”….. Are you two really going to keep on with that?”
Following a sigh of pure and undiluted exasperation, Haudrica narrowed her eyes at both Cole and Mizelle.
”It’s alright; we fiddled with this machine before and nothing happened.” Replied Mizelle as Cole removed the tiny box of glass and metal from the machine, causing the lights to return to their previous gleam.
”Yes, and who knows when we’ll come here again? Maybe we’ll never get another chance.” He said as he reached for the one he had found.
Unlike the one Mizelle put in, the box Cole had found had a very different look; polished metal on the exterior and a glass so clear it was almost invisible, unlike its murky-glassed and dull white counterpart.
Haudrica continued to look at them with that narrow-eyed expression which showed more tiredness than it did anger, despite them sleeping for a very long time. Her mouth opened for a moment like she was about to say something, but she stopped before uttering a single word, sighing yet again.
She said nothing else; she just sat there, cross-legged, and wearing the same tired expression of a husband on a six hours shopping trip with an easily distracted wife.
”So, it goes like this-.”
With a sound akin to that of putting a tape on a VCR, the room went dark again and the white luminosity formed yet again.
Once again, that alien tongue; Cole couldn’t help his déjà vu.
However, this time, the speaker in question looked quite different; it had a face for starters, and a rather human-esque one as well.
Two milky-white eyes, a sizable nose, a thin-lipped mouth, but no visible ears. He (?) lacked any kind of hair, had enough wrinkles to make a prune envious, and his skin had a texture and color like that of rough sandstone, with a fresh scar covering a good part of what would be his chin. And given how it moved around in the screen, this ‘video’ had been made while walking.
A long, long speech. Or more precisely, a briefing.
Even though Cole could not understand a single word of what this alien being was saying, his tone and manner of speaking put it on a very different place compared to the hazmat suit-clad one from the Organic Collector; this was a soldier, a man who spoke to be heard and obeyed.
Once in a while, he would pause to bark a few orders to some unseen subordinates offscreen, whose voices were never even heard.
However, unlike last time at the Collector, Haudrica was not translating; she merely looked at the projection with an expression of curiosity and tiredness.
Mizelle, on the other hand, gazed at the projection with the same kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child watching his favorite superhero movie.
Suddenly, the speech came to an end; a hissing of sorts followed by some muffled sounds made the speaker cut his speech short, putting the camera away, perhaps to attend to some newfangled difficulty.
A moment of silence went by as the ”screen” went dark, and all those watching it processed what had just taken place.
”That was unbelie-” Cole was the first to break the silence, only to be cut short by Haudrica.
”I am not translating all that.” she snarked dryly.
”Uhm…. OK….” replied Cole, raising an eyebrow, before he walked towards the machine and ‘ejected’ the cartridge from the machine. He still felt quite curious regarding what that alien on the video said, but Haudrica was clearly not in the mood for anything.
”So, we heading back now?” He asked, almost awkwardly.
Haudrica just heaved and sighed as she picked up her pack and began to open the door. Cole and Mizelle just trekked after her.
Stepping outside slowly, blades out, ears perked and eyes peeled. Luckily, the coast was clear, which made Cole heave in relief.
”Are we taking the same way back?” He asked, looking around.
”Of course, get moving.” Haudrica almost spat, not waiting three seconds to start walking away.
”Uhm…. I found a shorter route here.” Said Mizelle in polite protest, which was enough to stop Haudrica in her tracks as she turned back to look at her.
”It is rather dark, but it’s much bigger and not as windy. And also…” She fidgeted a bit before continuing, ”… there something in there you must see.” it took her some courage to say that. Her words were directed at Haudrica, who just looked at her with some minor confusion.
The shortcut that Mizelle had found seemed to be like some kind of monorail tunnel; a set of rail-like things ran along the walls and a big crevice in the ceiling that ran perfectly through the center of the tunnel. It was probably part of the same system as the one he had seen next to the Organic Collector before.
It barely had any light beyond some kind of ‘light lines’ running along the edges of the floor. But perhaps what drew Cole’s attention the most was the way they gotten inside.
Someone had clearly cut a slab of wall from the adjacent corridor to open a way into this tunnel. There were even some power lines still sparking within the cut wall. Whomever had done it had been in a hurry, as they’d left what looked like a bunch of tools behind. Which Cole was already regretting not being able to take home.
”How far does this thing go?” Asked Haudrica in an unusually puzzled manner, as she gazed into the darkness. A newfangled interest had just sparked in her.
