The newly appointed Captain Dorus gazed at his new crew, each one interviewed and hand-picked by him. The not-so-hotshot pilot, Orson, who retired early after she was nearly killed flying into a star during a practice maneuver. The experienced engineer, Rekha, whose tendency to tinker a little too much got her booted off the first four ships she was assigned to. A doctor, Shade, who had no specialty because she kept getting distracted by new discoveries. And the actor, Kellu, whose purpose there no one—including himself—quite understood.
Like most people, none of them had inherited any wealth, and so aside from their chosen professions, they had to work for Main Operations, and had been assigned to work at Static Operations. But they’d all put in for field assignments with Dynamic Operations, and now they had all managed to earn one.
Captain Dorus grinned at his new crew. “Good news, everyone. We have an assignment and we have a ship. We are going to the K system.”
“What about a designation?” Orson asked, her dark eyes glittering like a field of stars.
The captain gave a single nod. “We—yes, we have that too. We have been designated the Dynamic Operations Regulators of the K System.”
Doctor Shade crossed her arms. “DORKS?”
The captain was met with frowns and sniffs.
“Regulators?” Kellu asked. “We’re going to be regulators? That’s no different from what we all do now.”
The captain was now met with grumbles of agreement with Kellu. They were probably hoping they might be ambassadors or heralds or liaisons, or at the least, announcers.
Dorus tried to be chipper about their assignment. He reminded them that they were all finally getting to go out there and be free of their desks, free of the oversight of bosses, and the bosses of bosses, walking by every hour. They would be independent, only reporting back to Main Operations every now and then.
That seemed to work, as did their introduction to their new ship. As with their own designation, the crew expressed some dissatisfaction with the ship’s name, Right-flyer. Main Operations was obviously reminding them to fly right as they embarked on their first assignment.
What truly excited the crew was the location of their assignment. Main Operations had never been in the K System before. The system was at the outer rim of the galaxy. Someone had sent an urgent request to Main Operations to send regulators. That request was three years old. Main Operations had finally deemed it the right time. As regulators, it would be their job to monitor the system to ensure it remained…regular.
So Dorus was ready to encounter a resentful, maybe even a hostile, people when they arrived. He had asked for weapons on the Right-flyer, and had received slightly irritated looks from the ships master. He imagined the worst, facing space pirates, thieves, and smugglers.
But when they arrived at the borders of the K system, they were met with an official escort, who welcomed them and guided them to the closest planet. There, Dorus and the crew met the liaison who was assigned to them, received updated system maps, got invited to a dinner that evening where they would meet other important contacts, and then they started their assignment.
Everything went so smoothly that the crew began joking and asking if they were actually on the vacation that preceded their true assignment.
After a week, they realized that the K system was a well-oiled machine of peace and prosperity. The system didn’t need regulation.
This observation led them to speculate that they had been sent on an easy mission, perhaps as a way for Main Operations to get a foothold in a previously unoccupied system, and at the same time give a few lifelong desk jockeys the opportunity to play field operators.
“Someone knew,” Orson said at dinner one day. “This is why they sent us here. This is probably what they do with all the static operators who have dreams of being out here in the field. Send them to some system that doesn’t really need any regulation.”
Kellu stood up from the table and began clearing the plates. “Maybe we can still do something good. These people seemed to have figured out the secret of living together peacefully. Maybe we can study them, or just ask them what their secret is, and pass that on to MO.”
“Main Operations doesn’t work that way,” Dorus said.
Rekha nodded. “We wouldn’t be here if someone in the system did not reach out for aid.”
“Who was it?” Orson raised her brows. “We should look them up and ask them what they wanted us to do out here.”
On looking up the name on the formal request documentation, the crew realized that it was someone they hadn’t yet met. That was odd indeed. Over the past week, they had suffered through so many greetings of “hello, DORKS” that they were sure they’d met every official in the system.
When next Dorus met with their system liaison, he asked her about it. She reminded Dorus that Main Operations had taken a few years responding to the request. In that time, the person who submitted that request had retired. The person was currently on vacation, but she could have them cut it short if the captain wanted to speak to them. Dorus, of course, insisted it was not necessary to bother someone on vacation.
He briefed the rest of the crew with what he had learned.
