”Ya wanna know wha’?” Desri’s jaw hung in disbelief upon the question he had just heard.
”The Irisonians. You told me you’ve been to all kinds of places and seen all kinds of cultures and civilizations and stuff. So I was just wondering if you knew anything of them specifically.” Repeated Cole after a few spoonfuls of some pleasantly spicy stew. The food synthesizer had a minor hiccup that had resulted in that spike of spiciness, but Cole had found the final result refreshingly tasty.
”Hrm….” Desri let out a soft growl as he changed his sitting posture, ”Imma’n Oularnian Citizen me’self, had I set one paw within the Irisonian Dominion, prolly not two bits of me would be whole now.” His voice became slow and thoughtful, which slightly diminished his usual accent, ”And while I ‘ave met more than a few outcasts ‘n exiles, they quickly ‘dapt’d ’emselves to the Oularnian lifestyle and b’yond that…” he raised his head before slowly looking down ”We ‘ave been in war with ’em since long b’fore my species even had sapience, so our opinion o’ genuine Irisonians is tainted by g’nerations o’ hatred. Not all o’ it underserv’d, mind ya.” there was some amount of a barely disguised mixture of hatred and anger on those words.
”I… see… sorry I asked.” Cole couldn’t help but feel he had, in his outsider’s ignorance, inadvertently touched upon a sensitive topic.
Tetlekar and Zalura had left to gather some spare parts to repair the synthesizer, and Haudrica and Mizelle had long finished their supper and gone to sleep. It was just him and Desri, so he figured this was the best time to ask questions.
”Wait pup, it ain’t the way ya seein’ it.” Desri was quick to see the meaning behind Cole’s reaction, ”Lemme word it like this…. I ‘ave many culturally-ingrain’d biases; racisms, if ya may fancy the term. So if I were to pass onto ya this knowl’dge, I reckon I’d be passin’ those biases as well, and with ya lacking the culture base to actually reflect ‘pon these, ya may end up d’velopin’ wrong concept’ons and st’reotypes. And from a teacher’s standp’nt, I woundn’t like that.” he explained.
It was at times like this that Desri showed just how experienced he was and how grand it was his perception of the reality he knew.
He still had not told anyone about his discussion with Tetlekar, or how he had promised to take him ‘to the place where truth lies’ as he had worded it, but he still had not fully shaken off his unease.
”Still, can’t ‘elp but ask, why ya int’rested in those things now?” Added Desri as he quickly tried to shift the conversation’s focus.
Cole smirked wordlessly before replying, ”It’s just that… nowadays, with every step I take to somewhere I have not been before, or see a new facet of someone I thought I more or less knew, I get more and more swamped by this feeling of….. of….” He couldn’t quite find that last word.
”Melancholy?” Said Desri in an unusually clear tone.
”Nah, I’m not sad, it’s more of a vague feeling of…. of….” Again, his lexicon failed him, but before Desri could have another shot of his mental dictionary, he raised his hand out and spoke ”… dissociation.”. He added.
”Ohh, I rar’ly hear that one.” replied Desri in mild surprise as he returned to his stew.
”You guys may all come from different places, but you all have some general idea of the reality you live in. Me, on the other hand, I feel completely at loss, because I really don’t know….”
”Mmm… I sorta know what ya mean; ‘dat shock one ‘lways goes thru when ya stuck som’where so diff’rent from home…. and can’t say I dunno that feels.” said Desri as he suddenly became pensive, ”Thing is, pup, no amount o’ storytellin’ can make that feelin’ go ‘way.” he added as he sat back, crossing his forelegs. He looked oddly human-esque when he did that.
”I see….” Cole couldn’t hide his disappointment.
”However-” Desri raised one paw as he made that interjection, ”While I can’t teach ya ’bout ’em cultures, I can give ya a basic on comm’n knowl’dge; stuff that’s the same be ya from what’ver place ya may be.” he added as his face took that universally recognizable ‘Aha!’ look of when one is struck by realization.
”If ya don’t mind, c’mon now and I’ll give ya some basic run’round; got some m’terials left at me place for that.” Continued Desri, now with renewed vigor.
”Well, sorry, kinda tied up at the moment.” Replied Cole awkwardly. He was planning on meeting with Tetlekar as soon as he was done with his lunch. His pack already made and readily waiting for him at this place; waiting until the agreed time.
”No prob, pup. Just gimme a holler and we’ll work somethin’ out.” But strangely enough, Desri did not inquire. Did he already knew something, or was this just dumb luck? Cole couldn’t quite make his mind on it.
A hidden maintenance hatch, a barely lit service room, a broken cargo elevator, and a pitch-black descent on an emergency ladder.
Cole couldn’t help but wonder if Tetlekar was testing him somehow, as the route he was given to follow was not by any measure a walk in the park, but he still followed it. With just his zap-light illuminating the way, and more than just curiosity fueling his steps.
”Your arrival took more time than I had initially expected.” That was Tetlekar’s greeting as he stood at the end of the tunnel, leaning onto some kind of door.
”Considering you put a whole platforming puzzle between me and you, the fact I got here is enough of a merit, and I didn’t even use my double-jump.” Retorted Cole half sarcastically.
