mother and father. It held their warmth and strength. Kala felt their arms around her. She heard their laughter, their words of wisdom and comfort spoken in hushed tones when all the world seemed dark and empty.

Another marked the day she left Ursus, simultaneously the most frightening and freeing moment of her life. Kala ran her fingers across its obsidian surface and recalled the rattling of the shuttle as it shook around her. Three inches of metal was all that stood between her and the vacuum of space. The world she knew fell beneath her, its gravity pulling the rocket back like a mother desperately clinging to the hand of her child. That image of Ursus, so small yet brilliant against the impossible black of the universe, would be forever etched in her mind’s eye and would always burn like an eternal ember in the hearth of her heart.

This Tala came with a companion bead. It was an asteroid fragment, a foreign body that had traversed the depths of space for unfathomable eons before coming to rest on Kala’s line. The small rock was like her, a wayward traveler, made of the same star stuff as the wild, unknowable expanse through which they traveled, headless of what lay ahead but eager to know it.

When Kala left home, propelled into space by the promise of adventure, she’d guessed at the dangers she might encounter. Losing her freedom never once crossed her mind, and perhaps that was partially why this was all so difficult to deal with.

As a surgeon, Kala was familiar with death and injury. Modern medicine was almost infallible, but never guaranteed. She’d seen patients die and knew what space could do to people. Before her capture, Kala thought that knowing about such pain and loss would prepare her for whatever may come. But this wasn’t death, this was entrapment. She wasn’t moving on to some next mysterious plane, she was stuck, stagnant and powerless under the thumb of her captor. A man for whom she invoked a Halasin with Veska.

Kala closed her eyes. The weight of that promise was a dull ache, squeezing her chest and making it hard to steady her breathing. In that moment she felt she was teetering on the edge of a great precipice. An endless chasm of self-doubt yawned before her. One wrong thought and she’d fall into a spiral in which every decision and action she had ever made was questioned and torn to pieces.

‘Could this have been prevented?’ She dared not begin to try and answer that, for Kala knew that no conclusion would bring her peace.

Slowly, her fingers moved along the Tala strand, seeking their comfort. When she grazed the next bead, she stopped. Its oblong shape recalled a series of quite conversations, a bearded face, a patient smile, and as if by some miracle, the memories within this piece of glass pulled Kala back from the ledge of consuming uncertainty.

After completing her Federation training it was decided that Kala would apprentice under Ursusian Ambassador Nahallo at the Interstellar Capital. The assignment was meant to be temporary, just until she found her feet in the alien realm of Federation Space. A galactic year-and-a-half later and Kala was still by his side, quasi convinced that she was where she’d set out to be.

Kala had no way of knowing when she left her home world how she would react to such a change. The young woman who confidently strapped herself into the seat of a starship that would take her lightyears away from all that she knew was a different shade than the woman who subconsciously feared the isolation she felt when walking the crowded streets of the Capital alone. Kala was familiar with the other races and had interacted with them all her life. The difference now was the lack of her own kind and the incredible loss she felt when distanced from her culture. Worst of all was her reluctance to admit these feelings at the time that she felt them, the truth of her uncertainty had been too much to embrace. The trick was pretending that she was confident and secure in this unfamiliar environment, and somehow Kala had managed to fool herself most of all.

During those long months of uncertainty, Ambassador Nahallo remained her one connection to home and Kala clung to his familiarity and kindness more than she should have. He was a great man, an inspiration to Hantae and others alike. Nahallo negotiated so elegantly on behalf of his people that he always managed to make both sides of any discussion feel safe and understood. Kala was no exception, and in the end her gratitude for his guidance led her to add a Tala in his honor.

On many occasions, Nahallo had patiently listened to Kala’s veiled concerns, he saw through her confidence and helped her face that which was holding her back. Through the Ambassador’s support, Kala had rediscovered her strength. After all this, his final gift to Kala was to gently push her away.