Most of the crew seemed satisfied with the explanation. But Dorus saw the slight crinkle in his engineer’s brow, a crinkle that he recognized as doubt. He was certain that she would continue wondering and tinkering, as was her nature. So he wasn’t surprised when Rekha approached him a few days later and told him that she had managed to track down the mysterious person who had requested their presence in the K system.
“Lo’Kundh is her name,” Rekha said, bringing up a map of the system on the nearest console screen. “And here is the strange thing, Captain. According to all of the tracking and searching I’ve done, her current location is…here.”
She magnified the image and pointed to a nebula.
“I don’t see any planets nearby,” the captain said, peering at the screen.
“There aren’t any. She’s not near the nebula, sir. She’s inside it.”
So they flew to the nebula. Some instinct made Dorus advise his pilot to keep the ship in stealth mode, and to keep the whole crew on the bridge.
“I thought all nebulas were supposed to be beautiful,” Kellu said as the ship approached the outer edge.
Unlike most of the nebulas that Dorus had ever seen, either on their way to the K system or in the cosmic image archives, this one glowed a single color, a sickly green. Rekha reported detecting unique noxious gases and compounds on the surface and within.
But even more perplexing, she detected something that they never would have expected.
“A planet?” the captain said. “Are you sure? There’s no star here.”
“I hope it has a very powerfully protective atmosphere,” Orson said, adjusting the ship’s position to keep from being sucked in by a tidal force that just appeared. “This nebula is weird.”
“That must be where Lo’Kundh is,” Rekha said. “This makes more sense than a person floating around inside a nebula. Even if she was in a ship, that ship wouldn’t last long in there. I guess our detectors couldn’t correct for the interference from the nebular gases until we got closer.”
“Captain, there is nothing in the system records about a planet inside this nebula,” the doctor said, frowning as she swiped her console screen. “There’s also not much detail about the nebula itself. Doesn’t look like there are any records of surveys or research, or even probe data.”
Kellu turned around. “Captain, it would seem we are in over our heads. We might be trespassing. Perhaps we should ask our hosts before we proceed any further.”
“I have a feeling our liaison would tell us our readings were wrong or something,” the captain said.
Rekha huffed. “And that we’re needed elsewhere?”
“That would be a stupid lie,” Orson added. “All they’ve been doing since we got here is praising our ship’s detection technologies.”
“But you’re right about one thing, Kel,” the captain said. “We do need further guidance. We need to get an encrypted message to Main Operations.”
Rekha swiveled around in her chair. “Sir, even at fastest speed, and even if they answer right away, it will take a day or two for us to receive the response.”
“Then let’s see what we can find out while we’re parked out here.”
Four standard days passed before Orson reported receiving an urgent message from Main Operations. The crew waited while the captain listened to the message in private.
When he gathered them all on the bridge, he did not hide his dissatisfaction.
“Main Operations said they have no record of the planet,” he said. “Furthermore, they said they reached out to our liaison to ask how we were working out, and our K system hosts gave us the highest praise. MO doesn’t want us to screw anything up. They’ve asked us to stand down from investigating any further, and to keep the ship out of the nebula. If we incur any repairs, or worse, if we need to replace the ship, it will come out of our pay, past pay and future pay if need be.”
“Well, Orson and I too have been scouring through the archived MO data about the K system,” Shade said, “and true we did not find a planet. But we did find the nebula.”
“I don’t think they denied the existence of the nebula,” Kellu said. “Did they, Captain?”
“I’m a doctor. I don’t know much about nebulas, but this one looks a lot different from the one off our port bow.”
The doctor summoned the image on the main view screen of a spectacular-looking nebula. From a glowing pink center flowed fluttering waves of deep purple whose edges were a brilliant blue. Thick clouds of orange shimmering as if with gold dust billowed from under the fluttering waves.
“Looks like some kind of gorgeous mushroom,” Orson said, gazing up at the image.
“It’s in the same position,” the doctor said. “This is what we should be looking at.”
Orson pointed out of the port window. “That is not a gorgeous mushroom.”
“I have something to share,” Rekha said. “Something that might help explain why we’re not looking at a…gorgeous mushroom. I’ve been detecting an intermittent signal coming from the nebula, specifically from the planet inside.”
Dorus frowned. The engineer had informed him of the signal when she first detected it on their second day floating outside that nebula.