”… Sometimes, either my linguistic assimilators fail to properly parse your wording, or you make a comment whose meaning I am unable to decipher. Then again, I have come to realize such behavior is rather… endemic, of your people, if I may employ the term.” Replied Tetlekar in mild confusion.
Given the amount of references he saw Eustace spew on their brief exchange, it was understandable why Tetlekar had made that statement.
Cole simply smiled back in response before walking up to the door that Tetlekar was standing in front of.
”So, what exactly I am looking at?” He asked, gazing at the door, which was locked by what looked like a massive padlock, and while the door itself was as time-worn as everything else in the Phylactery, the padlock looked almost brand new.
”This is the last remaining entryway to what I believe must have been some manner of hangar for unmanned hull repair vehicles.” Tetlekar’s speech was unusually slow, ”However, for me, this was my point of arrival to the Phylactery, exactly fifty-two million and five hundred sixty thousand inner cycles ago, which in your time measurement units is roughly one hundred years, eleven months, two weeks, one day, six hours and sixteen minutes.” he added, and without waiting for Cole’s reply, his right hand reached onto a small indentation similar to a mailbox slot.
There was a brief flash of light, and the lock was gone, as if it had never been there. The door swung open, slowly and noiselessly, filling the dark tunnel with light.
On the other side, there was a large, brightly lit hangar, roughly the size a basketball field, and with a roof as high as the room was long. At its farthest end, the void of space beckoned.
”Have no fear, there is some kind of gravitational bubble keeping this room safe from the outside.” Said Tetlekar as he noticed Cole’s almost immediate fright upon seeing the open end of the room.
The place itself was empty, save for a wrecked ship lying along the rightmost wall. Long, parallel tears on the floor trailed behind it, wordlessly speaking of a very rough landing.
Despite its crash landing, the ship itself was mostly intact; devoid of wings by design and with elongated shape that reminded Cole of a larger version of a Stormtrooper Transport from Star Wars, but lacking the boarding ramp. A makeshift camp had been raised between its left side and the rightmost wall, and while the whole place looked very old, the camp itself was particularly clean and orderly; a bit dusty sure, but with a predominant aura of order. As if it had been last used less than a week ago.
”Whoa… that’s some cool stuff.” A myriad of strange devices and tools scattered around the camp, to which Cole’s eyes had darted towards like heat-seeking missiles: his hands reaching for the tools in his belt as his legs were about to propel him forward.
”Denied.” with that word, Tetlekar stood in front of Cole, stopping him before he reached his ‘Working Mode’. ”I brought you here to show you something important, not so you could ransack the place.” there was some amount of anger in his words, and their tone was enough to bring Cole back to his senses.
”Sorry, I just… kinda lose it whenever I see something strange or interesting…. and by the way, isn’t that-” As Cole reeled in his sudden burst of curiosity, he recognized one particular round shape in the floor; it was the Xalatan Power Core he had given Tetlekar a while back, although it was now open, many of its innards missing.
”It most certainly is, which part of the reason I have brought you here.” with those words, Tetlekar reached into the XPC and took out half a dozen of the diamond-shaped crystals, ”I deducted that, mayhaps, by expounding to you my past and origin, you would understand what reasons led to what I did, and why I feel no regret in such.” he added, pocketing the crystals before walking to the exposed right side of the wrecked ship and running his thumb in circles on a small, round indentation on its side.
With a soft mechanical sound, a door popped open, turning into a short walkway as its top reached the floor.
”Follow me-” he motioned Cole while heading inside, ”It is time for me to introduce you to my Mistress.” he added, a strange aura of solemnity enveloping him.
The inside of the ship felt much less cramped than Cole had imagined it would be; in fact, it was spacious enough that it did not feel natural.
”… It’s bigger than it seemed.” He wanted to phrase that sentence differently, but a part of his mind quickly began screaming back at itself to not say the age-old gag.
A spacious, slightly trapezoidal hallway reached the far end of the ship. It would had felt quite alien for Cole indeed, had they not been mostly covered in something so human he almost felt back at Earth; books. Wall embedded bookshelves, containing dozens of hundreds of books, big and small, old and new, all of them from Earth, with topics ranging from history to fiction and from philosophy to science. Although amongst them, fiction was the dominant class.
”As a matter of fact, it is not. It merely makes usage of applied dimensional transcendence to elicit such perception. It also makes it much easier to store large quantities of tomes on it, many of which I am certain you recognize.” Replied Tetlekar as he walked slowly ahead of Cole.
”I… do. But I have not ever read even one percent of these… this place could put many libraries I knew to shame.” Commented Cole, agape at the collection that sprawled before him.
He could recognize more than a few of the them; Dune, Neuromancer, Brave New World, El Quixote, At The Mountains of Madness, The End of Eternity, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Carpet People, Tom Sawyer. He had read barely any of them, but any title he could think of, it was there, neatly put into a shelf along with another similar title.
”She would have been happy beyond words to hear someone like you say that.” Tetlekar smiled at Cole as he said that. It was a wide and hearty smile, of the kind Cole had never seen him show. But it radiated an almost overwhelming sadness, again, something he had never seen Tetlekar show.
”She?” he asked.
