Woeful Nebula

By Hannah Christensen

Dunstan Drudgeon scratched his bristly hair with his wrench handle.

“The problem is bracing. I can do a patch job walking about on the hull, but to make it really solid, we need a place we can brace the Bonny up firmly.”

“Too bad there’s no really good dockyard around.” Ervin drooped over the converter and sighed at the thruster compartment. “Ever since those smugglers broke in, something’s been off.”

“We’ve been over the Bonny twice since checking for integrity. There are no ways for pests to sneak aboard.”

“Still…maybe something got on before we resealed her. No, really. Just this morning I found a wrench over by the steel coils.”

“Ervin, you can’t blame your sloppy habits on invaders.”

Captain Philip ignored the radio technician’s protests as he rubbed his chin, considering. “We’re pretty far off any travel routes. Getting close to the edge of most charts, for that matter. How much gravity are you wanting?”

“Enough to comfortably walk in.”

“I’ll see if the charts have anything.”

The problem with the charts, he mused later as he searched them over a mug of coffee, was that they were too near a nebula. While some nebulae were no more than travel nuisances where one had to be careful due to the gases obscuring vision and any other input, most resisted entrance. Scientists had still not figured out why a cloud of gas would resist travelers, nor could they explain the few nebulae which offered resistance to entering and exiting, but once inside, allowed free travel. Attempts to gather information on the differences between the edge and inside of such nebulae had not yet succeeded. The gases interfered with the readings on those instruments, too.

Woeful Nebula appeared to be one of the untraveled kind. Inside the sketched shape trailing blobby whiskers like a Carpet Shark, only the name of the nebula was noted. Nor was there anything promising marked anywhere else in the area.

“Time for some scouting.” With any luck he would find something uncharted along the edge of the nebula that would do.

The Bonny limped along, one of the two damaged thrusters threatening to die completely. Something smelling encouragingly like supper was tugging at Captain Philip’s nostrils when he found what he was looking for. Between two of Woeful Nebula’s whisker-like protrusions a sizable asteroid lay. Only part of it lay free of the nebula’s green gases, but what he could see was large enough to work on and promised to be big enough to have the prescribed gravity.

“Unless, of course, it cuts off right where the nebula begins.” Captain Philip thrust his way out of his chair. “Which would make more sense than entering an unenterable phenomenon.”

He followed his nose to the galley. Dunstan stirred a bubbling pot over the camp stove. Ervin leaned over his shoulder, a pinch of dried leaves in his fingers.

“Don’t mess with my soup.” Dunstan backhanded his ladle and landed a clout on Ervin’s wrist.

“Have a little faith.” Ervin tried shifting to the other shoulder.

“You can experiment with your own cooking.” Dunstan stepped forcibly back and almost bowled the slighter Space Rover over. “Make yourself useful and tumble out some crackers.”

Ervin sighed.

Captain Philip secretly sympathized. It seemed a pity to waste a freshly cooked meal with the second least appetizing traveler’s fare in a Space Rover’s stores. Freshly baked bread would have been a nice touch, but he knew better than to complain at this respite from the normal space-farer’s food. Besides, there was too much work going on in the engine room to try and rig up an engine as an oven at the moment.

After the meal, Captain Philip showed Dunstan his find. He frowned in surprise as he realized that the asteroid looked bigger than before.

“It seems to be moving out from the nebula,” he told Dunstan. “We may be able to enter Woeful Nebula after all.”

“I’d rather not. It’s awfully hard to see properly in those things. This side should be fine.”

“Then we ought to land and start immediately. We have no idea when this rock may travel back into cover.”

Dunstan tugged at his droopy mustache. “I’m afraid you’re right. I may have to suspend my regular shifts for a while.” He tugged again. “I’ll see what I can do, but with a job like that…”

“A day is never long enough to properly finish anything,” Captain Philip agreed. “Should I look for another place?”

“No, if we do one at a time, we should be able to pack up and launch partway through the job if we need to.”

Captain Philip winced, but agreed.

Settling the Bonny on the partly visible asteroid, the Space Rovers suited up and began repair. After bracing the spaceship with straps and blocks and pegs drilled into the asteroid, they began to take apart the port thruster with the most damage.

