Many a brave explorer will say that curiosity is the force that leads to new discoveries, but what they often fail to say is how addictive such force can become. And dangerous if accompanied by recklessness.
Humming a tuneless melody, Cole packed the tools he couldn’t fit on his belt within a rusty but still-sturdy toolbox he had found before, and placed it inside of the duffel bag where he had already stashed a blanket, two water bottles and a sandwich box containing what he had dubbed as ”Aber-Rations”; the more tasty parts of the aberrations meat which Tetlekar had somehow turned into a kind of jerky.
‘‘Hehe, adventuring supplies.’‘ Said Cole to himself as he zipped the bag up. A smug smile forming on his face.
The idea of going to visit a junkyard he had never been to before always gave him the kind of eager expectations a kid has on Christmas Morning, even when said job was being pushed onto him by his boss or his lazy co-worker. And such eagerness hadn’t left his mind since Tetlekar had told him of the other Salvage Collectors.
Without further ado, he zipped up the bag and put it on his back, almost falling over for a moment due to its weight.
Minding each and every step, Cole advanced through the dimly lit corridor. His trusty wrench in one hand and his Zap-Light in the other, and stopping only to look at the copy of Tetlekar’s map he had scribbled on his notebook.
While he had been told that there shouldn’t be any aberrations or Units on those corridors, the same they had thought of both the Organic Collector and the Cryovaults Corridor; there was always the chance of the unforeseen.
‘‘Hm, left, right, straight…..’‘
He gave the map a quick look before continuing.
‘‘And now left aga-mhpft.’‘
But as he turned around, he crashed literally headlong into something.
‘‘Whoa!’‘ – Jumping back with a shout, Cole pointed his Zap-Light forward, ready to stun whatever he had crashed into and run away. Or at least, that would had been his intention if that ‘something’ hadn’t called him out.
‘‘ColE, yOu aRe heRE?.’‘ Zalura seemed just as surprised as him.
She was carrying a rucksack over her shoulder in her upper left arm, and a sort of jagged metal spear on both her right ones.
‘‘Holy shit, girl. You almost gave me a heart attack.’‘ Cole put his hand on his chest as he spoke, feeling his cardiac machine-gun.
‘‘SOrry.’‘ She apologized as she lowered her weapon.
‘‘Don’t worry about it. So, did Tetlekar send you here to watch over me?’‘
There was a feeling of annoyance at his words, but they weren’t towards Zalura herself.
‘‘No, CAme loOkINg fOr a nEW weApoN.’‘ She replied calmly, as if somehow feeling Cole’s annoyance.
‘‘Well, the more the merrier then, and better if we run into any nasty critters.’‘ Said Cole as he moved towards the half-open shutter of the Salvage Collector.
Unlike the large shutter of the NVSC9, this place had two smaller shutters, one after the other, with the chamber connecting them seeming like some sort of security checkpoint, clearly long-deserted.
The second shutter had been torn open by something, and now only a large metal plate, which Zalura lifted with ease, served as the door.
‘‘Go iN.’‘ – She said as she motioned Cole to enter through the opening which, after a short crawl, had them both blinded with light.
Perhaps the first difference that Cole spotted on the NVSC5 was how brightly lit it was; a set of floodlights on its ceiling made the place as bright as a stadium. However, it was after his eyes adapted to the blinding light that he truly beheld the place before him.
‘‘Holy crap on a stick… with bacon!’‘
Even those words didn’t do justice to the amount of amazement that overwhelmed Cole.
Unlike the very junkyard-y mess of the NVSC9, everything in this place was arranged in a sort of towering metallic platforms that formed a labyrinth that extended beyond what the eyes could make out. Each ‘tower’ had at least five tiers, while some wider ones went as far as seven; they were all connected by a series of ladders and each bearing a neatly arranged pile of more components than what Cole’s mind could even hope to process.
For a moment, the smiling, mustachioed face of his boss came to mind; he was always very orderly about all the stuff in his junkyard, almost to the point of obsession. So it wasn’t hard for Cole to imagine the gleeful smile his boss would had worn had he been in his shoes, although it would most likely not be as wide and gleeful as the one he himself was already sporting.
‘‘Oh boy….’‘ Said Cole as he twirled his wrench with his index finger, like a Wild West Outlaw with a gun.
‘‘… It’s wrench time!’‘ He declared boldly as he dashed away.
Or at least, he would had if Zalura hadn’t grabbed him by the neck of his jumpsuit, stopping his advance. Her voice carried a tone of warning.
‘‘LoOk oUt.’‘ She said as she pointed forwards with her two right hands.