”I don’t know; I found it using Cole’s map, it is this one here.” Replied Mizelle as she pulled out that same clipboard Cole had seen her with before. The line she was pointing to went around a long way, until it disappeared into the unmapped area. ”I passed five entrances before I got here.” she added as she pointed to a bunch of tiny squares she had drawn along the tunnel.
”How was she able to pinpoint those locations? She’s practically on the level of a GPS.” Thought Cole as he studied Mizelle’s annotations. Not only the route had been carefully detailed, but there were also a myriad of ‘pictograms’ along it, which Mizelle had most likely used to denote something of interest, or dangerous.
And it wasn’t just him, Haudrica too was looking at it; another unusual display from her.
”You really did well on your own.” Said Haudrica as she gave Mizelle a headpat, which made her blush brilliant red and caused her ears to flap up and down. Cole couldn’t help but think how weird she looked being nice to someone; her expression alone looked more like a stern smirk than like anything resembling a smile.
”Lead on, I’ll follow you close and keep you safe.” She added in an unusually soldier-like way.
”Ah-uhm…. err…” Mizelle was one big ball of fluster; looking all around as if she had just dropped something.
”Hey, don’t worry. I’m sure you can do it.” Replied Cole as Mizelle’s gaze found its way towards him.
”Nobody asked for your opinion!” Barked Haudrica at Cole’s response; now she was back to normal.
When Cole had reassured Mizelle that everything would be OK, he couldn’t help but internally worry what would happen if such was not the case; if they encountered something, Unit or Aberration, they would simply have nowhere to run but backwards, and one can only run away from a straight-line chase with nowhere to hide for so long, so they could end up being forced to fight again.
Yet, after what had felt like hours of just walking and walking and walking, with naught of interest showing up, and no accident beyond tripping on pieces of debris, Cole couldn’t help but feel he had just been over thinking.
”Uwaaaah….” He yawned, blinking a couple of times without halting his march. The repeating scenery and slow-paced walk was starting to make him feel like he was walking on a treadmill.
Haudrica and Mizelle were a few steps ahead of him; chattering about nothing in particular and occasionally stopping to check on one of the many ‘stations’ that were the only entrances to the tunnel, yet save for some dust-covered benches and some other minor litter, there was really nothing on them, so the march continued.
This, however, gave Cole the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a different side of Haudrica, namely, the one she only showed to Mizelle. The casual way in which both of them talked was no different from that of two girls at a shopping mall, which only raised in Cole even more the question of ‘Why only Mizelle?’.
However, as the tunnel began to take a curve to the right, Mizelle suddenly went silent, slowing her pace and advancing warily. Haudrica and Cole would soon imitate this behavior without question.
”This is the place.” She said, in soft tone, ”There is something here you need to see.” those words were directed at Haudrica.
Up ahead, the tunnel was blocked by what could be best described as a train wreck; two of the ‘wagons’ that had perused that tunnel laid there, crashed head on into each others.
The one coming from the direction they were coming looked like some sort of cargo vehicle; its cabin being quite small and a whole bed of what strongly resembled dirt had been knocked over when the other one had crashed into it. There were even some kind of vines and weeds growing out of the spilled material.
The one coming from the opposing direction, however, looked like a passenger car; cracked windows made most of its body with two rows of teal-blue seats covering the inside. Many vines and even some flowery plants had found their way onto it, wrapping around the twisted metal.
”Now we know why there are no trains coming…” thought Cole to himself as he followed them.
”Haudrica.” Mizelle stopped on her tracks, ”What you will see inside may make you sad, but I thought it would be wrong for me to not tell you.” she sounded almost guilty.
”What do you mean?” asked Haudrica, befuddled, as she retracted her scythes.
Mizelle shook her head slowly, ”Go, see for yourself.” she added, pointing at a torn-open door.
Haudrica breathed in deep and headed into the wagon, both Cole and Mizelle right behind.
”What the-!?” Cole couldn’t help but say that aloud.
The first thing they were greeted by inside, was the carcass of a humongous Aberration.
It was the same tentacle-headed species Cole and Haudrica had fought the day before, but this one was so large it made even the bigger one look like a cub. The fact it was all skin and bones now meant it had been there for a long time. Still, Cole couldn’t help but shiver in fright, thinking what could it have taken to kill this behemoth.
A foreign word came out of Haudrica’s lips, and it was then when Cole looked her way; she was in shock.