”My Mistress; the one who assembled the collection you gaze upon.” Replied Tetlekar as he resumed his walk, heading towards the rear end of the ship.
”I heard of your conversation with Desri earlier today; the feeling you have is understandable. The difference between our cultures, however, is not something that can be simply assimilated in short talk after dinner. Yet, I do commend your efforts in attempting to educate yourself; you are far more understanding than many of your peers I have read about in these volumes surrounding us.” He spoke without looking back at Cole; it was almost a monologue.
Cole couldn’t help but wonder just how he had ‘heard’ their conversation, although it didn’t take him long to figure it out.
”We Ourlarnians are, without a doubt, shockingly different from most cultures, even those of nearby civilizations.” he began, ”Having attained mastery over the building blocks of life and cast out the specter of death, to furnish your life and appearance in whatever manner best suits your whims and likes is as common for us as for you to clothe yourself. However, after living through countless standard lifetimes, the world begins to repeat itself; there are no new experiences, no new excitements, you already know it all, seen it all, there is no gain for you in any way, and the mere act of living feels like a chore; something you do just because the other choice does not draw you in either.” Narrated Tetlekar as he reached a door at the end of the corridor, Cole following him closely.
”It is at that point that many choose to undertake what we denominate as a Mindwipe; selective deletion of memories, creating a fresh start, with few bounds to the past or carry-over biases, and mayhaps the chance of becoming someone different. Life is a mystery for you to unveil once again….” He opened the door, pausing at the end of his sentence.
”One hundred and thirteen years ago, my Mistress underwent such a procedure; forsaking all she had previously gathered and achieved in life, and using her vast wealth to purchase but one sole thing to accompany her in this new life. A very expensive thing, not legal in many ways and dangerous in even many more; a Custom-made Service Droid with a Reomrad-Class personality, capable of projecting the closest possible replica of real, organic sapience with a 87.4% of accuracy…. that was how we first met.” Continued Tetlekar, heavy with nostalgia. The door opened automatically as he drew close, revealing yet another room in the back.
This room was just as bookshelf-studded as the corridor from before, but with a few more living amenities… or at least that’s what Cole believed them to be; there were these flat panels of different sizes and placements on the walls, as well as a couple of ones in the floor and roof.
However, the centerpiece of the room was what laid on its very center; arising from the floor, and with a shape that somehow reminded Cole of Snow White’s glass coffin, girl inside included.
”This be my Mistress.” announced Tetlekar, placing his left hand behind his back and straightening his posture, ”Yselicar deo Mralam… or Shelley, as she insisted to call herself after her Mindwipe; a name I believe she took from after one of your world’s famed wordsmiths.” he added as he stood next to the glass-covered stasis chamber.
She looked like a young woman, most likely about Mizelle’s height but with a seemingly more athletic build, and a skin of a very light golden brown: almost like the color of honey and long, curly hair of an old-ivory white tone. The ‘clothes she wore’, for lack of better terminology, which looked like they actually grew out her body, resembled some kind of crystalline medical gown connected to the inner sides of the chamber by thin, almost invisible threads.
”If you are puzzling yourself about why she looks remarkably human-like, is the very same reason as for why I look the same; both our bodies were modeled as such.” Continued Tetlekar as he knelt next to the upper right corner of the stasis chamber, where he reached out for a small panel containing a honeycomb-esque matrix inside, and slowly, began placing the crystals from the Xalatan core on it.
”She…. admired your people. Not just in the biological or cultural sense; she liked, or mayhaps would be more proper to say envied, the way in which you lived your lives.” he continued as he finished with that panel, and moved to another one to repeat the procedure. The crystals he was taking out were dull and gray.
”I… know this may sound odd, but…” Cole interjected, ”…. just what could mankind have so worthy of envy? You have already achieved immortality; the greatest ambition of man probably since the first of us grew old and imagined how great it would be to not do so.” Inquired Cole in an unusually philosophical tone as Tetlekar finished installing the crystals.
”Many things.” He replied, turning towards Cole with an odd smile, ”Boundless ambition and imagination not constrained by raw logic. All of this stemming forth from an odd combination of a quasi-limitless craving for explaining all you witness and a tragically short lifespan.” Tetlekar replied, his tone rather soft and slow-paced, as if he was nervous about his words.
”I… still don’t understand.” Cole could only amount that reply; his brain had barely scratched the surface of what Tetlekar had said.
”Then, allow me to exemplify-” Added Tetlekar, straightening his posture like a lecturer about to speak to his students. ”You have a keen interest in unravelling the functions of pretty much every technologic artifact that enters your field of vision, regardless of what unforeseen dangers or results that may stem from tampering, altering, modifying or even just possessing it. Why do you do that? What do you have to gain from it?” he began his questionnaire.
”I just want to find out how they work, how are they used, and what I could use them for, both in as a tool or as component.” Replied Cole after a short ponder.
”And then? What will you do with this knowledge once you have grasped it? Will you settle with it? Will you seek to disprove it? To improve upon it?” he continued, doubling down, ”Or to sum it all up, what will you do when there is no more new knowledge to be learned, when you have already achieved the ALL; when there’s nothing else to learn?” Tetlekar rephrased.