And before Cole had the chance to ask what was going on, he heard it.
That now-bloodcurdling humming sound so characteristic of a Unit, getting closer at great speed.
With its signature sound echoing around, an Unit carrying a small metal box approached to the foot of a nearby tower. It placed the box it was carrying on top of another bigger box that was on the pile there, and without as much as turning towards Cole and Zalura, who were quite within range, it left. It’s sound growing lower as it vanished from their sight.
‘‘T-There are Units here!?’‘ Cole made that question in a bit of a fright; had he known there were Units wandering this Collector, he would had not been as reckless.
‘‘YEs, bUT oNly WOrKeR UNiTs.’‘ Replied Zalura as she put the now-dumbfounded Cole down.
‘‘WOrKeR UNiTs aRE UsUaLly HARmleSs.’‘ She added, making a strong emphasis on the word ‘usually’.
‘‘How usually?’‘ Asked Cole as he looked around the corner warily, watching the Unit in the distance.
‘‘If yOU Do nOT AtTaCK tHEm oR mAkE A mesS, yOU WilL bE OKay.’‘ She explained as he picked up something from one of the piles, looked at it and shook her head in disapproval and put it down again.
Cole let out a long sigh before facing Zalura and replying.
‘‘Well, then let’s hope we can remain orderly.’‘
He said with a bit of sarcasm as he walked towards the nearest tower of junk, with Zalura following not far behind.
As he went from tower to tower, tier to tier, pile of junk to pile of junk, Cole’s initial impressions of ‘Orderliness’ vanished like smoke.
‘‘Hrm…. Nothing but trash here as well.’‘ He muttered as he jumped down from the third tier of a tower to the second, and from there to the ground.
Although it all had looked quite orderly and neatly arranged, there was no ‘sense’ to that order; a funnel, a base ball, a dress shoe, some kind of canister and a bent piece of pipe sat inside of a rusty bucket, which stood next to an old tire, some metal plating, a battered drawer-like thing and some kind of unrecognizable chunk of iron, all of it in front of what resembled one of those old telephonic switchboards he had seen on vintage films. It was all an orderly chaos.
‘‘Hahh….. This place is like the lovechild of a garage sale and a flea market was raised by someone with a really serious obsessive-compulsive disorder.’‘ Mumbled Cole as he picked up the base ball and tossed it from hand to hand.
He had already picked up a few objects here and there, but most everything was trash.
‘‘Found anything good?’‘ Shouted Cole upwards to Zalura, who was like four tiers above him, in a rather dull manner.
‘‘NoThINg, bUt I sEE An ARea oVEr tHEre wiTh soMetHInG lARge oN IT. MAybe pArT oF A carRieR oR CrUiSer.’‘ She replied as she climbed down with the nimbleness of a monkey.
‘‘Carrier or cruiser?’‘ Those two words sparked Cole’s curiosity. So after tossing the base ball back into the bucket, he followed Zalura towards what she had seen.
‘‘…. Bigger than I had imagined it.’‘ Commented Cole as he gazed at the structure towering before him, despite it being tossed in a hole.
This area was different from the rest; instead of the tiered towers, there where large, shallow and rectangular pits on the ground which resembled to empty metal pools, each containing one specific thing, or more accurately, the large broken parts of one specific thing. This one contained what looked like part of some wrecked spacecraft, about as big as a middle-sized supermarket, with most of it standing out of the pit.
It’s original shape was a bit hard to tell apart, as the whole thing had been torn apart like a badly cut sandwich; three broken wings protruded upwards, encircling the mass of torn rooms and corridors that sprawled from their ends.
More than a few lights still seemed to work from inside the rooms; dim and blinking, and sometimes reflecting on the shattered metal furniture around them, but working nonetheless. Which meant it still had power somehow.
‘‘What is it supposed to be, some kind of military battleship?’‘ Asked Cole as he instinctively scanned the wreck for a good place to get into it.
‘‘A cOLoNy TRanSporT.’‘
Shaking her head, Zalura replied. And without any further words, she jumped onto the wreck.
‘‘OuLarNian, aNd NOt tOo oLd.’‘ She added as she looked at some sort of sign on one of the corridors’ walls.
Her skill to leap and land on her legs like some kind of wildcat was indeed a boon to navigate that pile of jagged metal. Those were the thoughts of Cole as he tried to catch up with her, his backpack not making it any easier.
The corridor they were traversing was leaned onto the right and rather twisted; enough to make some of the wires and plating on the walls to pop off in some places.
Cole followed Zalura without any comments to add; his mind was too busy processing the layout of the place around him, as well as the nervousness that he felt every time he passed by a door.