Slouched on one of the seats by the end of the wagon, laid the lifeless body of a rather large humanoid. While now covered with stains, it’s uniform retained its red and green colors, which contrasted deeply against the old-book-yellow color the exposed parts of its body had taken.
It was clearly an Irisonian, one much larger than Haudrica and the similar corpse that Cole saw on the Cryovaults. But more than that, Haudrica seemed to know him, as her expression was that of someone who had just found out about the untimely death of an old friend.
She stood there aghast for a few more moments; so still it looked as if she wasn’t breathing.
”Can I… ask you to wait outside?… Both of you…. please….” Her voice was soft, slow, yet broken as if spoken between breaths.
Was Cole not seeing her with his own eyes and hearing it with his own ears, he would had never believed such words could be coming out of the same mouth that usually spat out threats and insults on so much regular basis.
”… Alright…” That was his sole answer as he turned around to exit the wagon.
However, Mizelle did not do the same, ”Haudrica, I can help-” she began saying.
The echo of that roar almost shook the tunnel, making Mizelle scamper back and hide behind Cole like a child scared of a stranger.
”I am sorry, but…” Haudrica realized what she had done, taking a deep breath to relax, ”… this is something no outsider must see or take part in.” she added, her voice strongly hinting how hard she was holding her true emotions.
Even in her roar, there had been no hatred or anger, only sorrow and grief.
Mizelle was about to say something else, but Cole led her away, holding her hand like a parent taking his child away from something they would not understand.
”I… still don’t understand what just happened.” said Mizelle as she sat down, holding her knees as she rested her head on them, ”Was it wrong for me to tell her about that?” she asked, looking at Cole who reached for some leftover Aberration jerky he still had inside his bag.
”You did nothing wrong.” He said as he took a bite of it, ”Death, in whatever form it takes, will always be a traumatic experience for the onlooker.” that phrase would had sounded a lot more solemn had not he said it while chewing his food.
”Friend, lover, comrade, superior, rival, enemy; it’s never easy to find out about the death of someone, even if it’s someone you had not seen in years or cared about that much. That person was clearly someone of importance to her.” he added.
They had both sat far away from the wagons; close enough to have them within sight, but far enough to not see what Haudrica was doing.
Hours and hours went by, or at least so it seemed to Cole, as both he and Mizelle had long ran out of food and things to talk about. And still no word from Haudrica.
When not looking at Cole, Mizelle’s eyes remained nailed onto the wagon; watching, anxiously. And since they both had stayed in silence for at least ten minutes, her gaze had remained fixed.
”Haaahh… OK then. That’s enough me time.” He said, following a sigh, as he arose from his place. ”Let’s go check on her.” added Cole as he offered his outstretched hand to Mizelle, who replied with a nod as she took it, getting back up.
”Do you think she will be angry?” She asked, worryingly, as she keep looking at the wagon.
”Most likely, yes. But we can’t stay here forever; I’m sure everyone back home is worried sick about us, this adventure has gone long enough. Besides, do you wanna end up meeting the friends of that dead Aberration there?”
Even if he had said that half jokingly, they were still rather far away from the NVSC9. The truth was, however, that he was just as curious as Mizelle about what was going on there. And yet, he also couldn’t help but realize this was the first time he had called the NVSC9 ”home”.
In the silence of the tunnel, every step they took resounded like a drum, and with every meter he got closer, Cole couldn’t help but feel his gut twist with both anticipation and fear. What he would find inside? Haudrica broken with grief? Haudrica eating the corpse?
His imagination had not waited one nanosecond to start spinning weird ideas.
So the moment he walked thru the wagon’s entrance, he shut his eyes and then opened them again.
”Haudrica.” it was Mizelle who called her out, before Cole’s mind could process the scene before him.
A twisty ribcage made into an archway, a terrifying skull adorning the capstone, and a hall of dry skin covering all the sides of the arch to the back.
One of the seats of the wagon had been place on its back, centered under the arch, where the body of Haudrica’s kinsman sat, arms crossed and scythes bare, with his face solemnly looking down.
”I thought I had asked you two to remain outside, but I am done now, so I guess there is no harm. This is something no outsider would ever be allowed to see, so feel honored.” Replied Haudrica, her voice a stern blend of sadness.
She was standing to the left of the enthroned dead, left arm behind her back, right fist under her chin, and right scythe extended out. It was quite clearly some kind of military salute.
”You stand before the last resting place of Weapon Specialist Sehekhoiral, born of state-endorsed union within the 57th Branch of the Warmonger Caste, and Honored Servitor of the Irisonian Dominion, who found his death at the hands of an undoubtedly worthy foe, and still managing to bring his opponent down with him.”