“Ervin, could you hand me the magnetic micro ratchet?” Dunstan asked.

“Sure—umm…”

Dunstan kept his face buried in the repair job and one hand out for the tool, but Captain Philip looked over. Ervin turned in slow circles, eyes on the ground. “As soon as I find it.”

That brought Dunstan’s head up. “You didn’t lose the ratchet now, did you?”

“No, it was right here. I just can’t seem to see it.”

A rumble started deep in Dunstan’s chest.

Captain Philip sprang upright. “What is that?”

Sauntering away from the ship was what looked like a blue violet cat. It held its tufted tail high, and a shimmering globe around its head made the extra whiskers on top hard to see. The magnetic micro ratchet hung in front from a neckband.

Ervin gaped. “Where did that come from?”

Dunstan slowly climbed down to crouch on the ground. “Here, kitty,” he called softly.

The cat did not give a sign that it heard, but kept walking away.

“Hey, there! Come back with that!” Ervin dashed towards it.

The cat bounded forward and straight through the edge of the nebula.

“Way to go, Wist’hle,” grumbled Dunstan.

“You do seem to have a singular talent for picking your strategies based on the process over the outcome,” said Captain Philip.

Ervin gave him an exasperated look. “I figured I would scare the cat into dropping it.” Neither of his shipmates looked impressed. Ervin sighed. “I know you’re still upset about getting distracted with the pirates. I’m sorry. But if my recording of the orange spectrum patterns hadn’t been corrupted, you know it could have been a major breakthrough.”

“Still, that doesn’t help with our thruster,” the Captain pointed out.

“Look, the cat got through, so I’ll just go in after and get the ratchet. I’ll just be—Aiee!”

Ervin bounced off the edge of the nebula and went sprawling.

“Ervin, are you alright?” Captain Philip strode forward.

“Yes, I just can’t get through.” Ervin tried to rub his head through his helmet.

Dunstan peered through the murky green. “The cat got through.”

A few yards in the cat sat grooming itself. By its feet was a murky smear that had to be the ratchet.

Dunstan poked at the green cloud-like barrier. His finger went right in. “Hmm.” His finger sprang back out.

“Right, then, here we go again.” Ervin stood and brushed himself off. “Let’s try a running start.” Backing up, he ran at it. “Hungary!” This time when he bounced off, he almost knocked the Captain down as well.

“Slow and steady it is, then.” This time Ervin made his way several steps in. Slowly he turned and gave a thumbs up.

“Huh. So nebulas like the same kind of approach as cats, it that it?” said Dunstan. Ervin looked like he opened his mouth to reply, but just then came shooting back out and landed in a sliding face plant. “Almost had it,” he gasped. “I could see an edge just a little farther ahead. This must be the resistance force ships come against when entering some nebulae.

“Let’s try a few experiments first,” suggested the Captain.

Items, both man-made and natural, passed into the barrier without trouble. Throwing them through worked, too, though the cat jumped at the first rock, glared reproachfully, and moved back a few feet to continue grooming. When they tried an atmosphere meter, though, it wouldn’t enter. Neither would any information gathering technology.

“Hmm,” said Dunstan. “Let me try this.” He left and came back with an old fashioned glass thermometer. It slid easily into the green. “Maybe it’s technology that can’t get through. All those radio and micro waves are meeting resistance.”

“The cat didn’t seem to have any problem with a magnetic ratchet,” objected Ervin.

“It doesn’t send any waves when it’s off.”

“And what kind of waves was I transmitting?”

Captain Philip rubbed his chin. “It did rather look like you had begun to talk. Radio waves, perhaps?”

“Let’s see about that.” Ervin switched his helmet from radio wave transmissions to environmental speakers and pick-up. Dunstan and Captain Philip exchanged glances and followed suite.

“—a little old thing like that.” Ervin’s voice sounded more metallic. He strode toward the barrier only to be repulsed again. “Fine!” Staggering to keep his feet, he reached for the controls again. “If that’s the—” This time he switched his communications completely off.

The other two watched as he walked into the nebula. He turned around just farther than he had the last time and signaled with his hands.

Dunstan squinted. “Can you make it out?”