Although most of them led to a mass of crumpled metal or just to a big fall down, Cole’s mind couldn’t help but relate the corridor to those of many a Sci-Fi movie involving a killer alien or some other kind of life-threatening danger. The knuckles of his right hand, which held his wrench, turning white from how hard his grip on it was.
Whatever came out one of those, he was ready to beat the ever-loving crap out of it… or at least try so, until Zalura stepped in and gave him a demonstration of how true badassitude was meant to be. He could almost see it happening on his mind.
‘‘Say-’‘ Cole decided to break the almost overwhelming silence.
‘‘Have you ever been in one of these ships before? You seems strangely familiar with the layout of this place.’‘
He asked as they reached an intersection. Zalura took the left path without a split second of hesitation.
It took an awkwardly long instant for her to reply; long enough to make Cole wonder if he had said something he shouldn’t have.
‘‘WHen ZALura fiRSt LefT hOme ViLlagE, iT wAS In oNe Of tHeSE. It wAS HaRd.’‘
She spoke with a strong air of melancholy; something which Cole found quite unusual of her, as she had always portrayed herself as pretty stoic and cool-headed.
Nonetheless, he sort of had expected her to add something; about her leaving her planet and places she had been to.
According to Desri, she had once been a roving mercenary of sorts, and Cole couldn’t help but be a bit curious about her past, as she never said anything.
Before either of them had the chance to add anything, however, they came upon the end of the corridor.
A double door, larger than the ones from the corridor and of a darker, gunmetal-grey hue blocked their way.
Without uttering a single word, Zalura reached towards the center of the door with all her four arms, taking a short breath before prying them to the side with a horrendous screech. She had put so much force and effort into it that her arms were now pulsating slowly; thousands of wiry veins and muscles twitching under her skin.
‘‘… You really don’t talk much, do you?’‘ Commented Cole as he gazed upon what laid beyond the door; a set of dim and almost claustrophobic stairs littered with bits of plating.
Another silence went by as they headed down, leading onto what had probably been the ship’s machine room. ‘Probably’ being the big word there, as about one-third of the room was gone; its eastern side leading into the void below.
‘‘SpEAkinG iS hArD; hArD To mAKe WoRDs sOuNd RIGht.’‘ She replied; a certain degree of shame visible on her expression.
‘‘I can imagine; must be real hard to speak a language that’s not your own all the time.’‘ Cole sounded a bit apologetic. ‘‘By the way, Desri told me about the time he spent on Uluthazcia; place sounds really cool for adventurous types.’‘ He added merrily.
There was more than just a compliment there; he had wanted to say he’d like to see that kind of world himself, but was a bit shy about openly admitting it.
Zalura said nothing back; she only gave Cole a short smile before continuing her walk.
Yet another moment of silence went by as they made their way across the destroyed room. Cole stopped for a moment to gaze over the edge of the abyss; a layer of unrecognizable scrap lining the bottom of the pitfall.
‘‘… CAn ZALura aSk CoLe soMeThiNg?’‘
She asked suddenly out of the blue, and in a strangely third-person fashion.
‘‘S-Shoot.’‘ The stutter in Cole’s casual answer was the proof that it hadn’t been so casual.
‘‘ WhY dO yOU alWaYs MakE… liKe NoTHiNg mAkES yOU afRAId?’‘ She inquired slowly, as if making a pause to choose each word from a phrase book.
‘‘I-I don’t understand. I do get scared, and plenty of times actually. Like when that Aberration chased me back when we met, or when I was first introduced to Haudrica’s favorite sharp objects.’‘ Replied Cole, sliding his thumb across his neck as he said the second half of his answer.
‘‘Ah, nO. ASkeD wROng.’‘ She took a step back, clearly embarrassed, and lowered her head in thought as she rephrased her question.
‘‘WHy yOU So At eaSe wItH LifE oN PhYLaCTerY? ALwaYs aCt LiKe On A coZy HOme.’‘
Continued Zalura, her speech becoming more pidgin than usual.
Cole looked away and sighed; his stare becoming lost in the distance. He stood like that for a moment.
‘‘… SORry, sHoULd nOt HaVe ASkeD.’‘ She said as she seemed to retreat from Cole.
‘‘Wait!’‘ This broke him out of his thought reverie. ‘‘It’s… not that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s because… I really don’t know what to answer…’‘ Now it was him who was pausing to choose each word.
If Zalura had eyebrows, he was certain that one of them would have risen from his answer.
The silence tried to grow again, but Cole didn’t let it.