They were words worthy of a herald announcing his king. And with that long speech, she broke her pose, walking past the awestruck Cole.
”I know those words mean nothing to you and that you may see my people as primitive for still endorsing death rituals, but wasted as they may be, it’s the least I can for Sehek….. I know he would had done the same for me.” she said in her usual tone to Cole as she walked him past, not meeting his gaze, ”And Mizelle…. I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to treat you like I did.” and like before, she changed her tone with Mizelle, to which Cole sighed internally.
”There is nothing ridiculous taking place here.” said Cole as he reached for a cluster of tiny yellow flowers that grew on a vine entangled to the roof of the wagon, ”The dead always deserve, at the very least, a minimum of respect and tribute, and by honoring that, is how we show we are different from beasts.” with those words he put the tiny flowers by the feet of the dead and gave it his own military salute. ”Don’t think of yourself less for that.” he added.
”Hmph! Then let us be gone from here, and leave him to rest.” Replied Haudrica, now in her usual tone as she walked out of the wagon without looking back.
Mizelle, however, once again remained behind, although this time, she looked confused. She just stood there, in ponderous silence, for a while, gazing at the dead.
”Death… I…. still don’t understand….” She muttered, so low it was almost imperceptible.
”Don’t worry about that now. Let’s go.” but it was enough for Haudrica to hear it.
However, even as she followed Haudrica, Mizelle’s expression remained rather restless.
Cole dismissed it as mere confusion on her part. He would one day regret this decision greatly.
”Cole! Mizelle! Ya guys! Where had’ya ran off to? Gon’ adventurin’ without sayin’? Almost had Zalura go out to look for ya.”
Running at full speed and four legs, Desri said all that as Cole opened the shutter. He looked considerably upbeat, and as expected he pretty much ignored Haudrica’s presence, as she did the same when she walked past him.
”Well, I wouldn’t call that adventuring, but yeah, it had its good moments. Although I would not want to repeat any of the bad ones.” He said in mild amusement.
”Mm, we saw lots of things.” Added Mizelle with a nod.
She still looked a bit absent-minded, but that was most likely the tiredness and the low food, which had taken a toll on them all.
”Good moments, you say…?”
This voice came from behind of them almost like a whisper, and both turned back to look at the speaker when-
A karate chop was delivered to both their foreheads with perfect synchrony.
Their yelps came out in chorus.
Tetlekar was standing there, brow furrowed to the maximum. And even though he had not put any force onto it, his hands were still made of metal, so it was a bit painful.
”You both vanished without trace, leaving no notes or information of any kind behind that may indicate your destination; you could had been anywhere in the Phylactery, and that would had been my search range. How would I had been able to track you down if you were in a bind?” Said Tetlekar in an admonishing tone.
”Track down….?” Those two words made Cole murmur slowly, as his expression morphed into a very somber one. He had just remembered THAT unpleasant business.
”Cole?” Mizelle was quickly to notice the change.
”It’s nothing, just feeling a bit tired.” He said as he walked away towards his place.
Tetlekar was gazing at him as he left; a stare both perplexing and unreadable, as if his facial servos had stopped right where they were, freezing his expression.
Coming back to the RV after a long run and the following unpacking and sorting had become so much of Cole’s routine that he often felt something akin to homesickness vanish from him as soon as he crossed the often creaky door.
Having no real ”pack” this time but that courier bag he had long since overstuffed, like he did with his jumpsuit’s pockets, this time the sorting was quick. The two things he had yet to find a place for were the ”Cartridge” with the alien video log on it, Eustace’s gun, which he just did not feel like leaving there, and that torn-off belt loop bearing the now-shattered tracking bit.
Just looking at the last of them made him feel uneasy.
*Knock, knock, knock*
A rhythmic rap on his door, followed by a familiar voice.
”Cole, may I come in?” Tetlekar’s voice sounded unusually soft.
He said nothing but walked towards the door, fully opening it and looking at his visitor before speaking.
”What? Not gonna sneak behind me to make me jump?” Said Cole sarcastically.
”Such would not be the optimal approach for this situation.” Replied Tetlekar in a rather flat tone.
Cole said nothing else as he walked back in, motioning Tetlekar to follow him.
”Do you know why I am angry?” Asked Cole as he looked straight at Tetlekar’s eyes, where tiny lights sometimes moved around.