“You and I have traveled farther than anyone of our kind,” he’d told her once. “But this is only the first step to an incredible journey. I am here so that you may go forward, to explore that next great thing. Only once you’ve accomplished it, Kala, may our brothers and sisters follow in our footsteps. Someday, another will rely on you as their anchor, as you have relied on me. I know you will be what they need. But you have to get there first.”

Slowly, Kala opened her eyes and peered again into the flickering darkness. Her eyelids were heavy. Her breathing even, her heartbeat calm. The shadows of the room were like a weighted blanket, wrapping around her in a comforting embrace. Kala had found her focus and proceeded to mediate on the lessons her mentor had taught her.

The door to the meditation room closed behind her with a padded sigh. A sleepy relaxation filled Kala’s body, pulling her limbs toward the floor. Her mind was clearer than when she’d entered, but now her thoughts could focus on nothing but sleep and the tempting call of her tiny bed.

As she began to make her way down the hall toward her quarters, a gentle noise caused her to stop. It was the sound of someone clearing their throat. Kala looked over her shoulder and was surprised to find the Captain standing just beyond the meditation room’s door. The expression on his face, if she was reading it right, seemed patient and kind.

“Yes?” she said, her voice quite yet direct.

“I didn’t want to disturb you before,” he responded gently. “But now that you’re finished, I wonder if you would accompany me to my cabin?”

Kala was confused. Had he been waiting for her? “For what purpose?” she asked.

Treta bowed his head, ever so slightly. “I upset you earlier, and I suspect I have overstepped my bounds in causing you to take this oath with your sister without fully understanding the weight of what that promise means.”

Kala was shocked. She couldn’t conjure a thing to say in response to something like that.

Looking at her intently, Treta added. “I meant what I said on the deck, Kala. I want to know more about you and the world you come from. If you’ll come with me, perhaps we can discuss it.”

She starred at him for a moment, searching the Asmurian for any sign of malicious intent. Try as she might, Kala couldn’t sense any. The man seemed genuine which confused her most of all.

“Am I allowed to say no?” Kala asked, thinking of the weariness in her limbs and the promise of sleep.

Treta nodded. “Yes. But we’d both rest better if we went to bed with a clearer conscience. Don’t you think?”

As drowsy as she was, Kala’s curiosity and suspicion were too greatly piqued to refuse. From the moment she’d met Captain Treta, she was unable to get a proper read on the man. Maybe this invitation was her chance. Her guard was down from her meditation, but unless she was mistaken, his defenses were lowered as well. Treta was quieter now, more earnest and direct.

Kala nodded, her eyes still hooded against the bright lights of the hallway. “Alright.” she said.

A few steps into the Captain’s cabin and Kala was again transported back in time. The heavy wooden door sealed the pair in with a soft thunk, not on its own accord, but by the guiding touch of its owner’s paw. Treta released the bronze handle with a muted click, an almost-silent confirmation that turning back was no longer an option.

Looking around, Kala peered through the emerald and auburn haze that pooled throughout the room. Treta stepped around her and she felt the floor tremble slightly as he passed.

“Do you drink?” he asked, moving toward the large decanters that sat on the center table.

“I could stand something,” Kala replied. She eyed the plush armchairs in the sitting area and chose the nearest one.

The captain retrieved two glasses, removed the crystal stopper from one of the massive vessels and poured one drink. Then, reaching for a shelf under the table, he produced a smaller bottle and after pouring its contents into the second glass, offered it to the doctor.

Kala accepted the drink, not bothering to hide her skeptical expression. “Let me guess,” she said dryly. “This is the slave’s wine.”

At her statement, the Captain paused, catching Kala in the corner of his eye. “Hardly.” he stated, his voice rumbling in his chest. “Asmurian liquor is too potent for most other species. A glassful would likely kill you.” Treta returned the bottles to their places and lowered his large frame into the chair across from hers. The way he sunk into it, she might have thought he was as tired as she.

Taking a sip from his own cup he added, “In fact, what you’re drinking is actually quite valuable. I make a point to only carry the best of everything.”

Kala examined the amber liquid inside her glass. After swirling the beverage and sampling its floral aroma, she cautiously brought the mysterious brew to her lips. The drink was strong, but smooth and soothing. It burned for just a second and made her nostrils tingle with the lingering memory of its taste. Kala instantly felt warmer and wrapped her hands around the glass as if it were a heat source against the cool night air.