‘‘Even if this is still a whole new experience for me, I sometimes feel strangely familiar with it all; It’s not the first time in my life when I have to leave everything I ever knew behind without as much of as a warning, let alone a choice…’‘ He explained as he leaned onto the cold, metal wall.
‘‘Long story short, I ran from my home as teen; with nothing but the clothes on my back and the determination to survive in a world that wouldn’t give a damn if I just vanished from it. Not too different from what we have now, is it?’‘
Narrated Cole, putting a bit a sense of irony on his last sentence.
‘‘DEsri tOLd mE yOU HaTe YoUr SIbliNgS.’‘ Stated Zalura as she reached for some kind of locker that was embedded onto the wall.
‘‘Uhu, guilty as charged….’‘ Cole made the mental note of never telling Desri anything he wanted to keep secret.
‘‘In the end, I found myself a job and a place to live, as well as made some new friends there.’‘ Continued Cole as he peeked curiously into the locker as Zalura forced it open.
‘‘And before I had even realized, I had gotten a whole new life that wasn’t half bad; I had a home, friends, cash for my hobbies and a job I enjoyed.’‘
He added as he saw Zalura pull out some nondescript metal parts from the locker, and realized that there were a few lockers like that one on the wall he was leaning on. He couldn’t help but wonder what they were for.
‘‘I’m a simple man; I don’t need much in my life to be happy. And honestly, save for the murderous monstrosities and bone-snapping killer robots, it ain’t too different here…. Maybe that’s why I don’t really mind this place, and I enjoy being around you guys.’‘
Cole said that last part with a bit of embarrassment, yet those were his honest feelings.
‘‘EVen wIth HauDRIca tRyINg tO KiLL yOU?’‘ Jested Zalura, an amused grin finding its way to her face.
‘‘Heh, yeah, even like that.’‘ He replied. ”She just made a joke!?” Cole thought as he laughed a bit.
Whatever Zalura had been looking for in the machine room, she didn’t find it. So they moved towards the upper part of the wreck instead, which involved more than one Parkour stunt of jagged metal climbing.
‘‘Whew!’‘ Sighed Cole as Zalura put him down. They had just climbed in through a broken window.
The place they were at was lined with consoles and other control devices of some sort, along with a couple smashed chairs.
‘‘Is this the Bridge?’‘ He asked as he looked at one of the consoles. There were still more than a few lights blinking on it and screens with what probably were error messages.
‘‘DeFEnsE cONtrOL aND SecUrIty.’‘ Replied Zalura as she immediately headed towards a row of tall cabinets that lined the nearby wall beyond a small security cage.
As Zalura tore through the cage, Cole stayed near the windows, looking at the half broken consoles.
While they were just as full of incomprehensible screens and buttons, the overall design was quite different from the ones of the Organic Collector’s control rooms. More than anything, these consoles looked much more ‘Hi-Tech’; they had a much more sleek and orderly layout; like that of an expensive PC, while the ones in the Organic Collector looked like something out of a 70s Sci-Fi film; blocks of beige metal with lots of gauges and switches.
But his detailed analysis of the consoles was halted by two echoing strikes of metal.
Accompanied by a sigh of frustration and an expression just as frustrated, Zalura had tried to punch the lockers open, but no avail.
These lockers didn’t look any different from the ones in the machine room, however; a small access panel with a screen and a slot of sorts. It made no sense why not even Zalura’s herculean strength managed to open it.
‘‘Need a hand?’‘ Asked Cole as he approached to her.
Zalura replied while exerting more force onto the locker’s door, but it wasn’t budging. She finally had to stop as she ran out of breath.
‘‘Mind if I take a more cautious approach?’‘ Asked Cole yet again.
Zalura panted a few times before replying.
‘‘GoOd LUck.’‘ She said so dismissively as Cole began to look closer at the locker.
The only difference Cole could spot between this lockers and the ones below was that the panels of these ones were active, while those of the ones in the machine room were dark.
‘‘Hm, these seem pretty sturd-whoa!’‘
Without much thinking, Cole lightly tapped the locker’s door with his wrench, only to find it sticking to it like a magnet to a freezer, and it took considerable strength to remove it from there.
‘‘So, that’s the trick, eh? These lockers use magnets to secure their doors. And between that and these panels, I am to assume they are powered somehow…’‘ Muttered Cole as his attention shifted back to the consoles.
‘‘I think I found the problem here.’‘ Said Cole as he walked towards the consoles.
‘‘Zalura, can you tell me what does it say on these screens?’‘ Asked Cole as he pointed to one of the largest screens still functioning.
There was a message flashing on the screen; some blinking while lines of text over a red background on it, and even if Cole couldn’t read it, he could tell that all of the smaller screens on the consoles had the very same message based on the symbols’ shape alone.