“It’s a broadcast,” Rekha continued, “and it’s following the diurnal cycle of each planet in the system, meaning the signal follows each planet’s night.”
“What’s in the broadcast?” the doctor asked.
The engineer leaned back in her chair. “It doesn’t seem to be any kind of message or announcement. The captain asked me to block it from the ship. I launched a probe a few days ago to receive the broadcast and filter it before transmitting it back to us.”
Rekha glanced at the captain, who nodded. She then glanced at Kellu. “Kel’s been helping me try to decipher the content of the broadcast. We tried various languages, starting with the ones native to this system, various codes, ciphers, and so on. Nothing was working. Doc, I was about to recruit you next, because this looks like it might be brainwaves?”
She brought up a visualized representation of the broadcast signal.
The doctor rose from her seat, her eyes narrowing as she peered at the images. “Good call.”
“Can you tell anything from looking at the patterns, Doctor?” Kellu asked.
The captain sighed and crossed his arms. “Mind control.”
“That is an extreme conclusion to jump to, sir,” the actor said, his eyes widening.
“Is it? Or is it too obvious a picture from all the suspicious puzzle pieces we’ve gathered since we got here?”
He rose from his chair and began pacing the bridge as he spoke.
“Humor me for moment. They’ve got their own kind of regulation going on here. And it’s bad. So Lo’Kundh requested help from MO. And got her signal through. But she was caught and sent to this toxic nebula planet. MO sent us in response to her request. So we now have to figure out what we’re going to do to help the people of this system, and whoever is on that planet, because I’m willing to bet it’s not just Lo’Kundh hanging around all by herself.”
Rekha nodded. “Someone is creating and maintain that broadcast.”
Orson sat up straight. “Captain, please tell me you’re considering flying into that nebula.”
“Please tell me you’re not!” Kellu said, an exaggerated expression of horror on his face.
“She’s probably in need of medical assistance,” Shade said, her fingers rolling into a fist. “And if there are others…”
“May I remind you all that we are facing worse than docked paychecks if we enter that nebula?” Kellu said. “This ship’s hull was not built to travel through spatial phenomena.”
“He’s not wrong,” Rekha said. “But I can make some shield modifications to help us get through, and once we land on that planet, its atmosphere should protect us.”
“Our mandate is to do our jobs well and not just correctly,” the captain said. “MO doesn’t know all of the nuances of the situations out in the field. That’s why they send field operators. We were sent here to help these people, to keep things regular. I would say, based on evidence and also gut feeling, that what’s happening here is highly irregular. Further investigation is needed, and if MO has warned the system officials of our curiosity, then we need to proceed now. This is not what any of us signed up for, so if anyone wants to part now, they can take the emergency shuttle and leave. I recommend returning home and reporting everything you know. There will be no negative consequences from me or anyone who decides to come with me. Understood?”
Dorus was met with a chorus of “ay, sir’s.”
“Is it me, or was this too easy?” the captain said, as the Right-flyer landed in a clearing surrounded by some kind of coniferous forest.
Orson breathed heavily. “Speak for yourself, sir.”
Once inside the nebula, the shields, modified by Rekha, held up better than expected. And once inside the planet’s atmosphere, which was formed of a gentle gradient that eased the ship through, the hull needed no protection at all. The planet showed signs of previous habitation, ruins of buildings, roads, outposts, cultivation, and culture. But all seemed to be ruins, except for signs of life on the continent where they landed. The air was breathable and by all standard detections, free of any microscopic dangers. The doctor insisted that anyone who went outside wear an excursion suit anyway.
But even as the captain began choosing an excursion team, Rekha halted him.
“I’m receiving a lot of cross-communication signals,” she said. “Captain, we’re half a continent away at the moment, but…there’s a rebellion in progress.”
The ground communications on the planet were simple messages going back and forth. They were encrypted and protected, but not from the Right-flyer’s decoding algorithms. Rekha guessed that whoever was sending the messages was using old technology or broken devices that were hastily repaired.
She easily intercepted all communications. Some of them seemed intended to break through the planet’s atmosphere and through the nebula.