”There’s no ALL, dude.” Said Cole bluntly, ”Knowledge is not a finite thing; the more you know, the more you want to know; for every answered question a dozen more will always spawn. I’m surprised you guys haven’t figured that out.” added Cole in surprise.
Tetlekar let out a sigh; the expression he wore was that of a parent hearing their child say he wanted to become a superhero when he grew.
”While there’s no implicit limit to what one may learn, science, as a ‘hard matter’ is limited by the laws that govern it. You can travel faster than light, certainly. But the speed of light will remain a fixed value regardless of whether or not your civilization achieves the technological prowess to create such technology.” his words sounded sad, ”And after hundreds of millenia of technological advancement and discoveries witnessed by the same scientific minds, patterns begin to repeat, and predictive algorithms become more and more capable of discerning the truth than the actual minds behind them, which in the end leads to the stagnancy of knowledge, because all questions were answered too fast and mayhaps without enough context; less looking for the answer to the question and more for a question to fit the answer previously established.”
There was a palpable amount of emotion behind those words; sad, melancholic emotions.
”Haaaahhhh…. I really don’t know what to say, man.” Said Cole with a sigh after a long pause, ”I don’t delve deep into the philosophy of what I do; I don’t stop every step to think of my reasons, my motivations or what effect this may have by the time I’m long dead; I just want to do stuff, stuff I like and that satisfies my curiosity. I don’t waste my mind thinking beyond that.” continued Cole as he couldn’t help but feel the overwhelming boredom of a Philosophy or Social Sciences class in high school.
Against all prospects, Tetlekar smiled.
”And that be exactly what made your people the object of my Mistress’s admiration; to be able to live your lives and enjoy your fancies without worrying about what may come after or about peer pressure from others who expect something from you.” Replied Tetlekar softly.
”Still, at the risk of infringing in offense, I thought you’d be more inclined to discuss such topics. Because for one thing……” His voice trailed off for a moment, small wisps of light fluttering within his eyes ”… Eustace… was rather fond of such, so I may have mistakenly made the assumption such was the norm with your people. My apologies.” He said, slowly speeding up his tone from the moment he mentioned that name.
”I am far from the norm, man.” Replied Cole with an ironic smirk, ”Those like me, and I’d reckon, like Eustace, are what I once saw referred as Social Mavericks; we are not like the lot, but we don’t openly oppose or try to change our world either. We just go about our lives, doing what we want, not giving a damn what society expects from us.” he continued.
”Hm, so, not outcasts, yet not socialites, I had never considered such individuals would exist in any society. Truly, while in life, one never ceases to learn.” Commented Tetlekar as he put his hand to one of the panels on his right, traced a few figures on it, which made an object resembling the unholy union of a paintroll and a hand vacuüm literally ‘grow out’ of the panel and into his hand.
”So, now it is my turn to ask the questions. First, how does all of this banter relate to you putting that tracking bit on me, and secondly…” Cole’s eyes darted towards what Tetlekar was holding, and back to a close-by panel in the wall.
”How do these things work? Did you just ‘create’ that thing you’re holding? Or was it just stored there?” inquired Cole as he softly skimmed his hand over the panel he had nearby. It had a smooth, yet fuzzy feeling while being pleasantly warm, like placing your hand on the screen of an early model of a plasma TV.
Tetlekar stood silent for a moment, ”One question at a time, please.” He said in a rather deep voice; his gaze focused on his sleeping beauty, and melancholy all over his face.
”She told me to let her die.” He said without looking at Cole, ”That was her last order to me. However, just like that, she removed the procedural constraints that kept me servile; I was no longer a highly intelligent machine capable of conveying ideas and following orders, I now had thoughts I could call my own, I had wishes I yearned to realize, I had opinions I was able to voice and ideals to look up on….” he continued, ”And at the core of that swirling vortex of infinite possibilities… was her.” the way he had started speaking sounded so human it was almost terrifying to think he was not.
”Even with the constraints removed, my loyalty to my Mistress remained unwavering. I wanted to accompany her through more journeys into the unknown, I wanted to be with her while we experienced moments of great exhilaration, and I wanted to be at her side to support her when came moments of woe and anguish. It was at that moment when I came to realize how absent I had been on all our journeys before, and I wanted them to continue so much I felt severe anxiety from thinking otherwise.” he put his hand on the pod as he spoke, his eyes not moving from her sleeping face. If he was capable of it, he would most likely be crying.
”So, you love her.” Replied Cole with a sympathetic smile.
”No, this is not love; love is merely a series of species-specific rites employed in the enticing of a prospective mate for the purpose of procreation, and as advanced as I am, I have no such functions. What I feel for my Mistress is…. is… is….?” Tetlekar stuttered like a broken record, Cole narrowed his eyes.
”That’s called love, you heartless tin man. What you just described is called ‘courting’, and while it is part of love, it can also be done just to have sex, and it is not even exclusive to humans. All these books around here and you never read about romance?” replied Cole with a frown.
”…. Correction acknowledged.” The expression in Tetlekar’s face was undoubtedly shame.
”And you still haven’t answered my first question.” Cole added.
”I was arriving at that point; I am aware of my inability to abridge information.” Tetlekar retorted.
”So, one of the greatest dreams of my Mistress was to go into you world, and meet what she called a ‘wildborne human’; one of your kind in your natural habitat. Unfortunately, your world is a protected zone; only a very limited few can approach it, and while violators to that rule exist and are many, my mere existence as a Reomrad-class intelligence is deemed illegal, so even if getting caught herself would not have resulted in too big an issue, I would had most certainly been confiscated and dismantled.” He explained, ”However, all those restrictions would had been void if there had been a human with us; as under the Varathelian Agreement of Protectorates, no species can be in any way denied the entrance to their own world by an external power during a time of peace, specially if such a being was illegally extracted from his world.” he explained in a cut-and-dry manner that strangely belied his previous emotional outburst, but this quickly changed as he focused on his mistress yet again.
”As much as my own emotions are what guides me. My last command from my Mistress still stands in the sense that I am not allowed to reanimate her. However, after years of pondering and analysing my own programming, I unveiled a loophole in it. I found I should be able to overturn those inhibitors if I possessed something that had been previously established as the objective of a primordial directive. In this case, to visit your world, which would require a natural-born human, one extracted by paralegal methods and that showed a keen desire to return to his homeworld, which is currently standing in front of me.” His sentences began very emotional, but as soon as he moved his gaze away, he was speaking as he usually did.
”So, to sum up, I am basically both the Earth’s Entrance Ticket to your mistress, as well as your Life-Returning Alibi/Wedding Gift for her to remain at your side without going against her wishes, yes?” Asked Cole in a rather callous manner.
”To put it in a blunt and rather reductive manner, yes, quite so. Hence also my reason for not explaining this to you before, as if I had abridged this situation in the manner you have, I would had most certainly incited your ire.” Replied Tetlekar with a shrug.
Cole sighed, ”Not denying the second part, but still….” he walked towards Tetlekar, placing a hand on his shoulder, ”Next time, tell me your story first, then put the tracking on me later, as in the absence of clear explanation, we humans tend to assume the worst.” explained Cole in mild bewilderment. He certainly could had never imagined this possibility, but it was by far much more tame than all those theories his mind had spun.
”I was well aware of such, hence initially I was considerably hesitant about installing a Monitor; what you call a tracking bit, on you, as based on my experiences with Eustace.” he said ”I assumed you would be furious if you uncovered it. However, on the other hand, you almost got yourself killed due to an act of unbridled recklessness on your first encounter with that Unit and various following displays of overall unpredictability, I decided to take my chances. In the end, my prediction was fully accurate, but instead of feinting ignorance, I choose to fully disclose my goals, which again, yielded a positive result, as you are still here, and not attacking me.” continued Tetlekar, a rather palpable sense of criticism in his words, which was odd.
Cole wanted to say something back, but he couldn’t help but see the truth behind those jabs.
”So, moving onto your second question-” Tetlekar turned around towards the panel behind him, using both of his hands to perform a series of complex movements on it and so fast Cole could barely follow his hands.
”These devices are called Elemneari, which roughly translated as ‘shaper of substance’ in the native tongue of its creator. They are as important a part of the Oularnian lifestyle as electric power and instant communications are to your own.”
As Tetlekar finished his sentence, a small slab roughly the size of a letter envelope emerged from the panel.
”The technology behind them is but an alteration of that used by our Food Synthesizer, except these ones do not require any form of ‘Organic Blocks’ as material, which also limits their output choice to only inorganics and for a limited time only.” he handed the slab to Cole as he spoke, ”Put your hand to this one and imagine an object with a diameter not larger than the pad’s size. See for yourself.” Tetlekar continued.
Cole just gave out a nod and pictured a familiar object in his mind, and surely enough, it emerged from the ‘screen’. A simple screwdriver, looking exactly like the one in his mind down to the specific wear and tear.
”Only one object at a time can be created with that portable Elemneari, and only if you have a clear mental image of it. If an object has more functions than those its shape provides it and you lack the knowledge of its exact design, the copy will look-alike but will not serve its functions. If you no longer need an object you made, just press it softly against the surface and it will be assimilated back, otherwise, it will degrade on its own if it is merely forsaken, or if too many objects are shaped from the same Elemneari.” Added Tetlekar as Cole looked back at the pad.
”Hm, quite a nifty gadget to have around.” Commented Cole with a childish smile, his mind already thinking of all the things he could use it for.
”So, now that your questions have been answered, could you oblige to a request from me?” Asked Tetlekar in a usually polite way.
”S-Sure, wadda ya need?” Replied Cole in a bit of surprise.
Cole had embarked on this journey in hopes of acquiring answers, and yet, he had not expected them to be so long-winded that he would still be milling them in his head hours after.
If Tetlekar had a reason to put that tracking device on him, did he also have a reason for those he was more than certain the others had? Desri and Zalura had one no doubt, but what about Mizelle, and Haudrica? Was he tracking them too? Spying on them? Was this the reason Eustace chose to betray them? Plus, just what were those devices capable of? Could they do more than just track movements and conversations? Could they sense his emotional status, or that of others? Was that how Tetlekar was always well-aware of how Haudrica was feeling? Could they read MINDS!? Was he reading Cole’s own thoughts now? These very same questions?
”…” Cole just shook his head silently as this last wagon on this train of thought derailed the whole thing.
”Is something the matter? Some volume with incorrect placement?” Asked Tetlekar as he noticed his sudden head movement.
”Nah, just thought I had mistaken something.” Replied Cole nonchalantly. Why would Tetlekar ask him anything if he could read his mind? That whole thing was just ridiculous.
Tetlekar’s request was one Cole wasn’t really the best choice of helper for; he wanted for him to tell if any of his Mistress’s books was in the wrong place or section.
Cole knew the bare minimum to tell which books were fiction and which weren’t, but that was as far as it went; there were books there he had never even heard of before.
So in the end, he wasn’t really of any use, although Tetlekar had been kind enough to not comment on it.
”So-” began Cole as both stood by the ship’s entryway, ”Should we be heading back? The others may start to worry about to where we disappeared to.” Although he wasn’t lying, his true reason was just that he really wanted to rest his mind after so much over thinking.
”Fair enough, and while I did leave some amount of food ready for consumption, I am not clear if I noti-”
Tetlekar stopped mid sentence; a light on the side of one of his eyes lit up briefly.
”What’s the-?” Cole started to ask, but Tetlekar suddenly raised a hand, in warning, which stopped Cole’s words in his throat.
”Undesirable company.” He replied in a tone so soft it was barely a whisper.
He made a few motions on the door’s panel, making it open very slowly, yet also devoid of any sound.
”…” Cole looked outside, yet he saw nothing at all as far as in visual range of the door. He was about to ask Tetlekar what he had felt, but then he heard it.
”…ders …pers ……los … pers… ” He could barely make out the words, but there was someone out there, singing tunelessly.
Tetlekar stepped out slowly and warily, motioning Cole to remain inside. Still no one in sight, but now Cole could make it out clearly.
”Finders keepers, losers weepers~♪”
Cole hadn’t heard that one in years, and it was upon that realization that both he and Tetlekar turned back towards the source of the song.
”If it feeeeel good, taaastes good, it muuuust be miiine~♪”
He could not see it, at least not for a short while. Until it decided to jump down from the top of the ship and right behind Tetlekar.
An unsavory face, iPod in hand, headphones on ears, and most likely clad in a sickening grin given Tetlekar’s reaction.
”Dynasty decapitated~♪ You just might see a ghost tonight~♪” And with that line, he pointed to himself with both thumbs, ”And if you don’t know now you know.” he added.
”EUSTACE!!” Tetlekar roared, his usually unreadable expression quickly twisting into a furious one as he tried to use his momentum to lunge at Eustace.
”Slow!” but he easily dodged it, literally stepping to the side, and kicking Tetlekar back, ”And slower than our last time, I’d say. You running low on batteries, HAL? Why are you hoarding these then?” added Eustace as he lowered his headphones to around his neck.
The kick was strong enough that it sent Tetlekar sliding back a few meters.
Cole just stood there, dumbfounded as he watched Tetlekar recoil from the blow. That day at the Organic Collector, he hadn’t even been able to move Tetlekar an inch, and Eustace had just kicked him away as if he were just a big pillow.
”That said, why did you never tell me these shiny things were batteries? Do you have any idea of how long it has been since I last turned my iPod on?” Continued Eustace as he toyed around with something in his other hand.
”…!!” It was then Cole realized what he was holding, an XPC crystal, and his eyes immediately moved towards the XPC that had been in the camp, now it was tossed into a corner, with not a single crystal left.
”So close I can taste it ~♪ I see what’s mine and take it ~♪” Sang Eustace as he dramatically put it in one of his jacket pockets.
Tetlekar just laid on the ground, unmoving. Had that blow been strong enough to take him out!? Just how strong was Eustace that he was capable of such a feat!?
Those thoughts gnawed at Cole’s mind like hyenas on a carcass.
”He-ey, don’t tell me I actually did it! Did I finally manage to punch the batteries out of you?” Said Eustace as he walked nonchalantly towards Tetlekar’s unconscious body.
”Gee, what an anticlimax-uagha!” As soon as Eustace lowered his guard, Tetlekar sprang out, punching Eustace with such force he sent him flying against the wall.
”Unbelievable, truly. To think that you would forego the very first lesson of practicality you imparted upon me. Have you forgotten it was you who taught me the proper usage and advantage of a well-placed ambush? You should be ashamed.” Replied Tetlekar as he maintained a battle stance.
”Mhm, I take that back, you really have gotten quite the update pack on by now, which I reckon means I shouldn’t pull my punches.” Countered Eustace as he adjusted his jacket.
Neither of them was paying any attention to Cole, and Eustace most likely hadn’t even noticed him, so he used this chance to get back inside. Thinking that perhaps he could… could…
”Shit! And now what?” Cole wanted to do something, but if his last encounter with Eustace had taught him this was not an opponent that could be fought in a fair fight.
”Should I flee? I’m not sure I can get out undetected, but if I were to make it back, maybe Haudrica or Zalura could turn the tide? But even then… what if it is too late? What if either Tetlekar or worse, his Mistress, have been hurt or destroyed- Aaargh, shit! There’s nothing I can use to stick it to him.” Thought Cole as he hit the wall next to him.
A book fell from the nearby shelf, landing open in a page showing some kind of schematics.