‘‘It sAyS…’‘ Replied Zalura as she got closer to the screen.
‘‘HUll iNteGRiTy COmProMiSeD…. AuXILiaRly Su…. SuBsySteMs NoN…rESpOnsIVe… eMeRgeNCy POwEr In UsE… CoRE LOcKdoWn iN EfFeCt.’‘
She read loudly and slowly while tracing each line with one of her index fingers.
‘‘Had the feeling it was something like that.’‘ Commented Cole as he put down his duffelbag, taking a nail puller from it before crawling under the console.
‘‘I’ll try and see if I can somehow power this whole thing down, maybe they’ll lose power and open.’‘ – He added as he poked around the underside of the console with his nail puller; looking for something he could pry open.
‘‘Gotcha.’‘ It didn’t take long to find it.
‘‘Urrk… gah!’‘ But his strength wasn’t enough to force it open.
‘‘NeEd A haND?’‘
Zalura asked that with a bit of amusement.
‘‘Yes really.’‘ And Cole didn’t let the irony go waste.
Once Cole was out of the way, Zalura yanked the nail puller with full force.
And after a bit of resistance, a whole section of the console’s underside had been ripped away, along with some internal wires. It had been such a forceful tear that some of the screen had gone dark; a slight smokey smell filled the air.
‘‘Whew, that was some percussive maintenance.’‘ Jested Cole as he took the nail puller and got under the console again, mindfully dodging all the hanging wires that now hung down from it.
Concentric to the largest parts of the console there were some kind of metallic disks about the size of a small pizza, each with handles on the sides. Three of them in total.
‘‘Out you go!’‘ Said Cole as he pulled the leftmost one out. It was heavy, but it slid with ease, and it was a bit taller than he had expected.
The unmistakable sound of a machine powering down filled the room, which became a bit more silent.
‘‘Seems I pulled the plug.’‘ Thought Cole as he did the same with the other two disks.
Soon enough, even the room’s lights went out; the area was fully silent now.
‘‘Hm, guess I overdid it.’‘ Said Cole as he crawled out from under the console. A tinge of guilt permeating his words.
‘‘IT iS OkAY.’‘ Replied Zalura from some unseen place; the room was now so dark Cole couldn’t even see her.
He turned on his Zap-Light and looked around. Zalura was back at the lockers, all of which had already opened, and she was holding some kind of weapon, two of them in fact.
From the distance, it was the shine of their chassis, polished to a mirror-like shine, what was more noticeable. Specially given how it reflected the Zap-Light’s shine.
The chassis itself was not too different of a human-made assault rifle, with the exception that its ”barrel” was angled on the sides and extended back to the very stock. Around the trigger area, a sturdy handle was overshadowed by a set of plates that seemed to serve as a hand-guard of sorts, or perhaps part of the aiming mechanism. These parts weren’t polished like the rest of the gun, but of a deep coal-black color.
Overall, it was a weapon of a rather human-ish design; similar in design to many ”Plasma Rifles” from Sci-Fi movies and games he knew. But as Cole wondered why it didn’t have a more ”alien” design, he remembered that the ship was of Oularnian made, just like Tetlekar, and he looked almost human, so maybe the other Oularnians were as well.
‘‘Those look pretty powerful.’‘ He said as he walked over to where Zalura was.
‘‘ThEy aRE.’‘ She replied as she held two of them in a firing position, one on each set of arms.
‘‘ZeTt’erhLan CascaDe ProJectorS.’‘ Those three words sounded unusually well pronounced.
‘‘TheY cUT ThOroUgH mOsT sHieLdIng WIth eASe, maKiNG wOunDs tHat bLeEd LOts And HEaL sLoW. MY PeoPLE cAll thEm ”Zh’aC Pu”.’‘
The way in which Zalura explained it carried that unique kind of pride born from the kind of experience which only war veterans or retired soldiers can boast. Cole couldn’t help but feel some awe.
‘‘Good thing you found such a treasure. Let’s hope I’m just as lucky.’‘ Commented Cole as he got a bit closer to see them in detail. They also had a scope of sorts.
For a moment, however, Zalura seemed confused.
‘‘WiLL COle LeAvE tHosE BEhinD?’‘ She asked as she pointed to those three ‘caps’ that Cole had removed from the console.
‘‘These? A-Are they useful for something? Should I be taking them?’‘
Stunned by the sudden inquiry, Cole picked up one of the caps from the ground as he asked those questions.