The crew soon pieced together a story. The captain was right. There was something like regulation-gone-wrong happening on the planet and in the system. The communications spoke of something called a Limiter. It seemed to be a sentient thing, though it was unclear if the Limiter was organic or synthetic or even corporeal. The Limiter was the reason that the K system seemed to be so calm and peaceful. While they were trying to trace its origins and stop it, the people of the K system succumbed to its influence. But the effect was incomplete. There were resistors, those who could throw off the Limiter’s influence. Lo’Kundh was one such resistor, and she became a leader.
She was leading her fellow prisoners in a rebellion against her own people, those who were still under the Limiter’s influence and who were serving as guards and administrators on the prison planet.
In the time that the rest of the crew was listening to the ground communications, the doctor was filtering out all the medical data. People were fighting, being injured, maimed, and killed. She could have helped some of them. But the captain ordered her to stay aboard until they could find a way to safely assist, if in fact there was a way. His plan included trying to reach out to Lo’Kundh herself. But they could not locate her.
The doctor searched the resistor’s medical records, whatever was available. She found some strange discrepancies, discrepancies that changed the story that the rest of the crew was putting together.
In the absence of a star, the planet’s atmosphere appeared at a dismal brightness like that of a rainy day. It was raining when the doctor barged onto the bridge.
The captain held up a hand, as if he knew what she was about to say. “Doctor, I know you want to get out there and save people. But you’re not an expert field agent. And frankly, if you do go out there, you won’t save anyone, because you’ll be dead within moments. If the conflict doesn’t kill you, this toxic rain will.” He looked at her and winced slightly.
But the doctor’s eyes were wide as she activated her bridge console. “We’re not expert field agents,” she said. “But we are experts at our fields.”
The rest of the crew gathered around her.
“Based on the medical records I’ve been reviewing, there’s no way Lo’Kundh could have sent MO that request when she did. She’s been imprisoned on this planet for the past seven years. The request for aid was sent three years prior.”
Rekha rubbed her chin. “There’s been no mention in the ground communications of Lo’Kundh sending a request for help from Main Operations.”
The captain sighed. “And it wouldn’t have made sense for her to do so. Main Operations is about regulation not rebellion.”
“So…who sent the message?” Kellu asked, glancing among the crew.
“Who would benefit from having MO present?”
Rekha snapped her fingers just as the captain said, “The Limiter.”
“Who better than Main Operations to tout an effective regulation technique to bring peace to any system that seeks it?” the engineer said, shaking her head.
The captain gazed up and out of the dorsal window. “The Limiter’s influence must be limited.” He gazed down and around at his crew. “The more its signal spread in the system, the more diffuse that signal became, and the more resistors arose. Maybe too many resistors for the Limiter to contain on one planet for long. The Limiter was hoping to get MO’s help to strengthen and spread its signal.”
“Lo’Kundh probably has no idea that the Limiter—or someone under its influence—called us in her name,” Rekha said.
“They’re enemies,” the doctor said. “Using its enemy’s name to spread its signal suggests the Limiter is…spiteful.”
Orson leaned against the console. “Captain, what do we do?”
“Observe and report, just as we are doing, according to current policy,” Kellu said. “We are not required to put our lives in jeopardy to maintain regulation in wartime situations. In fact, it’s—I believe it’s against current policy. Our job is to observe and report.”
“Then why did you come in here with us?” Orson said, smirking. “You could have observed and reported from the emergency shuttle.”
“The Right-flyer was able to block the signal easily enough,” the captain said, “but only because we were aware of it. Rekha, can you trace the signal to its source? I expect it’ll be tricky. It’s a system-wide broadcast and we’re inside the system.”
“Actually, Captain, not so tricky,” the engineer said. “I already know, thanks to the planet. Let’s just say it’s providing a reference point. My first guess was wrong. I thought that the broadcast was coming from the planet itself. But it’s actually originating off the planet’s northern hemisphere. Way above orbiting distance.”
“Captain, what do you think we can do?” Kellu said. “We’re just DORKS.”
“If we can find the source of the signal, we can block it from broadcasting altogether, and that would mean the Limiter’s influence would drop. Is that doable?”
Rekha took a deep breath. “Now that actually might be tricky. We don’t have enough power to just block the signal. But…I may have another way, using the nebula. I need to look into it. And I’ll need Orson’s help.”