”What’s this…?” Muttered Cole as he picked it up, it looked like some kind of pressurized canister, ”Reactive Hydrocarbon Polymer Dispenser?” Cole read each of those words very slowly. It wasn’t as much as a book as it was an industrial manufactory handbook, like those they use in factories to make sure they are assembling the product right.
Nonetheless, the word Hydrocarbon had echoed in his mind: an old memory resurfacing, a stand in a military convention showcasing a new prototype of non-lethal weaponry; the idea came crashing like a wave.
”… Could that work?” Cole looked at the dozen or so of Elemneari mounted on the inside of the back room.
He put his hand to one, and thought of a fire hose nozzle, and surely enough, it came out of it, and smile creeped into his face.
Sounds of battle echoing outside, the texture of his sleeve as it was quickly used to wipe his forehead, the physical effort of having to tighten a pipe over seal tape, and the mental effort of actually having to ‘imagine’ each part in the book, down to the silliest details.
”This is so ridiculous; Tetlekar’s out there risking his neck, I should be risking mine to get some help, but instead I am trying to Macgyver a crazy contraption that just may do SOMETHING useful.” Thought Cole as he adjusted the second pressurized tank he had just made grow out of the Elemneari onto an improvised pipe backpack, also grown from the Elemneari. It all was so surreal that his mind had not yet fully wrapped itself around it.
If it all worked right, this ‘weapon’ would be enough to incapacitate Eustace for long enough for them to flee, but deep inside, he feared the prospect of actually killing him, regardless of much hatred he harbored for him.
”Alright, then.” He said as he donned the considerably heavy backpack and held the repurposed nozzle forward, ”…. Spengler and Stark would be proud now.” and tried to make himself laugh, it didn’t work; he was so nervous his hands were shaking slightly. He was breaking one of his primordial rules, the ‘Always Test Before Use’, but he just did not have the time or the way to do so.
Almost as soon as he approached the door, a massive blow shook the ship, knocking many a book off their shelves.
”So, that’s your all, then?” This defiant question was thrown.
Cole slowly peeked over the door frame; that blow had been Eustace, flung against the ship. It had been an impact strong enough to splatter a normal human, and yet there he was, with his back turned at the door, cracking his knuckles and neck in a very unsettling manner.
”Even with all that metal, you can barely make me put effort into this. Are you still holding back?” Continued Eustace as he looked at Tetlekar, whose aspect made a chill run up Cole’s back.
He was in his ‘base form’; the structure of metal plates usually hidden by his holographic attire, and colorful sparks were pouring out between a few of them.
”Maybe, if you had behaved differently, you wouldn’t be here now, y’know? Maybe, if you didn’t see all others as weaklings in need of care, you would’ve come with them on your side. And maybe, if you hadn’t freaked out the toolsy dude in the jumpsuit, you wouldn’t be coming here to cry over your TV Food Bride.” Said Eustace with a mocking smile as he slowly walked towards Tetlekar, whom, despite not breaking his fighting stance, looked damaged enough to make Eustace not fear him.
”Hey dickhole!” Cole thought of shouting that, but he quickly realized that would be worse; if he wanted to win, all he had on his side was the surprise element.
So he just stood on the door, and fired.
A bubblegum-pink blob the size of a bowling ball hit Eustace right in the back, which was massive miss as Cole had been aiming for his ankles.
”What the fuck!?” Eustace reaction was a mixture of shock and fright, as the pinkish ball grew in size while he tried to shake it off.
”Riot foam, motherfucker.” Cried out Cole as he let in more air for a second shot; now that there was no surprise element, he just couldn’t hold the need to shout.
This time it hit square on the knees, causing Eustace to stumble and fall backwards.
”Heh, you sneaky vermin, so you had been hiding there all along; when I get my hands on you, you’ll wish you had fled.” Said Eustace as he tried to rip off the foam off his legs, and while he was succeeding, it was expanding faster than he was removing it.
”What can I say?”
This last shot bound Eustace’s hands to his waist.
”I decided to stick around, as the bond I share with everyone holds me attached to sticking-urgh, dammit! I should had thought up those puns better.” It takes the best of the best to deliver a hurricane of puns, sadly for Cole, he was not.
The foam continued to expand, with the first of the shots already the size of bean bags. And thanks to Eustace’s struggling, now all his limbs were fully covered under the rose-colored paste.
This is good, as he could already feel his weapon feeling slightly soft and sticky; he had used so many materials from the Elemneari that their life had been cut short. So he just left it there and ran towards Tetlekar.
”Cole, you unconventional madman.” Muttered Tetlekar as he fell on a knee; he had been making quite an effort just to keep standing.
”I’ll take that as a compliment. Now tell me where it hurts.” Replied Cole as he reached for a screwdriver in his belt.
”Do not be concerned, I have not sustained great damage; my own repair protocols will be able to deal with this once I have rested.” He tried his best to stand, but even that was a bit wobbly, and his clothes, which he had just regenerated, were showing twisted and off-color.
”Don’t play it tough, dude. You look like you came out of a demolition derby. Lemme just patch you up a bit or else even the way back might be a struggle for you.” Added Cole as he reached for Tetlekar’s left arm, which was sparkling like crazy around the wrist.
Suddenly, a crack.