‘‘XaLaTAn pOwER CoReS. VeRY lOng-LasTIng eNerGy SOUrcEs.’‘ Explained Zalura as she began packing a series of tightly packed, bright purple canisters she had also taken from the lockers. Perhaps the ammo for those weapons.
‘‘What? This is a battery!? I thought it was a fuse or something.’‘ Cole almost shouted those sentences as a smile formed on his face.
‘‘Heyo, catch!’‘ Shouted Cole as he flung his duffelbag towards Zalura, who was already on the ground. These ”Xalatan Power Cores” (or XPCs as he had already been dubbing them) had made his already-hefty bag even heavier, and it would had made climbing down that wrecked ship much harder.
‘‘ShaLL ZALura aND COle hEaD BacK?’‘ She asked, catching the duffelbag with ease.
‘‘Yeah.’‘ Replied Cole as he landed from a small jump.
‘‘We’re already pretty loaded so, let’s just rest a bit and-’‘ His sentence was interrupted the moment he noticed some strange movement up ahead.
It was barely visible and almost inaudible but of about half a dozen of Worker Units had gathered around the foot of one of the towers, all of them acting rather agitated.
‘‘What’s going there?’‘ Asked Cole as he pointed towards the Units.
Zalura focused her sight on them for a moment before speaking.
‘‘CAnNot sEE. WiLL geT cLosE ANd cHeCK.’‘
Zalura had already taken the first step when Cole motioned her to stop, before reaching for a pair of binoculars that hung from his duffelbag.
‘‘Better check from here first.’‘ He said as he put them to his eyes, adjusting the distance. He was already quite glad of having grabbed those from one of the trash towers.
While from the distance all that was visible was the chaotic coterie of Worker Units, the binoculars revealed a notably different Unit standing amidst them.
It was more or less one head taller than the Worker Units and its slimmer body frame made stood out against the more stubby other Units. It also seemed to be carrying something.
‘‘WhAT Do yOU sEe?’‘ Asked Zalura in a tone of worry.
‘‘There’s a new Unit there, it’s bigger than the others and-’‘ As Cole was saying this, the tall Unit turned around, enabling him to see what it was carrying. ‘‘-it looks like it has a shield of sorts.’‘
Zalura’s eyes widened in shock as Cole put down his binoculars to look at her.
‘‘SEcuRItY UNiT!’‘ She exclaimed, and Cole could almost feel the blood of his face draining away as he remembered one particular phrase from Tetlekar.
‘‘’We’re lucky it wasn’t a Cleaner Unit or Security Unit, else we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.’‘‘ That memory echoed with fear.
‘‘W-What do we do? That was the way out.’‘ – Asked Cole as he reached for his wrench, although this time he doubted it’d be of use.
‘‘LEt US MOve InTo tHAt PiT. SEcuRItY UNiTs oNly aTtacK yOu iF tHEy seE YoUr boDY. ‘‘ Commanded Zalura as she pointed to another square pit right in front of them. Cole didn’t wait a second to follow her lead.
Despite their depth, the walls of the pits weren’t fully vertical but had a considerable slope, somewhere around sixty degrees. This, combined with the fact the walls were quite bumpy and somewhat stepped made for a rather easy descent.
‘‘FoR nOW, SHouLd ResT oN wReCK OvEr THEre. WaTCh UNiTs FroM AFaR.’‘ Said Zalura as both she and Cole picked up their packs, which they had sent sliding into the pit before coming down.
‘‘Mhm, and who knows, maybe we’ll find some-’‘ Cole’s words froze in his mouth as he turned around and saw the aforementioned wreck.
He had seen them in movies, documentaries and even parts of them on large-scale boneyards, but he had never seen one of them face to face, or more specifically, face to fuselage.
‘‘Holy scrap.’‘ That pun came out unconsciously.
‘‘It’s a B-29!’‘
It was glass nose, which had always reminded him of a greenhouse, what made his mind connect the dots.
‘‘Is thAT whAT tHis CRaFt iS cAlLed?’‘ Zalura sounded quite interested.
‘‘Yes, it’s the mighty ‘Superfortress’!’‘ Announced Cole in a tone that oozed with nerd pride.
‘‘IT… dOeS nOT LoOk VEry STRonG…’‘ She commented politely, as if frightful to offend Cole.
‘‘Well, this thing’s probably thrice my age, so it shouldn’t be surprising it’s battered.’‘ He added as they walked towards the wreck.
Unlike the colony transport spaceship from before, whose over-sized wreck towered out of the pit it had been placed into, this old-time relic of war just laid humbly at the bottom of its pit.