“Are you cold?” Treta asked. His keen eyes missed nothing, not even in the dim lighting of his cabin. Kala noticed then just how dilated the Asmurian’s pupils were. He must have powerful night vision, she thought and wondered if the Captain could in fact see better in shadow than in a well-lit room.

“I’m almost always cold.” Kala admitted quietly and took another warming sip.

“There are blankets over there if you’d like one.”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

Treta nodded and looked down at his glass. “This whole situation is…difficult. A Captain must decide when to enforce his law and when to be lenient of those affected by it. Sometimes one option does not permit the other... I, however, do not believe in looking back or in saying ‘Oh well.’ If I regret a consequence of my decisions then I must do everything in my power to amend it.”

“What is it that you regret, exactly?” Kala asked.

Treta paused, staring at her with his orb-like eyes. “The way you reacted when you left my office. You were hurt. I would like to understand why.”

Kala’s gut reaction was to scoff at that remark, but when she glanced again at the Captain’s face she saw only genuine interest. Swallowing a spiteful reply, she slowly chose her words “Lying to the ones you love can be pretty hurtful, Treta. Seeing my sister’s face for the first time in ages and knowing that she’s frightened and concerned because of me... makes me feel powerless and angry. Then there’s the horrible guilt of knowing that I’ve placed this incredible burden on her shoulders by invoking the Halasin, and questioning if it was even the right thing to do. That promise may keep her safe, but at what cost?”

“What is the significance of the Halasin? I want to know.” Treta’s voice was low and gentle.

“Why?” Kala asked, baffled by his concern. “The vow has already been made, what difference does it make what it means to me?”

Again he held her gaze, and again he captured Kala in the intensity of his full attention. Carefully, he replied, “One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from my many years as Captain, is that you cannot hope to govern a crew unless you truly know them. Who am I to lead my men, if I do not understand what guides their motivations or fosters their fear? Each person is a sum of their experiences, their culture and the world they come from… I know very little about you, Kala. Perhaps if I understood what the Halasin means to you and your people, today might have gone differently.”

Treta’s words reached out to Kala and touched her through the darkness. Maybe it was the lingering effects of that evening’s meditation, or the warm buzz she felt from the heady liquor, but somehow, for the first time in what seemed like ages, Kala felt…safe. And Captain Treta had made it so.

In the end, it was a gift that she was so tired. Her fully awake mind might have exploded from such a realization. But here and now, in an oddly comfortable and sleepy haze, Kala found the Captain’s honest answer agreeable and she decided to respond in kind.

Pulling up her legs, Kala leaned back in the large armchair, cradling her drink as she pondered where to begin. “The Halasin is a sacred promise forged between Hantae from the time of The Arrival. When alien life first came to our world, there was a great unrest that spread across Ursus. Our culture and way of life was threatened and for many years after it was feared that we would become a conquered race in our own home. Eventually, a peaceful cohabitation was reached, but the outsiders still managed to change us.”

“How do you mean?”

“Most anthropologists agree, that during this time our people experienced a global behavioral shift. Fear of the alien outsiders caused the Hantae to turn inward. It was a mass attempt to strengthen our cultural identity by reaffirming our connections and traditions with one other. But the fact still remained that we did not change willingly, but due to the threat of the others who integrated themselves into our society.

“The concept of the Halasin, an unbreakable oath made between brothers and sisters of our kind, became the bonds that held us together as a people during a time of great turmoil. To invoke a Halasin is to say, ‘I am one of you. I cannot hurt or deceive you because to do so would be to hurt and deceive myself.’” She stopped. Her voice was beginning to quiver and she quickly wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

Kala took a steading breath. “So you see,” she continued, “even if my promise to Veska is genuine, and even if it keeps her safe, I can’t help but feel that I’ve betrayed her. My blood. A Halasin is not made lightly, Captain. Some Hantae go their entire lives without every summoning those words. But now I’ve gone and done it. And I hate, that my oath was made in vain.”