Captain Philip shook his head. “Too murky.”

Ervin made even bigger motions, but the bigger his movement, the harder it was to see through the cloudy nebula. Dull shimmers seemed to grow. Finally Ervin turned back around and walked almost up to the cat. When he stopped, he fiddled with his controls. Captain Philip and Dunstan watched in silence. Finally Ervin seemed to give up and turned his attention on the cat.

“Nebulas are known for their blind spots,” the Captain pointed out.

The cat swiped at Ervin, making him jump back away from the ratchet he had been grabbing at.

“I have some semifore flags,” said Dunstan.

Ervin tried circling around the cat. It moved to sit down directly on top of the ratchet.

“He looks like he’s going to need help,” conceded the Captain.

Dunstan nodded, then went to the Bonny to get his flags.

Dunstan made his way through the barrier with no trouble. Captain Philip watched, arms still folded, as Dunstan turned around on the other side and shook out his flags. Squinting, Captain Philip tried to decipher the message, but it was hard to follow. Not only could he not distinguish the designs on the flags, but the motions were rather blurred, too.

“This is ridiculous.” Captain Philip went to the Bonny and brought some writing materials. He boldly marked out the words, “I can’t see,” and held the sign up. He had planned on flipping it over and writing, “Get the cat,” but Dunstan continued signaling away. Evidently he could not read the sign.

“This is ridiculous,” said the Captain. “It takes three men to deal with a bothersome cat.” Putting down the sign and tucking the marker into an outer pocket, he headed into the nebula himself.

It was hard to tell if his movement slowed down in the barrier or if the texture of the atmosphere just made it feel that way. The figures on the other side were much harder to see. The only way he could tell one crew mate from the other was from the vague fluttering coming from near the end of Dunstan’s arms. He pushed toward the wavy barrier line ahead, and almost stumbled breaking through. He resisted the urge to gasp for the air that had been with him the whole time.

“Did you bring the light?” Dunstan asked.

“I couldn’t read your signals through the nebula skin.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Ervin. “I don’t think you got my radio signal, either.”

Captain Philip frowned. “Don’t tell me you tried to radio while I was in there.”

“Well…it didn’t work anyway. Look, there’s another one of those cat things.”

Captain Philip peered through the dusky gloom at the second cat shape. This one had more than a shimmery bubble over its head. A dark yellow plastic seemed to stretch loosely over its entire body, meeting the bubble at a black neckband. He turned his head lamp on to take a closer look. Both cats looked over reproachfully before turning back to each other.

“Since you’re here, you should look over there.” Dunstan nodded toward a translator lying on the ground not far away.

“Someone’s been here.” Captain Philip left the cats to inspect the device. It was set to translate between the common tongue and Hindustani.

“More than one, if they needed a translator.”

“And one of them spoke Hindustani.”

“What?” Dunstan leaned over the Captain’s shoulder. “But that language is almost extinct. I know thorough translators still have the option, but that’s for administrators dealing with the few pockets left on a few planets. Anyone who’s out enough to take up space travel has picked up another language.”

“He could have met someone who didn’t know his second language, and chose Hindustani since he had to use a translator anyway,” suggested Ervin.

“And what’s this?” Captain Philip turned his attention to another device lying nearby. It was squat, a circle widening as it rose, with several whisker-like antennae coming off the top. It looked like it had speakers. Finding a switch, Captain Philip turned it on. A flow of voices came streaming out.

“Are you getting any of this?” the Captain asked.

“Maybe this is where the Hindustani comes in,” said Ervin.

“What’s a Hindustani radio station doing out here?” asked Dunstan.

“It’s not organized enough to be a regular station,” Ervin objected. “Maybe a chatter line. Here, let me see what I can find out.” He scooped it up.

“Before you start fiddling with anything, we should see if it really is Hindustani,” said Captain Philip. “Turn on that translator.”

There was a moment’s static while the device warmed up, then recognizable words began to make their way out.

“—extremely crude understanding. Quite consumed in traveling, though it’s a wonder there are any left alive.”

“It must run in the race. Putting aside what you gathered concerning their make-up—”

“So it is Hindustani,” said Ervin. He began fiddling with the new device, and the voices cut off.

“But where is it coming from?” asked Dunstan. “And how did it get here? We had trouble enough walking in. Something like an immigration ship would have had too many signal waves to make it.”

“It looks like this processes waves on the orange band,” said Ervin, twisting something. “Maybe that’s—”

A muffled yowl went up, and an orange and rust flecked cat dashed up to swipe Ervin with its claws.

“Where did all these cats come from?” asked Captain Philip.

There were now five clustered around the ratchet. All looked over reproachfully. One, a little larger than the rest, walked over and batted the device away from Ervin.

“As much as investigating the mysterious falls into our jurisdiction, I would feel better if we concentrated on getting the ratchet right now,” said Captain Philip. “It seems wise to be able to leave immediately if the need arises.”

The cerise tufts of fur along the large cat’s forelegs rippled. A dial on the contraption began to adjust. The Hindustani voices returned, sounding more irate than before. The translator confirmed this.

“—too idiotic to be of any help.”

“At least we know now the interference was stupidity, not malice.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps they simply have not had the chance yet to be malicious.”

“And Retrac seemed capable.”

“Retrac is capable, in his fashion. But that doesn’t mean the rest of his kind are as smart.”

Captain Philip stood. Three of the cats seemed to be lounging directly on the ratchet. He was tempted to dash at them and snatch it up before they had a chance to scratch. It was possible they would all scatter. This type of approach had not seemed to work for Ervin, though.

“Well, Dunstan, do you want to try it, or shall I?”

Dunstan pulled on his mustache. “Maybe we should try a two-headed approach. Pity there’s not something we could try trading.”

The large cat sat directly in front of Captain Philip and curled its tail around its toes. It fixed its sea green eyes on him.

“Fresh out of mice,” said Captain Philip.

“Umm, Captain?” Ervin stared at the cat. His eyes were as wide as cargo doors. “I think they’re talking to us now.”

Captain Philip looked over at the translator. It was quiet now.

The big cerise cat walked around in front of it and sat down again.

“You needn’t worry yourself over how to operate it. It should do quite well as long as you keep your toes off,” said the translator.

The Captain frowned. “Both devices are receiving as well as transmitting?”

“Retrac paired our communication waves with the language he thought would carry it best. He matched it word by word and then added a grammar function, but it still has some hairballs in it. Layering it with the other device would not help.”

“I like to know who I’m speaking with.” Captain Philip decided Retrac and his inventions could wait for a time.

“I am Chot, though here it is manners for the guest to give his name first.”

“Star Ship Captain Philip of the Space Rovers.”

“I see.” The cat blinked. Captain Philip ignored it and looked at the translator instead. “Your roving would make it hard to keep connected with the authorities.”

“As agents of the Galaxy League we have our channels. That’s besides the fact that we bring the authority with us.”

“So Narmi may be right. Your race are always meddlers, and we decided we preferred to stay mostly in the bounds of those nebulae whose borders we could reinforce, but now there is a strand of your race who interfere with our communication waves. They must be reckoned with. Narmi carries us by the scruff to understand that you have knowledge about this group. This leads to the question, where do you stand in this conflict?”

Captain Philip did not like the sound of the word ‘conflict’. It sounded too much like ‘war’.

“I would need more information before I could tell you the Galaxy League’s stand on it.”

“It would seem then we are both at a lying in wait place.” The cat rose and stretched.

“Wait,” said Ervin. “Are these communication waves on the orange band?”

He was addressing his question to the cat. Captain Philip felt irked.

The cat stood very still, looking at him. “I think you will need to reask your question for the translating devices to catch the proper idea.”

“These communication waves you use. Are they—when they are interrupted, does it sound like bursts of static maybe in simple patterns?”

A collective hiss went up. The helmets the cats wore gave it a slightly musical sound, a bit like a kettle.

Captain Philip refrained from closing his eyes. Cats. They were dealing with cats. A whole civilization of cats, it sounded like. Little wonder no one had bothered exploring the Woeful Nebula if that was what they would have to deal with.

“I suppose it may have some type of crude pattern to it. I have never thought of seeking one from a headache inducing blar,.” said Chot.

Ervin nibbled his tongue. “Right. How about this. I might have an idea who you’re talking about, but we’re going to have to define some terms. Let me rig something up on my radio, and you can tell me if the communication bands you’re talking about are what I think they are.”

Taking the hand portable radio he carried off his belt, Ervin began unscrewing it. “Let’s see…” He splayed the wire out and began poking at the microtranistors. “Dunstan…” He turned on a smile with all the charm he could find.

“Uh-uh,” said the engineer. “Last time I let you play with my radium meter, you didn’t put it back together. I had to wait until I could find my own replacements for the parts you cannibalized and fix it myself.”

Captain Philip repressed a sigh. This looked like it might be one of those ‘taking the lead in unprecedented situations’ times mentioned in officer school.

“Fine, Wist’hle, you can get your parts from me, but leave me one communications system. And fixing this is your first priority once we get back on the Bonny.”

“Yes, sir!”

Captain Philip turned around and powered down his space suit’s internal radio for Ervin to take apart. It was possible, though tricky, to breach the communication mechanisms without compromising the integrity of the helmet. Ervin had done it before in trickier circumstances, though that had been to repair communications, not impair them. Unfortunately, turning this way meant watching the cats. There were over a dozen now, all staring back. He couldn’t see the ratchet anymore. Hopefully it wasn’t gone or batted to bits by now.

One cat padded over and started rubbing against his legs. Another slunk closer and closer until it could bat at him. “Don’t you even think about climbing my legs,” he said, though no one could hear him. It was a relief when the plucking, grating feelings at the back of his helmet stopped and Ervin circled around to give him an ‘all clear’ signal. He flipped his radio back on.

The Hindustani and translator chatter had picked up again. The large cat sat grooming itself while waiting for Ervin to finish widening his radio’s bandwidth enough to pick out the orange bands. Captain Philip looked hard at the cat’s tongue. It should not be able to do that while wearing a bubble helmet. He turned to Ervin. “Can you see where their helmets end in front?”

Ervin didn’t even turn. The Captain flipped from environmental pick-up to radio transmissions. “Dunstan.” He leaned over to get his attention and motioned for him to switch communication modes. This was not going to be convenient in the upcoming negotiations.

Dunstan saw and flicked his controls.

“Stuck in radio wave mode for now?” he asked.

“It would appear so.”

Dunstan did not comment.

“I was looking at the cat helmets. Did you—”

“Captain? Can you hear me?”

The niggle of a frown tugged at Captain Philip’s forehead. “Loud and clear. Can you not hear me?” Receiving no answer, he switched to hand symbols. Dunstan replied in kind in the negative.

Frustration sounded through the Captain’s closed lips. It seemed Ervin had left him two halves to his communication unit, but both receptive. He signaled to Dunstan he could hear, then switched modes and repeated the signal.

Dunstan shook his head and lowered it into his palms to show his sympathy. “Ervin Wist’hle, sometimes you can be an idiot,” he said.

“Mmm.” Ervin was concentrating too hard to pay much mind. Finally he sat back, grinning. “This should do it!” His radio looked like it had vomited its entrails out the back. Wires spread out in wriggles across the ground. “Sorry it is still pretty rough. I don’t have what I need for precise subdivision between the bands, but is should be good enough for you to tell me if I’m in the right ball park about your communication waves.”

Silence stretched a few moments. “Perhaps you could rephrase that,” said Chot.

“Just tell me if it’s on your communication length, or close.”

Several cats gathered around. One tapped at it with a paw, then leaped backward in synchronization with the responding growls.

“Very crude, but at least as disruptive. Was this your intent?” Chot’s sea green eyes narrowed.

“Sorry, I’ll turn it off.” Ervin pushed the power switch. “Hey, Captain, that sounds like proof to me that those pirates are using the orange bands to communicate. Now if we can run into another one we can gather data on how.”

“You do realize he can’t answer you,” said Dunstan. “All you left were receptors.”

“Umm…”

The large cat was on its feet, tail lashing. “Am I to understand you do have knowledge of these fleas?”

Captain Philip nodded from Dunstan to Chot, then signed affirmative, followed by ‘problem’.

Dunstan inclined his head toward Chot. “My name is Dunstan Drudgeon of the Space Rovers, engineer and crew member on board the Bonny. Yes, we do have knowledge of these trouble makers. We were in a conflict with some just a little while ago. They make their living preying on travelers. If you have found a haven of theirs over here, we would be glad to help oust them.”

“I see.” Chot’s tail slowed to a twitch. “Narmi seems to have found the right contacts to begin negotiations. Very well, we will proceed. Kisakna, you will bring word to His Eminence. Narmi, you will return with these humans and begin the process. Go to the rose petals for contact.”

The violet blue cat that had run off with their ratchet in the first place minced her way forward.

“But first, there are a few details to settle.” Chot fixed his eyes on Captain Philip. “You are the authority here, I gather?”

“Yes,” said Dunstan. “He is Captain.”

“Narmi makes it clear that her trip here was less than desirable. At times, it was full of peril. Part of that must be expected from her role as observer, but now she is an ambassador.”

They expected him to take a cat on board. Worse, they had already traveled for who knew how long with a cat already smuggled on board. Captain Philip felt a surge of sympathy for Ervin’s recent struggle with misplaced tools. He glanced over at him. The radio technician had a smile so wide it almost split his helmet. Captain Philip felt his sympathy cool. He signaled Dunstan to address the unknowns and ship type.

“We do not know the needs of your kind,” Dunstan said. “And the Bonny does not have a lot of bells like the ships Ambassadors are usually given berth on. She’s a tough little worker.” Captain Philip nodded in appreciation. Though it would not be the first time small, hard-working Space Rover star ships were used to transport high ranking individuals.

“Give her the same considerations as one of your crew, and that should be acceptable for now. Details can be worked out along the way if we can be assured you are working with her good and comfort in mind.”

Captain Philip pointed to each of the three crew members of the Bonny and added the gesture for ‘work’.

Dunstan raised his eyebrows.

Captain Philip tried not to show too much of his vexation on his face. Duty? he asked through his hands.

Dunstan signaled back, ‘new frontiers’.

The Captain had to agree with that. Contact with a new civilization most definitely fell under the Space Rover job description.

“Of course we’ll do what we can to support good relationships with…your kind,” said Dunstan. “But communication is going to be a problem. And the crew doesn’t have much in the way of niceties. We’re hard working like our ship.”

“We will send with you the device which Retrac provided us to aid in communication. As for the rest, give Narmi the same respect and resting place and provisions as one of your own. Our nutrition and atmospheric requirements are quite similar, and I am sure you can manage. But I would have your word.”

Captain Philip would have liked to choose his own wording of acceptance, but in the circumstances he settled for a nod.

Chot continued to stare at him.

“We will accept your ambassador with the respect and care due him—her,” said Dunstan.

Chot still stared.

Captain Philip tamped down on his annoyance. What exactly was he supposed to do? It wasn’t as if the cat could hear anything he said. He stared back, then crouched down and offered a hand.

The cat did not shake. It rubbed its head against the hand. Captain Philip could distinctly hear a purr. For the sake of intergalactic relations, he scratched under the cat’s chin. There was indeed a layer under there, though thin and flexible around and beneath the muzzle. Up close, he could see that the film did not go over the mouth, but in. He wondered how far back it reached.

Chot leaned into the rub, eyes closed. Finally he stopped and slid past the Captain’s hand. Rearing up, Chot laid front paws against Captain Philip and pressed his nose against the curve of the Captain’s helmet directly above his nose.

“We look to you to keep yours and ours.” He dropped back down. “Now, details. It seems your ship is in such poor condition even you recognize the danger of traveling in it. We have a tool you will need for its repair…”

Captain Philip could think of a few details himself. He knew exactly who would get the new duty of waiting on the cat ambassador. The genius of it was Ervin looked so thrilled with recent developments that their guest would never guess that the assignment a cover for revenge.

He thought of his hammock and the lovely u-bolts in the corridor by the cargo bay. It wouldn’t be prejudice to abandon the sleeping cabin in order to make room for another soul.

This next leg of travel might be a long one, but he bet he could make it in a week.

 

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More stories by Hannah Christensen

 

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