It back had snapped in the middle and its wings, weighted by its massive turbines, had come down as rust and decay overtook the metal. Other than that, it looked fairly well-preserved; its paint was still quite visible, and to much of Cole’s surprise, instead of the usual star insignia of the USAF, this bomber wore the tricolor roundel of the British RAF. What wasn’t missing, however, was the usual ‘pin-up’ nose art, still perfectly visible despite the years of decay.
A drawing of a voluptuous blond woman clad in a bunny girl outfit, with one foot on top of a large bomb while pushing her breasts up. The words ‘Bunny Buns Bring Bombs’ painted over her head in red and yellow letters didn’t fail to make Cole chuckle with its clever alliteration.
‘‘DO hUmAN FEmaLeS aLsO cOUrT THeiR mALes ?’‘ There was a tinge of familiarity mixed with curiosity as Zalura made that question.
‘‘Well… yes, but not always. It’s… usually us guys who do the courting and stuff…. Not like I know much about it.’‘ Replied Cole slowly, saying that last sentence low enough for Zalura to not hear it.
But instead of a reply, she put her upper right hand to her chin and pondered in silence.
‘‘… BuT, tHEn I DOn’t uNdeRStaNd.’‘ She said, before Cole had the chance to say something else.
‘‘If hUmAN FEmaLeS dO noT CouRt thEIr mALes, ThEn wHy ZALura saW mAnY dePicTionS oF HUmaNs feMALes iN maTinG RItuAls oN DEviCe COle gAve TEtLekar. WHat diD COle uSe tHOse foR?’‘ Zalura made that unusually long comment and that question with the kind of deadpan expression that would’ve made a deaf man think she was asking Cole to tell her the time.
‘‘T-T-T-That is….!’‘ He had never stuttered that much before. Cole could feel his whole face turning red up to the ears.
‘‘T-That’s something we humans don’t talk about! Specially in front of a woman of any kind…’‘ He replied as he covered his face shamefully; he simply couldn’t stomach the idea of having to explain Zalura what porn was used for.
At that moment, he would had been quite happy if the Phylactery’s hull had just breached where he was standing and dumped him into space.
‘‘IS tHaT So? SOrry…’‘ Thankfully, she was quick to control her curiosity.
‘‘Haaah… Seriously, why didn’t I delete it all?’‘ Thought Cole as they made their way inside of the plane.
The inside of the plane was a complete mess; some unusual and rather large machines that had originally lined the walls had now come out and fallen all over the plane cargo compartment. There was also paper; lots and lots of yellowed papers and folders littered all over, filling every nook and cranny they could fit into. Overall, it was a rather claustrophobia-inducing place.
But perhaps even stranger than all that litter was the complete absence of weaponry; the side guns were missing, although the racks where they had once been placed were still there, and the entire sighting platform for the upper back turret deck had been repurposed for what seemed like a telescope of sorts.
‘‘What the hell was going on here?’‘ Mumbled Cole as he picked up a random piece of paper from the ground, which almost crumbled on his hand.
Whatever had once been written on it had faded almost to the point of illegibility; all he could make out where some long tabulated charts filled with numbers… and the date it had been written.
‘‘March 17 of…. 1952!?’‘ The points finally connected in his mind.
‘‘So… not WWII but Cold War era, huh? Wonder what this was. A communication plane? An espionage one?’‘ He mumbled as he dropped the piece of paper and began to make his way upwards. The origins and story of this plane certainly drew his curiosity, but there were more important things on his mind.
‘‘WHere aRE wE heAdiNg to?’‘ Asked Zalura as she followed Cole, both wading through the ankle-deep pile of papers and scrap.
‘‘To the cabin; there will probably be two comfortable seats to rest, as well as a good point of vantage to watch for the Units.’‘ – Replied Cole as he pushed upwards.
As they advanced, the litter of papers and machines gave way to some more piled-up machines blocking the way which Zalura had to push away so they could keep moving forward.
Following the machines and a broken airlock came a dozen musty and dusty cots, some of them littered with books, clothes and even some long-since-faded photos.
And yet, even upon arriving at the cockpit, there was still no sign of any crew, dead or otherwise. He had steeled his mind for the prospect of finding at least one skeleton there, but as he climbed the surprisingly-still-sturdy ladder leading into the cockpit, he simply came to the conclusion that, if the crew lived through whatever the Phylactery did to them, they probably didn’t stay in the plane.
The cockpit was perhaps the most intact part of the plane, not counting the shattered glass nose and the omnipresent rust. And given the way the engine throttle levers were left, this plane was caught in mid-flight.
‘‘Whew, finally some respite.’‘ Said Cole as he practically collapsed into the radio operator’s seat. Zalura, on the other hand, spent a moment curiously inspecting all the machines. This plane’s workings seemed to puzzle her as much as those of that colony transport did Cole.