”I have a handful of theories, but would you allow me to speak first?” The way he was speaking was slow, wary and methodical; like a psychologist dealing with a dangerous patient.
”Uhm, no?” Cole’s reply was almost comical, but his face remained bitter as he dropped the shattered tracking bit on the table, ”But mind telling me what am I looking at?” he added.
Tetlekar’s body underwent a strange reaction; for a moment, his torso seemed to grow a bit along with a soft whooshing sound like that of a small vacuüm cleaner.
”Haaaaah…” This was followed by a long, hefty sigh. Perhaps that movement was due to him not having to breathe but needing to simulate the act of a sigh.
”It was for your own protection.” He said, his voice sounding unusually mechanical; as if he was reading it from a text in his mind.
”Pfft-hahaha!” Cole couldn’t help but burst in laughter, ”What’s next then? The white vans and the shackles?” he was pretty sure that quote was unintentional, but it still came so naturally so he had to react in the proper way.
”I do not understand what you find so funny.” His expression remained as deadpan as usual, but hinting confusion that went beyond not understanding Cole’s reference.
”What I find funny is that you had been tracking me all this time, never told me a thing and now you deliver that line and expect me to just accept it without asking questions. I trusted you, Tetlekar, and I did not believe a word of what that bastard said, but after seeing this, I could not help but doubt.” Replied Cole as his expression grew dark.
”So… you met him too.” Tetlekar’s expression grew dark as well, ”I always knew Haudrica had been lying.” he added bitterly.
”You don’t have the right to call other people liars, at least not right now. And to be honest, I believe Haudrica; all I saw of her in this journey has certainly made me rethink my opinion on her.” Retorted Cole with an unfriendly expression as he sat on a nearby couch, ”And if I don’t hear some kind explanation as of why you put this bug on me without telling me, I may have to rethink my opinion of you as well. Because I dunno how it’s in your world, but in mine, trust is hard-earned, and very easily lost.” he added, his expression most stern.
Tetlekar stood there; unmoving, eyes cast down, with his body letting out soft humming noises and even softer beeps and bleeps, like an old 80s era computer copying files around.
”Ah-” At last his mouth opened, but only that sound came out, followed by a few more intermittent mouth movements as if the words would just not come out.
He then straightened his posture and did another of those wheezy sighs, which Cole couldn’t help but wonder if it was some cooling process.
”I… do not believe I possess the adequate linguistic generation algorithms to propound the logic sustaining my actions into simple words or sentences without simplifying or generalizing it to the point its meaning would be either not fully understood or even misunderstood.” The feeling behind those words could only be described as shame, and it was the first time Cole had seen Tetlekar react like that.
”Oookay…. That was the biggest mouthful of sesquipedalian loquaciousness I have seen outside of stock hollywood geniuses.” Thought Cole as his mind finished wrapping around what Tetlekar had just said.
”However-” he continued all of a sudden, ”I am able to show it to you; to show you the reason behind my actions, and mayhaps then, we shall come to a mutual understanding.” his demeanor turning serious all of a sudden; far more serious than usual, and showing shades of… Sadness? Melancholy? Cole couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he couldn’t help but feel something had just changed in Tetlekar.
”What are you suggesting exactly?” However, Cole would not budge so easily.
”I can show you something I have not shown or told about to anyone else. And once you have seen it, I will let you judge whether or not my actions are justified.” Continued Tetlekar as he straightened his posture.
”… I get the feeling you are very confident in the fact that I will end up agreeing with you, but what would happen if it was the other way around?” Asked Cole as he lifted an eyebrow.
”That will be up to you. I am taking what you may describe as a wild wager; I am gambling what I consider to that which is most important to me in hopes our mindsets and points of view may align. If I am wrong, I only have myself to blame.” Tetlekar replied.
”You…. still aren’t making much sense, and I get the feeling you are looking down on me.” said Cole as he scratches his head ”However, I will give you the benefit of doubt; you gave me a blind vote of confidence the day I arrived, and it would had been much easier for you to just let Haudrica kill me, and nothing would had changed.” Cole got up from his seat as he spoke ”Consider this as me paying back that particular gesture.”
That was what he said. But deep inside his mind, the flames of curiosity had been lit; what did Tetlekar have stashed at some hidden place that was worthy of such secrecy and safekeeping?
He couldn’t help but wonder if he was just playing along the way Tetlekar had intended, but now that the lure of the unknown was cast before him, that wariness was rendered powerless.
<End of Chapter 10>