Kala tore her gaze from the Captain and took a deep drink. Part of her hated that her emotions were coming through like this, but another part of her reveled in the display. She hoped that he felt every harsh syllable. She needed him to see the anger and hurt in her eyes. He wanted to understand her pain? Well this is what it looked like.

Now more exhausted than ever, Kala let her head rest heavy against her palm. By the One, she was tired. Maybe she could ask to leave now? She wasn’t ready for whatever discussion was about to follow. But Kala heard no reply. No follow-up question or crafted remark. Instead, the air around her shifted and Kala suddenly felt a little warmer.

She opened her eyes and turned to find the Captain, not in his seat, but kneeling before her. His hands were braced on the sides of the armchair, the look on his face nearly stopping her heart. A great tiredness was etched across his features, but even through the haze of her enervation Kala could still see the remorse and compassion that shone in the pirate’s eyes.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I…don’t know,” Treta said, his voice barely a whisper. His arms seemed to quiver and for a moment, Kala thought that he would reach out and touch her. Maybe he wanted to? Maybe she would let him.

“There is nothing I can say that will change what has happened. But… I am so very glad that you told me. Thank you Kala.”

She nodded silently. For what felt like an eternity, Kala hesitated to act on an impulse. Had she been more awake, she might have resisted but, for better or worse the feelings that filled this moment between them compelled her. Cautiously, Kala lifted her hand and placed it on his own. Perhaps she just wanted a way to break the tension. Perhaps she took a shred of comfort in the warmth of their contact.

Treta’s expression softened and somehow that warmed her even more.

“I will not forget what you’ve shared with me this night,” Treta said. “And I will do everything in my power so that you may keep your word with Veska.” The timbre of his words rumbled softly between them and Kala felt her body relax. Her eyes were so heavy, but now she didn’t want to close them.

Moving his other paw-like hand, the Captain placed it gently atop her own, sealing his promise within the soft protection of his touch. The heat from his body was wonderful and Kala struggled not to let it engulf her or else she’d surely drift away.

“I am sorry that we’ve met under such trying circumstances, Kala. I would have liked you to know me in a better light… But regardless of how we came to be here, I am happy to be with you now.”

She didn’t know what to say. The warmth of that statement pooled around her and took some of the weight from her shoulders. If only she could keep her eyes open. His words were important to her, they deserved a significant reply. But the voice that carried them to her was a soothing lullaby, lulling her to sleep on the waves of a deep emerald sea.

Kala nodded, and gave his hand a small squeeze. He smiled and rubbed his thumb across the soft surface of her skin. One step deeper into the dark water of evening.

Treta rose and gently took the glass from her hand. “I’ll get you some water.” He said quietly, and walked away to fill the cup. The soft sound of the tap and the merry clink of crystal were the final notes that sung to Kala to the land of dreaming. When Treta returned, glass in hand, the doctor was fast asleep.

All the world was soft and warm. A pleasant smell filled Kala’s nose and something strong pressed around her, making her feel safe and wanted. Kala nestled her face in the downy plume beneath her cheek, and was surprised to find it softer than she remembered.

Drifting between the planes of asleep and awake, all was a mystery to her here. The shadows that danced beyond her eyelids implied that she was moving. But then why did she feel so comfortable?

Kala heard a door sigh, and the distant thud-clack of heavy footsteps muffled by the sleep and darkness. The air moved around her and suddenly she was falling in slow motion. The warmth from before was pulled away, and the great embrace that held her now shifted to the flat and familiar support of a little bed in a small cabin aboard an infamous starship.

Half asleep, Kala struggled to open her eyes. A large shadow loomed above her, blending in with the darkness of her room. Carefully, it deposited Kala in her bunk and used its massive hands to gently pull her covers safely around her. The shadow lingered for just a moment, giving Kala his warmth once more as his hand lingered on her shoulder.

Without a word, the shadow rose, disappearing into the light of the hallway. Kala’s eyes closed as the door slid shut. Sleep welcomed her back with open arms as she dreamed of the embrace of another.

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