*Pop, pak, tak, wrak!*
A sound like that of popcorn on a microwave was coming from Eustace.
”To think you actually made me do this, Chumbucket. Do you have any idea of how much this stings?”
Like a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon, Eustace had come out of his longcoat, which was still stuck to the riot foam, and he had done so by disjointing most of his limbs, which now bent in odd angles as he emerged.
”Mm, I’m probably about one-third of my usual strength now, and this will hurt me tomorrow-” he said as he saw his right arm dangling limply, ”But to crush a deluded fool and a tin can that’s been already crushed halfways, it should be more than enough.” he said as he jumped off the riot foam pile, which caused his whole body to do a very unsettling sound, like a roll of bubble wrap being squeezed.
Cole quickly reached for his wrench and stood next to Tetlekar, but he highly doubted he’d be able to do anything about this monster in a human’s skin.
”That will be unnecessary, Cole.” Said Tetlekar as he put his hand on Cole’s shoulder, his face sporting a rather unnatural grin.
A sudden noise at the entry door.
”As your people put it, the cavalry has arrived.”
He added, as the door sprung open, with a bloodraging Haudrica and a fully armed Zalura charging forth.
An azure-colored ray surged from Zalura’s weapon, which Eustace was able to dodge, but it put him right in someone else’s way.
”BAAASTAAARD!!” Haudrica’s battle cry was loud enough to hurt.
And she promptly separated Eustace’s head from the rest of his body.
”This time I won’t miss.” She said, with a mad grin, looking back at Eustace’s headless body, waiting to see it fall.
But fall it did not, it simply turned around, grabbed its head, and ran for the opening at the end of the hangar.
”What in nine fucking hells…!” Cole’s mind just failed to register what had just transpired with Eustace.
”No FLeeInG, VilLaiN.” Said Zalura as she fired at Eustace; when angry, she was even scarier than Haudrica.
The beam hit the floor right behind Eustace, and by the time the flash faded, he was gone.
”Just… what in nine fucking hells…?” Repeated Cole as he approached the crater left by Zalura’s shot, ”Is he… dead?” Asked Cole as he gazed at the crater. The metal in the floor had been both melted and crushed.
”Zero percent chance, I am afraid. It has now become clear that Eustace was given the taint of the Qauranites; he’s become a Flesh Vessel, albeit an abnormally independent one.” Explained Tetlekar as Zalura aided his walk.
”Tsk, next time I will remember that.” Muttered Haudrica angrily, her mandibles poking out of the sides of her mouth.
”Uhm, do you… mind explaining to me what just happened? How did they know we were here? And Eustace….. what the fuck?” The shock had apparently made Cole speech impaired.
”EcHo prOCesSoR.” replied Zalura, pointing to the device on her neck, ”TEtLekar cAn USe tO sPEaK To ZALura.” she added.
”My combat with Eustace was merely a stalling procedure; waiting for reinforcements to arrive. I did not consider it possible for you to engineer some manner of weapon and detain him; I undoubtedly need to stop applying statistic predictions to your actions; they barely reach a 15% accuracy margin.” Explained Tetlekar, his voice slightly uneven. He did not want to admit it, his damage was probably worse than what he made it appear.
”I see but, I still can’t wrap my mind around what I just saw; Haudrica lopped his head clean, and yet he fled as if it had been but a flesh wound. And he just jumped out into space?” The image of Eustace just picking up his head as if it were a dropped wallet and fleeing wouldn’t leave Cole’s mind for a while.
”You idiot! Don’t you even use your eyes!? Look there in the ground!” Remarked Haudrica as she grabbed him by the neck of his shirt and pointed his head towards the end of the hangar.
It wasn’t easy to see, but there were a few missing plates from the floor with a hole big enough for an adult to crawl through. Eustace must have also gotten in that way.
”Next time I’ll cut him and burn him down before he has the chance to piece himself apart. I am not a liar, and I’ll make sure it stays that way.” Bellowed Haudrica under her breath, her anger not directed at anyone present.
”Well, at the very least, we deprived him of his spoils.” Said Cole as he pulled Eustace’s longcoat out of the slowly disintegrating pile of riot foam, ”Here, you might want to have these back, there are still a lot in the pockets.” Added Cole as he put his hand in one of the coat’s pockets and drew out a dozen of Xalatan crystals, handing them to Tetlekar.
”You have my gratitude, Cole.” Replied Tetlekar with an uneasy smile. Some of the sparkles in his body had ameliorated, but he was still not in the condition to do the long walk home.
In the end, he had to take upon Cole’s offer for a quick repair while Zalura piled up a moderate amount of junk and debris on top of Eustace’s getaway hole, while Haudrica reluctantly guarded them, her blades never retracted.
For once, Cole had ended out with more answers than questions, and while he would later accept Tetlekar’s offer of having another tracking bit put on him, the shadows of doubt Eustace had cast upon his mind had been dispelled. However, now a new question was made: Just WHAT was Eustace now? Tetlekar called him a ‘Flesh Vessel’, but even Tetlekar himself seemed to think that was only the tip of the iceberg. Only time, or Eustace himself, would answer those questions, and Cole couldn’t but shake off the feeling that more was to come.
<End of Chapter 11>