For a while, only the sounds of chewing, along with a rare creak of metal, was all that filled the ambiance.
The quantity of meat Zalura had brought for herself was almost a whole haunch of a large Aberration, and yet she devoured it entirely as Cole munched through his strips of Aber-Ration jerky.
Feeling his stomach full and his energy recovered, Cole climbed on top of the cockpit to spy on the Security Unit. From what he had managed to see, it was somehow damaged, but Zalura had already told him that such only made it even more dangerous. The Worker Units were apparently towing it to somewhere, so now it was all about leaving the NVSC5 unnoticed.
‘‘Hmm… seems it’ll be all about speed, or maybe we could take another path around them and avoid getting into their line of sight.’‘ Said Cole as he came down, this time laying on the copilot’s seat.
Zalura gave a nod as she replied.
‘‘MaYbe CoULd aLso diStrACt tHem. ‘UNitS wILl COme tO CHeCk aNyTHing tHAt iS hOt oR LoUD.’, oR So sAiD HauDRIca onCe.’‘ She made that quote in a rather brusque manner, perhaps reflecting its original source.
Cole couldn’t help but let out a chuckle.
‘‘Heh, guess she says stuff other than ‘I’ll lop your head from your shoulders!’ now and then.’‘ He said, trying to mimic Haudrica’s tone and failing.
But an awkward silence fell as he finished his phrase.
‘‘… Say, can I ask you something?’‘ Cole turned to face Zalura as he spoke; his expression deadly serious. She merely replied with an affirmative nod.
‘‘You… seem to get along pretty well with Haudrica, right?’‘ Said Cole somewhat nervously.
‘‘EAch reSpECts tHe StReNgTH oF tHE OtHer.’‘
Zalura’s reply was rather solemn.
‘‘So, do you happen to know why she despises me so much? She seems to hate me more than anything in this world, yet refuses to tell me why.’‘
He finally let out that one question.
Zalura remained silent for a moment; her stoic expression making hard for Cole to discern if she had been offended by the inquiry, or simply worried about what to reply.
More than sounding apologetic, she sounded nervous.
‘‘Haaah…. Figures. I still don’t understand how I am supposed to get along with her if nobody tells me shit about what to do.’‘ Replied Cole in frustration.
‘‘NO, noT thAT. LoOK.’‘ But Zalura was quick to correct herself.
As Cole turned around, she was pointing to a tiny device clasped to the edge of her jacket’s neck.
From afar, it looked remarkably similar in size and shape to a Hands Free, but its design was clearly not human-made. There was a sort of light on it, blinking yellow and red.
Cole had seen her manipulate it from the very moment they met, and he had often wondered about its function.
‘‘EcHO pRoCceSOr, LoW pOwER. SToRy lOng. No TAlk mUCh nOw.’‘
And now he knew it. Zalura’s speech had just worsened dramatically.
However, just as it looked like she was about to say something else, she arose from her seat and gazed out through the broken glass, focusing on something at the distance.
‘‘WilL tEll COle lAtEr. NoW wE LeaVE.’‘ Her voice suddenly took a rather concerning mixture of worried and alert.
‘‘What’s wrong? Did the Units move again?’‘ Asked Cole as he reached for his binoculars and tried to focus on the Units.
While the Security Unit hadn’t moved from its place, there was an odd increase in the number of Worker Units around them, as if they were gathering near it.
‘‘Why so many of them now?’‘ Asked Cole as he tried to count the Units. He had already counted over 20.
‘‘CoMe tO PRotEct dAmaGed MAsTeR.’‘ Replied Zalura, whom had already picked up her pack, and was preparing to head down.
‘‘Ok, just let me grab a few things. I may also have found a way to distract the Units if we need to.’‘ Said Cole as he did the same and followed after her, but not without picking up one particular tool that hung from the cockpit’s wall.
‘‘HoW?’‘ Asked Zalura from the bottom of the ladder.
‘‘With this!’‘ Cole proudly showed what he was holding; a flare gun.
‘‘Haudrica said they like heat and noise, right? Flares have plenty of both.’‘ He continued as he came down the ladder.
‘‘Problem is, even if this box has eight of them, it has been here for over half a century, so there’s always a chance of them not working.’‘ He loaded one in the gun as he spoke.
‘‘OKay.’‘ Zalura’s replies were getting even shorter.
With the Units gathering around them and Zalura’s ”speech device” running low on batteries, if Cole wanted to end this expedition on a good note, they had to leave immediately, and all he could do was hope his plan would work.
<End of Chapter 6>