“Great, get on it. We’ll need to find and contact Lo’Kundh, and let her know what we plan to do, so she can spread the word and have her people stop fighting their fellow system citizens once the Limiter’s influence is blocked.”
“The effects won’t be immediate, Captain,” the doctor warned. “It’ll take a few moments for the people under the Limiter’s influence to get re-oriented.”
They found the rebel leader, outside of a smaller prison compound, preparing to charge it and free the prisoners within, some of which she hoped to recruit. She didn’t seem surprised to hear from them, or worried about their presence. She suspected the Limiter would try to use Main Operations. But she was surprised by their plan.
She told them what she could about the Limiter. She even sent what information she had about its weapons and defenses, or rather, the planet’s weapons and defenses, which the Limiter had appropriated.
The Right-flyer had no weapons, but it did have a sophisticated cloak, with dynamic frequency-shift that could adapt to most detection methods. And Orson could fly around any mines or other static traps.
They flew toward the planet’s northern hemisphere and then out, beyond orbiting distance. Far out, they approached the strange sight, a mass of pulsating plasma that glowed unsettling shades of green.
“Is that it? Or that it’s heart?” Doctor Shade asked.
And just after she said it, a notion dawned in the captain’s mind. Whether they were approaching its heart or its stomach, or maybe its brain, they were, indeed, inside the Limiter.
Because the Limiter was inhabiting the nebula.
What do you want, ship?
The voice was clear, deep, vibrating.
“Are we being hailed?” the captain asked. “Is a channel open?”
Rekha frowned down at her console. “No sir, I…”
“It’s communicating directly to our minds,” Shade said. “Syncing with our brainwaves patterns. I’m guessing.”
The captain glanced at her. He hoped speaking to their minds was all the Limiter could do. If it could read their minds as well, their plan had already failed. He pointed to Kellu and the actor nodded. They switched places.
Dorus started helping Rekha and Orson with the signal-blocking device. Kellu sat in the captain’s chair.
“We are observers,” Kellu said. “We have come to observe you.”
I do not wish to be observed. You did not ask.
Kellu’s task was to keep the Limiter occupied long enough for the rest of them to calibrate and synchronize and set and switch and adjust, so that when they attempted to block the signal coming from the Limiter’s organ, they would not need another chance.
Kellu asked permission to observe and was denied it. He asked permission to converse and the Limiter said nothing in reply.
Kellu asked what the Limiter was doing in the K system, and how long it had been there. To the captain’s surprise, the Limiter answered. It had been in the system for only fifteen standard years. And it had come because it had needed to, had needed the people of the system.
“You’re siphoning off their energy so you can stay alive,” Kellu guessed.
Oh no, a billion of your fragile kind could hardly keep me alive for one heartbeat.
“Then this is some experiment. You’re a mad researcher of some kind.”
No, not that either. I just…enjoy it.
An alarm sounded on the ship.
“What’s that?” Kellu asked.
The doctor shook her head. “We’ve been fired upon. Missiles from the planet are heading up to us.”
I can see through your cloak.
“Why have you fired on us?” Kellu asked. “Have we done something to provoke you?”
I have been patient. My patience is at an end.
“All right, all right. We’ll move off. But I request that, as a sign of good faith, that you recall those missiles.”
You wish for me to let them fall to the planet? On the people?
“No!” the captain said, pulling away from the device that the engineer and the pilot were still working on.
Leave the nebula, or I will destroy you.
“At this point, you’ll destroy us anyway,” the captain said. Kellu jumped out of his seat, but the captain remained standing. “The MO will call it a loss, and say that we disobeyed orders and went in over our heads when we decided to enter the nebula.”
“Although, Captain, the loss of the Right-flyer and its crew, even if it was our own foolish decision, will make the MO hesitant to send another ship out,” Kellu said, “especially since everything seems to be fine in the K system. No need for regulation.”
“That’s right,” the captain said with a sideways smile to the actor. “The only way to ensure that you get what you want, the best means to spread your signal beyond this system, is to partner with Main Operations.”
The pilot and engineer turned to the captain and gave him their thumbs up.
Orson rushed to her seat. But they could see it was too late for her to evade. They had to remain in position for the signal block to work. It was a counter-signal. Something that once released would continue iterating. Blowing up the Right-flyer would make no difference once their device was activated. But they had to remain in position. Or all their calculations would be thrown off.
“Captain, the missiles will hit in five seconds,” the doctor said. “Don’t think our shields will hold, but they’re up.”
“Block that signal, and good luck to the K system,” the captain said.
Rekha had already activated the device.
The Right-flyer and crew braced themselves to be blown up.
“We’re still alive?” the doctor asked. She was frantically punching commands on her console. “Re-checking missile distance.”
“Doctor, you didn’t miscalculate,” the captain said.
Bright lights from below indicated that the missiles had struck something.
“Is it safe to unclench everything that we’re clenching?” Orson said.
“Vessels detected,” Rekha said, a split second before they saw the vessels outside of each window on the bridge.
Surrounding them were several K system fighter wings.
Orson tightened her grip on the ship’s thrusters. “Should we…re-clench everything we were clenching?”
But the captain viewed the fighters’ formation. “They’re surrounding us, but their weapons are facing outward.”
They K system fighters were forming a protective phalanx around the Right-flyer.
“Captain, sensors are detecting larger ships outside of the nebula,” Rekha said. “And more fighters heading in. Some have landed on the planet already.”
“Weapons fire?” the captain asked.
It would seem to you have won the day.
The pulsating plasma began to pale and turn vaporous. It dissipated, and as it did, they heard the fading voice of the Limiter speak one last message.
Next time, DORKS.
“Not that I’m complaining, but where did these guys come from all of a sudden?” Orson asked, staring at the figthers.
“My guess is Main Operations,” the captain said. “Maybe they had a gut feeling too, that we would not follow orders to just observe and report.”
“Captain, instead of calculating and concluding, we could just ask them,” Kellu said. “Asking does work sometimes.”
The captain nodded, but he needed a moment to figure out what exactly to ask.
“This is strange,” Rekha said. “The official records of the K system, they’re changing. I think…I think they’re beginning to correct themselves somehow now that the Limiter has gone.” Her eyes widened. “There’s something here about a planet that was once the heart of the system. This planet was located inside of a very beautiful nebula that looked a lot like a gorgeous mushroom. The Limiter ruined the planet and slowly gathered there any history that could not be erased from virtual record, along with the resistor prisoners.” She suddenly smiled. “Our translation of the planet’s name? Kaleidoscope. It was the reason we gave this system its designation, K.”
“Did we know that? Did we forget?” Orson wondered.
“How did this not come up in our communications with MO?” the captain asked.
“I’m reading that it did, but their communications with us were altered,” Shade said. “Captain, it looks like we managed to keep the Limiter’s influence out of our minds, but not out of our records.”
“Speaking of communications, there’s a lot of chatter from the planet and from the fleet of ships that are now positioned all over the nebula,” Rekha said.
Orson leaned forward. “The weather is changing out there. Now that the Limiter had departed, it looks like the nebula is self-correcting too. It’s looking to get turbulent in here.”
“But why did it leave?” Rekha said. “Even with all the ships in the system banded together, it probably could have taken them. I mean, it turned this entire nebula noxious.”
“Its toys turned against it and it left to go sulk,” Orson said.
The captain lowered himself into his chair. “That’s probably right. But whatever the reason, let’s just be glad it’s gone and hope it doesn’t return.”
“We’re being hailed, sir,” Rekha said. “From all sides.”
“Captain, what did we just do?” Kellu said.
Orson answered. “We’ve unregulated this system.”
“Hail them back, the planet and all the ships,” the captain said.
Rekha nodded. “All channels are open, sir. Go ahead.”
“This is Dorus, Captain of the Right-flyer and Dynamic Operations Regulator. Thank you to the fighters who destroyed the missiles that were fired on us. As you can see, we have no weapons ourselves. We’ll be in touch to brief you in about thirty minutes—standard minutes. With your permission, we are prepared to help. We are sending all crew member’s qualifications. And we are also prepared to submit to the requirements of system law regarding our actions in the nebula. We recognize that our actions were…renegade.”
All was silent for a moment, only a moment, but the moment seemed to stretch on and on as if they were sitting at the edge of a black hole.
Finally, a line opened, and a voice spoke, the voice of rebel leader Lo’Kundh.
“If you DORKS are serious, we could use your help on the planet.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel