Muffled steps and hushed breaths.
With their eyes forward and their packs on their backs, Cole and Zalura moved from tower to tower, always making sure of staying unseen.
The Worker Units were all moving towards the damaged Security Unit like an army of ants towards a sugar cube, and then going back to search the towers for something; most likely replacement parts.
Following its usual obnoxious sound, a unit came and picked up a sheet of metal from the base of some large, industrial-looking machine. And right behind it was hiding Cole, whose right hand shook slightly as he held the flare gun.
‘‘Now!’‘ He said softly as he signaled Zalura, who was hiding on the second tier of the tower, to dash towards the next one.
‘‘FOur, ThrEe.’‘ Counted Zalura as they ran past another tower. The device on her neck still flashing, and her sentences getting shorter.
The exit was already within their sight, but so was the Security unit.
The process going on near it was quite a curious one; the Worker Units were taking apart its shield and armor’s plating and replacing it with a patchwork of metals recovered from the surrounding scrap.
Perhaps, thought Cole, both this place and the NVSC9 were meant to be some kind of self-sustained repair and maintenance stations for the Units, and the reason the Phylactery gathered junk was for such uses. However, his mind was too busy trying to determine if the exit was within the visibility range of any of the Units.
‘‘Shit!’‘ He quickly hid back as one of the Worker Units had focused on him as soon as he came out of cover. Yet, once he had vanished, the Unit returned to fiddling with the other one.
‘‘This is a deadlock; there’s just no way around it.’‘ Said Cole to Zalura, whom was hiding next to him this time.
‘‘USe fIre?’‘ Asked Zalura, pointing to the flare gun.
‘‘Yes, but I need to time it correctly.’‘ Replied Cole as he loaded a flare into it.
‘‘If they don’t see the heat of the flare, they’ll hear the noise of the gun, and that’ll draw them here. They all have to see the light.’‘ He continued as he aimed the flare gun at the distance, trying to get more acquainted with its grip.
‘‘These Units work in teams; when one’s setting the plates, the other heads out for more. I need to distract this second team, as the first will be too busy to look at us.’‘ – He thought as he put his finger on the trigger.
‘‘Wait… wait…’‘ Cole muttered, watching the Units arrive with more scrap. Zalura watching them silently next to him.
He fired, or at least, he tried to. It was a dud.
‘‘Shit! Talk about bad timing.’‘ In a rush, he took out the flare dud and tossed it away behind him.
‘‘Patience… patience…’‘ Again, he muttered, trying to prevent his aiming hands from shaking as he reloaded and aimed.
A dry explosion along with a fizzing sound gave birth to a shining orb of light. However, he hadn’t yet fired the gun, and the orb was right behind him.
The dud had detonated on its own.
And suddenly, all the eyes were on them.
‘‘RUN FOR IT!!’‘ He didn’t even bother to hush his voice; he and Zalura jumped ahead, barely dodging the encircling Units.
The Units didn’t sound very happy, and they were keeping up with Cole and Zalura’s speed. However, they were already upon the exit.
‘‘DoOR oPeN!’‘ Cried Zalura as she lifted the sheet of metal covering the exit.
‘‘You go first! I’ll hold them!’‘
Cole shot directly at the closest Unit, and then at a nearby tower. Some of the Units seemed disoriented by this, but not all of them.
‘‘COme!’‘ She pulled Cole out by his backpack before putting the metal sheet down.
But the Units weren’t giving up so easily.
‘‘Help me pile this junk over here. Should be enough to delay them.’‘ Said Cole as he grabbed a nearby hunk of metal and place it over the other metal sheet. Zalura did the same with a much larger piece of scrap.
They didn’t knew if that makeshift barricade was going to be enough, but they wouldn’t stay here to verify it; one the pile was big enough, they ran away, and didn’t stop until they were far enough to not hear the Unit’s humming.
‘‘Man…. that was some race… can’t feel my legs…’‘ Said Cole as he collapsed in a corner of the corridor, barely able to catch his breath. ‘‘How are you feeling?’‘ He asked.
As expected, Zalura was still standing, looking at the nearby corridor with a rather stern expression.
‘‘PE’owA Ita’KAn-zUaUN.’‘ Those weren’t normal words, and both of them noticed.
With her means of communication out of batteries and their frantic escape having taken them too far away from the route they had come from, Zalura was looking quite nervous, and Cole wasn’t much better.
‘‘We went straight for two junctions and then we went left and right after. That means taking another right on next corner. Or is it on the junction farther ahead?’‘ Said Cole as he read his map.
‘‘ChA, HuYjA… NE’MeLuIPA-WaEyR.’‘ Zalura muttered something as she followed Cole.
It was a tense situation; Zalura probably knew the way back better than Cole, but she was unable to guide him there. Undoubtedly exasperating.
‘‘Hey.’‘ He called her out, tapping her lower right shoulder. ‘‘This is the path I came from, I’m pretty sure. The NVSC9 is just five junctions away.’‘ As he spoke, he made a series of slow arm motions, trying to show her what was going on.
She didn’t reply, but she seemed to acknowledge it, although that didn’t make Cole any less worried.
But, after they turned right, they were met with a familiar sight.
‘‘T-This is…’‘ Cole muttered
Row after row of metal shutters, all of them with electrical panels ranging from red, green and off. There was also a strong sense of déjà vu.
‘‘… Kinda ironic. Being back here.’‘ Thought Cole as he turned on his Zap-Light, and searched for that one pair of open vaults.
Absolutely nothing had changed his previous time there; one open vault still abundant of Organic Blocks and one empty vault filled with nothing but dust and a pile of rags in a corner, all the other laid closed.
‘‘Hopefully I can start working on the Unit once I get back.’‘ Said Cole as he aimed his light at the dusty vault, thinking of his Unit back at home.
‘‘Hm?’‘ But then, something drew his attention; something in the pile of rags was reflecting light. ‘‘Just what’s that there-Oh, shit…’‘
As he carefully entered the vault, he noticed that the pile of rags sporting a shiny bangle, one that still clung to the hand that once worn it.
It was a corpse.
‘‘Another crewman?’‘ That was the first thought when he moved closer to see it.
However, more than a skeleton, he instead was greeted by a dry humanoid carcass, much closer to a mummy than to a standard corpse, its facial features still somewhat discernible. But the main visual giveaway of what he was were the clothes he was wearing; an all-too-familiar red and green uniform.
‘‘An Irisonian!?’‘ The name came to mind almost unconsciously, along with the face of the perpetually angry frown of the one who wore a uniform like this.
‘‘ChA, COle!’‘ But Zalura just drew his attention away.
‘‘OiMa’na, tEi-dOs D’kuEioL. ALn’Uman iT’cHirA-zO.’‘ She sounded excited enough that she didn’t care about the linguistic barriers.
‘‘What’s it?’‘ Said Cole as he came out, but Zalura had already run towards the nearby end of the corridor and was pointing to the left.
‘‘ALn’Uman iT’cHirA-zO.’‘ She repeated that alien phrase again as Cole approached.
‘‘It’s open!’‘ A smile found its way to his face as he said that. He could still remember coming that way, and how Tetlekar had been cursing at the Unit sealing it, but now, it was open; the way home was clear.
‘‘Nice find!’‘ Said Cole as he gave her a thumbs up. She didn’t seem to quite understand the gesture, but she followed after Cole regardless.
‘‘Oi! We’re here! Someone open up the shutter.’‘ Said Cole merrily as he banged on the shutter with his hand.
‘‘Whozzat’ out ‘here? This ain’ no place fer ya water monkeys! Go ‘way!’‘ A very amused and heavily accented voice rang from the other side in a fake scornful manner.
‘‘Desri, cut the jokes. Zalura’s Echo Processor ran out of batteries.’‘ Replied Cole in mild annoyance.
The shutter opened without any further bad jokes.
‘‘Zalura, chak’at ku ei-iam. Iata’ma ei-athu.’‘ Said Desri to Zalura in Uluk as soon as they made eye contact.
‘‘IN’maNom, DEsri. COle ka’tahTy eRu.’‘ And she replied in the same manner as they walked away, leaving Cole by himself.
‘‘…. Geez, I’m fine, thanks for asking!’‘ Said Cole sarcastically; he could almost hear the ”obligatory wind” sound effect playing behind him.
Then again, he couldn’t quite blame Zalura; if her Echo Processor was like any kind of human electronic device, it probably wouldn’t just recharge instantly.
Although it wouldn’t have surprised him if it did; there was just too much he didn’t knew yet about that technology, and the Xalatan Power Cores he was still carrying would most likely serve as his starting line.
Like any seasoned traveler would certainly know, while packing up is one of the most exciting parts of a journey, unpacking what they brought from the road was even better. For Cole however, that last part was the opposite; unpacking always had that ‘day after the big party’ feeling in which he had to find a place for everything and do away with the mess.
Following the sound of opening zippers, a modest pile of junk and empty sandwich boxes poured from inside his duffelbag.
‘‘The boxes to the sink, the bottles to the kitchen counter, the tools for the cabinets and drawers….’‘ He muttered as he put all his things back to their respective places, finally turning his attention to those which had no place yet.
An used (but still sturdy) roll of duct tape, two spray cans of paint, some sort of electric control panel, a small keypad, a car’s starter, a supermarket-style card reader, a gaudy wristwatch, a battered walkie-talkie, an old beeper, and of course, those binoculars that had already been useful, the flare gun which saved his ass, as well as those over-sized spacecraft batteries which seemed to hum in a very low tone.
‘‘Hrmm… not exactly invaluable treasures, but not useless junk either.’‘ Mumbled Cole as he picked up the watch, which was still working.
Once all the human junk was stored away, Cole left the XPCs on top of the dinner table (which had since long become his workbench) and began to wonder just how he would make them work.
Their general shape reminded Cole of those dish-shaped air filters that Conrad’s tow truck used back at the scrapyard; perfectly round and about four fingers tall. Underneath it had two handles, which he had used to pull them out, while their top sported a sort of Y-shaped slot, each with a protruding metal piece shaped like a beaver’s teeth on its end which was most likely the power contact. However, each set of these ”teeth” had a slightly different shade of color.
‘‘By standard human logic, one of these is the ground while the other two are the good ol’ plus and minus, or maybe…’‘
Riding on this train of thought, Cole reached for his notebook and pencil, along with that old multi-meter he had managed to get working.
‘‘… Maybe it’s like a commuted power genera-’‘
He had barely grazed the surface of one of the ”teeth” with the test lead and the gauge’s needle smacked its maximum, followed by the loud bang of the multi-meter’s security fuse blowing to smithereens.
‘‘Holy shit!’‘ Cole was almost as shocked as his instrument. He hadn’t yet assimilated what had just happened.
‘‘Power?… More like ‘Super Power’. Seems I’ll have to take a different approach.’‘ Though Cole as he put down the multi-meter and headed outside.
Soldering iron in hand and solder roll on the other, Cole hummed tonelessly as he applied a coat of tin solder to the end of a wire.
Littered on the ground next to him were a dozen power transformers, along with a myriad of other components he was putting together. Hopefully, that would reduce the XPC’s power to an at least manageable level.
‘‘Greetings Cole, are you busy?’‘
All of a sudden, the sound of Tetlekar’s even-toned and overly polite voice broke the silence.
‘‘A bit, wadda ya need?’‘ Replied Cole without moving from his position or even looking back; he was full into ‘Working Mode’.
‘‘I merely wanted to inform you that I am done with your previous request.’‘ Continued Tetlekar, seemingly unfazed by Cole’s behavior.
He was most certainly talking about the mapping of the Unit’s functions, but Cole now had bigger things in mind.
‘‘Cool! Just leave the laptop on the table. I’ll check it out once I’m done with this gadget. I’ll go pick up the Unit later.’‘
Cole was so absorbed in his work that he hadn’t even noticed that Mizelle was also there, but remaining fully silent.
‘‘Oh, it’s already here.’‘
As Tetlekar spoke, the sound of something hitting the ground finally broke Cole out of his ”Working Mode’, making him look back.
‘‘What was th-whoa!’‘ But as he did so, he practically jumped back in fright.
His Unit was right there, behind him. And while he usually wouldn’t have reacted like that, being chased by an army of those so recently had caused such reaction.
‘‘That is what happens when you do not look at those who are speaking to you.’‘ Commented Tetlekar in a tone that could only be described as scolding.
‘‘Nah, just a bit jumpy after what happened on the NVSC5.’‘ He said as he regained his posture. And while at first he couldn’t understand why his Unit had landed like that, but then he noticed Mizelle standing next to Tetlekar, with a bit of an amused expression.
She gave Cole as silent smile as their eyes met.
‘‘Well, given the way you look, I am to assume you found what you were looking for.’‘ Said Cole as he got up and dusted off his jumpsuit’s legs.
‘‘Quite so, and I must say it was a far more enlightening experience than I had initially anticipated, and I can imagine that its results will greatly please you.’‘ Said Tetlekar as he placed the laptop on a small table Cole had outside his RV; there was a strange sense of achievement both in his facial expression and the way he was speaking.
‘‘… What are you making?’‘ It was Mizelle who made this question as she saw what Cole was working on.
‘‘Oh, this? It’s just a makeshift power converter. Hopefully it’ll help me to harness the electricity of those XPCs I found into power I can use.’‘ Replied Cole as he pointed at the power transformers.
‘‘XPC?’‘ Now it was Tetlekar who made an inquiry, rising an eyebrow. Mizelle didn’t seem to understand Cole’s answer.
‘‘Zalura called them Xalatan Power Cores. I found three of them in the same place as she found her new guns. Although I’m still trying to figure out how to use them without my stuff blowing up, hence the converter.’‘ Explained Cole as he pointed to the multimeter laying on the table; it’s fuse waiting to be jury-rigged.
‘‘Three of them!?’‘
This was the first time Cole had ever seen such a display of emotions from Tetlekar. He looked positively ecstatic.
‘‘Here they are. You seem pretty excited about them.’‘ Commented Cole as he pointed to the dinner table, and Tetlekar almost dashed towards it.
‘‘How could I not be? Do you rememb-oh, apologies. I forgot I did not explain it back then.’‘ His excitement died down as he apologized.
But following those words, he pushed the center of one of the XPCs and gave it a few spins, which caused its cap to pop up like a lid, revealing a honeycomb-like structure studded with tall, diamond-shaped crystals.
‘‘Hey aren’t those…?’‘ Cole recognized them immediately.
He hadn’t even finished asking as Tetlekar pushed one of the crystals slightly, making it jump out.
‘‘Indeed, they are the same source of energy that powers my functions; high-energy Xalatan nodes. The best and most expensive source of power available for non-military usage.’‘ Explained Tetlekar with what could only be described as ‘machine pride’; he had probably been quite expensive, and was proud of such.
‘‘Sweet! So, does that mean you could tell me how can I use one of these to power this place up?’‘ Now it was Cole who was excited.
‘‘I can, but with one condition.’‘ Replied Tetlekar with a mercantile smile.
‘‘You want one for yourself.’‘ Cole read him like an open book.
‘‘Quite so; it will be refreshing to run on non-refurbished power for a while now.’‘ He said.
‘‘Then you got a deal!’‘ – And Cole replied with a smile and a thumbs up.
Tetlekar had many skills, but teaching wasn’t apparently one of them. Unnecessary technical and quite mind-boggling, his lengthy explanation took more than a few times to sink into Cole. Although the latter was wondering if such wasn’t because of Tetlekar’s skills, but due to his own ignorance of facts that for all these space-dwelling folks were as understood as it was to him that fire was hot.
Still, Cole was a diligent student; so after a few tries and trading more than one bit of common knowledge, he was able to sketch a prototype of his new ”Hybrid Power Converter”, which he didn’t waste time to start building.
‘‘-and that’s the fourth relay…’‘ He mumbled as he made sure the soldering on this one’s contacts were firm.
‘‘Hand me the capacitors; the big black ones with golden numbers.’‘ And following these words, they were on his hand, which he had stretched back.
Although Tetlekar had left to try out his new Xalatan crystals, Mizelle had remained with Cole, out of curiosity for what he was doing.
‘‘These ones?’‘ She asked, meekly pushing them into his palm.
‘‘Yup! These will do nicely.’‘ Said Cole, encouragingly.
While she had done nothing but watch for the first half an hour, she started asking Cole about the usage of each part and component he went to pick up as the minutes went by. And before Cole had realized, she had become a very efficient and fast-learning apprentice who was a bit too eager to help out.
This, combined with her unique skill to make a 40 Kgs voltage transformer weight less than a paperclip, made her such an efficient helper that Cole finished his hybrid converter much faster and with much less effort than he had initially calculated.
‘‘Whew, that’s a wrap; the core’s in place. Now for the maiden voyage…’‘ He declared triumphantly as he placed the XPC in place and secured it with a couple of bolts. Making sure all was connected before putting the keys inside of the car starter that served as its main switch and making some final adjustments on the mismatching myriad of switches and dial knobs he had set to control the power output.
‘‘Uhm, won’t you connect it to your home first?’‘ Asked Mizelle as she leaned her head to the side; her fluffy ears perking up in attention.
‘‘Nope; this is just the ”live” test; I just wanna know if it really works. Once I make sure it doesn’t blow up or sets my power grid on fire, I’ll hook it to the RV.’‘ Replied Cole as he began checking the gauges, which were still at zero.
He took in a deep breath as he grabbed the key; nervousness clawing at him.
‘‘…And God said-’‘
‘‘’Let there be light,’‘‘ Cole had never been a religious type, but he felt it was the best quote for the moment he turned the key.
The was a soft hum and the gauges skyrocketed; all needles beyond the maximum, and some warning lights shone red.
*Tlaktlak, tlaktlak, tlaktlak, tlaktlak!*
But as he quickly flipped a series of switches, the needles went down and the red lights turned yellow. And a few more adjustments later, they were all green.
*Tack, tock. Tack, tock. Tack, tock.*
The converter made a sound akin to that of a car’s parking lights, most likely due to all the relays it had inside, diverting the power through many smaller transformers and resistors.
Silently, he grabbed a socket with a light bulb on he had previously prepared and made its wires touch the output contacts.
It shone blindingly bright.
‘‘And there was light.’‘ He added, smiling proudly as he basked in the warm, yellow light.
Mizelle, on the other hand, was staring directly at the light bulb; her expression akin to that of a cat gazing at a fluttering cloth.
‘‘Don’t look at it for too long; it’ll make your eyes hurt.’‘ – Said Cole as he pulled the socket away.
She gave a nod and rubbed her eyes, looking charmingly cute in the process.
‘‘Whew, that was tiring. Do you want some water?’‘ Asked Cole as he approached the now-functioning freezer. The mere thought of having cold water at last was enough to make him thirsty.
‘‘Ah, s-sure.’‘ Mizelle seemed more than a bit nervous as she followed Cole into the RV.
With the exception of a few minor appliances, the RV was now fully powered and lit by its fluorescent lamps. And Cole’s laptop was finally getting some very necessary recharge.
‘‘Here ya go. It’s still not as cold as I like it, but it’s better than its usual warmth.’‘ He said as he handed Mizelle a full glass of water.
She nodded wordlessly and began sipping it rather slowly; her eyes wandering around the RV.
‘‘Hehe, sorry, had I known someone else would be coming in, I would’ve cleaned up the mess a bit.’‘ Commented Cole as he tried to draw Mizelle’s attention away from the piles of parts and components that littered almost every flat surface.
‘‘N-No it’s just….’‘ This comment got her rather flustered. ‘‘You’re so… different.’‘ She said cryptically as she put her glass down.
‘‘Different? From who?’‘ Cole spoke, raising an eyebrow.
‘‘From… Eustace. The first human I met… that WE met…’‘
Mizelle’s reply was a cocktail of emotions; curiosity, nostalgia, confusion, sadness, and others he couldn’t discern. All of these feelings mixed in ways they seemed to counter each other; it was a strange thing.
However, coming from her, Cole knew where it was heading.
‘‘So, he’s the one who made Haudrica hate my guts, eh?’‘ He thought, sinking his gaze on his glass of water.
‘‘Was he so different from me?’‘ Said Cole almost jokingly as he tried his best to hide his contempt under his curiosity.
Mizelle gave short nod before replying.
‘‘At first he was… weird. Saying words I did not understand, jumping at shadows and afraid of Haudrica.’‘
‘‘But… he was afraid of THEM much more… of our captors, who chased us because of me. He, too, had been their prisoner.’‘
She picked up her glass with her power and drank a bit from it. It was still a curious sight for Cole to see anything floating in the air just like that.
‘‘With time, we became friends. He laughed with us, helped Haudrica hunt Aberrations, and even taught me how to speak. Haudrica liked him too, even if she still acted aloof.’‘
As Mizelle narrated her story, it was the feeling of genuine happiness which overcame all of the others; it was as if she was telling Cole her most treasured memory.
This feeling was strong enough to make Cole feel bad about his initial prejudices of this Eustace man. In a sense, he felt a strange kind of kinship to him; having gone through struggles similar to his own.
‘‘But…. it all changed that one day…’‘
And just like that, her happy expression fell from her as if a mask had dropped from her face.
She now looked angry, sad, and above all, confused.
‘‘He went missing one day. Haudrica even looked for him as she feared the worst. But just like that, he came back; unhurt and seemingly normal, so much we did not notice his change in attitude. By the time we realized, it was too late…’‘ Mizelle’s words were sorrowful to the point it looked like she would break in tears.
‘‘Hey, it’s okay.’‘ Cole felt the need to speak up as he saw her state. ‘‘You don’t have to remember something sad just for me. You can stop if you want.’‘ He said as encouragingly as he could, sitting next to Mizelle and giving her a soft pat in the back.
‘‘No…’‘ She shook her head. ‘‘I… I need to say it.’‘ She added, in a manner so driving it was scary.
Mizelle took in a few breaths before continuing.
‘‘…Haudrica had gone out alone; she said she had found a place on her previous scavenging run that perhaps could be a good place to rest. Eustace and I waited behind.’‘
‘‘For a while, nothing happened; it just went out as usual. But all of a sudden, he asked me if he’d like to see a ‘really cool place’ he had found when had gotten lost….’‘
Again, she went silent for a moment. But this time, Cole did not try to stop her. And after a short pause, she resumed.
‘‘I… was dumb and naïve; Haudrica had told me to never go out scavenging, but I thought it would be okay; I was with Eustace after all.’‘
‘‘We walked for a while. At first I was worried that it was too far from our hideout and that Haudrica could get back before we did, but he always said that ‘everything will be okay’.’‘
‘‘The place he got me to was kind of strange; there was this big window, from where you could see the stars outside and even a big, shiny red planet. It was beautiful, but….’‘
Mizelle put her hand on her chest and lowered her head.
‘‘Suddenly, there was pain, and all went black….’‘
‘‘…. The next thing I saw, I was back in a cage.’‘ She teared up as she said that, and Cole could feel the anger welling up within him.
‘‘There was… blood, all over. Haudrica had found me, and slaughtered some of the slavers who were moving my cage. But Eustace was nowhere to be found.’‘
‘‘Then, for almost a very long time, we continued to wander; hunting Aberrations and scavenging anything edible. Haudrica said nothing of Eustace, and she was always so angry about it I was afraid of asking her.’‘
She clutched the hem of her shirt as she finished that sentence.
‘‘After that Haudrica, was never the same again. She became cruel and violent; not towards me, but towards everyone and everything else. Towards me, she remained the same and tried to act like normal, but there were times when her fury got the best of her when I was looking.’‘
‘‘Even when Zalura found us and saved us from a Unit, Haudrica still tried to attack her despite of that, thinking she would tell our captors of where we were. And hadn’t Tetlekar showed up there, she would had probably succeeded.’‘
‘‘It was then when we came to live here, in the NVSC9. She was against it at first, but Tetlekar convinced her that we’d be safer here.’‘
With those words, she raised her head and looked over the broken window of the RV; gazing at the towering piles of scrap with an expression of relief.
‘‘That explain a lot of things.’‘ Said Cole as he offered her some more water. She accepted. ‘‘So, you never heard from this Eustace guy again?’‘ Cole asked.
‘‘No, we did. Zalura found him one day and brought him here.’‘ Replied Mizelle, shaking her head in denial.
Cole’s sole reply was a startled silence, his eyes growing wider with shock.
‘‘Haudrica was furious; she tried to kill him almost immediately, and she would had if Tetlekar hadn’t stopped her yet again.’‘
‘‘She continued to say that he was a traitor, and that he would lead the slavers here if he was left alive. While Eustace continued to say that he had been attacked along with me that day, but that the slavers had left him for dead.’‘
‘‘Except for Haudrica, everybody believed him… including me…’‘
Her stare fell down again, and her tone got a bit softer. Guilt permeating her words.
‘‘Again, he was nice to me; to everybody, even Haudrica, and Desri, whom joined us around that time.’‘
As she spoke, Cole now felt a grim sense of déjà vu; like he was seen his arrival at the NVSC9 from the eyes of someone else.
‘‘….. I still don’t understand…..’‘
‘‘… Why?… Why was he so nice to everyone?… Why did he help the slavers again?…’‘
Said Mizelle, making long pauses between each sentence. It was not sadness that her words evoked but confusion; a numbing sense of confusion. Like being lost in the most absolute darkness.
A long silence filled the air after that; with the exception of the fridge’s humming and the clicking sound of the generator outside.
In this silence, Cole wrestled with the ideas in his mind; should he ask her what became of Eustace to sate his own curiosity? Or should he just leave it at that to save Mizelle yet another grim recollection.
‘‘He’s dead.’‘ But she was faster than him.
‘‘When the attack of the slavers failed and they fled, leaving him behind, Haudrica went after him and killed him before he escaped.’‘
She added, lowering her head until Cole couldn’t see her face, now hidden by her hair. He could see the tears falling into her shirt.
‘‘Haudrica… she warns me about you…’‘
Said Mizelle without lifting her head.
‘‘She says you are the same… that you’re just playing nice, and that you will betray me when I feel I can trust you most…’‘
‘‘I… I really don’t know… I know I’m dumb… I’m made like that… trusting and obedient… I just…. want to believe in others… I want to believe in good people…’‘
She can barely speak between the sobs.
‘‘… Cole…. are you the same?… Are all humans bad like Eustace… or are you a good one?..’‘
With those words, she finally raised her head. Her bangs covering her forehead and face, like a sheepdog.
‘‘Haaah….’‘ Following a minute of silence, Cole sighed.
‘‘You aren’t dumb Mizelle.’‘ He said, raising from his seat. ‘‘But, what you say has a big problem.’‘ Continued Cole as he stood in front of her.
‘‘There is no ‘Bad’ or ‘Good’ with people. Nobody is ever entirely nice or wholly evil. We all have a some of both.’‘
Having said those words, he put his index finger under her chin, and raised her head even more.
‘‘I always try to be good, but that does not meant I cannot be a jerkass. And some times, I will probably be a jerkass.’‘ He added as he gently moved her hair away from her face, revealing a big pair of teary greenish-golden eyes that gazed at him like a sad puppy.
‘‘That said, it’s not for me to call myself either. It’ll be through the eyes of others that I’m judged, and labeled accordingly.’‘
He said that rather solemnly.
She suddenly arose and hugged his chest tightly.
‘‘Thank you…. really… thank you.’‘
Although he couldn’t see the expression she was making, the feeling of sadness in her words was gone.
‘‘Hey, don’t sweat it. That’s what friend are for.’‘
He replied nonchalantly while returning the embrace. She felt so tiny in his arms; her head barely reaching his shoulder.
‘‘Great to see you’re feeling better now.’‘ Said Cole in a merry manner as he handed Mizelle a battered, army-green canteen filled to the brim with cold water.
The RV’s fridge was working like a charm, and Mizelle had just discovered how water is much better cold than warm.
‘‘If you run out, just hop by again. As long as my generator keeps running and Tetlekar keep synthesizing it, we’ll not run out of cold water.’‘ Added Cole as he proudly pointed to the aforementioned generator, which continued to hum and click.
‘‘Y-Yes, see you at supper, Cole.’‘ Replied Mizelle as she ran away happily. It was so nice to see her energetic again.
‘‘Mm… haah… Now let’s see what Tetlekar did with the Un-whoa.’‘ He breathed in an out loudly before speaking, but the moment he turned around, there was a familiar figure now standing on his doorstep.
‘‘W-When did you get there?’‘ Asked Cole.
‘‘Concealing my presence in this noisy and cluttered place is but child’s play to me. I arrived shortly after you took Mizelle inside.’‘
The way Haudrica spoke was a strange one, or more precisely, it was strange for her. Her voice’s usual anger and bitterness, while not entirely absent, were considerably toned down. Instead, she spoke in a flat and serious manner that gave a strong no-nonsense air.
‘‘If you’re looking for Mizelle, she left already.’‘ Stated Cole in that dismissive manner he often addressed Haudrica with.
But she did not reply; she merely stood there, meeting Cole’s gaze.
And he did exactly the same in response.
Both of them remained like that for what could had either been just an instant or a long while.
‘‘… If you are done trying to count the number of folds in my irises, I would like to resume what I was doing.’‘ Finally, he spoke.
‘‘Just what are you trying to do?’‘ She asked as soon as Cole broke the staring contest.
‘‘I wanna get some work on the Unit done.’‘ Replied Cole nonchalantly.
‘‘You know well what I’m asking you about, you two-legged maggot. And if you don’t tell me what are you trying to accomplish I’ll kill you where you stand!’‘ And just like that, Haudrica voice was back to her normal hateful tone.
‘‘Do I really need to have an ulterior motive for my every interaction with Mizelle?’‘ Retorted Cole, now in a much more serious manner.
‘‘Why wouldn’t you?’‘ Replied Haudrica, slightly toning down her anger to much of Cole’s surprise.
‘‘Maybe because I don’t need it. Why should I need it? Did Mizelle need one as well for talking with m-?’‘
Right before he finished his sentence, Haudrica literally vanished from her place and reappeared right in front of Cole. This small time window was what gave him the awareness to realize that he shouldn’t remain where he stood.
Haudrica’s blade passed so close to him he could hear it whistling; slashing so close to him that it managed to cut away some of his bangs as he fell back to dodge it. She probably meant to do it like that, or else Cole would most certainly not had been able to dodge it.
‘‘You are just the same kind of savage scum as Eustace was… So don’t you ever dare to judge Mizelle in any way again. ‘‘ Unlike her previous threats, these words sounded genuinely menacing; enough to make Cole truly afraid for a moment.
But fear was quickly overpowered by what could best be described as courage-inducing anger as a certain memory crossed his mind; one he had once struggled to bury in his mind.
‘‘Hahah….’‘ He laughed spontaneously at the train of thoughts coursing his mind.
‘‘You know what, you were right. I did have an ulterior motive’‘ Added Cole as he got up; his stare never moving from the battle-ready Haudrica that stood in front of him.
Haudrica did not reply, or even move. She was clearly waiting for Cole’s answer in the same way a detective expected a criminal’s confession.
‘‘I wanted to know why you treat everyone as a goddamn piece of shit!’‘ He shouted. His reply taking Haudrica by surprise.
She tried to say something, but Cole didn’t gave her the chance.
‘‘And you know what, now that I know, it really pisses me off.’‘ Added Cole as he sported an angry grin.
‘‘I don’t mind being hated for my errors, or even for what I am. But what I really can’t stand is to be compared to someone else and judged because of them.’‘
There was so much hatred and pain in those words; enough to make even Haudrica’s own anger waver. She had opened an old wound.
‘‘What are you trying to say?’‘ She asked scornfully.
‘‘My name… is Cole Dedrick.’‘ And Cole replied, shaking with fury.
‘‘I am not this Eustace guy, nor I am the same or similar to him; I am myself, with all the good and bad that might encompass.’‘
‘‘So I will not serve as a scapegoat for some coward to vent her frustrated anger towards someone else!’‘
By his second sentence, he had already started to shout.
‘‘If you still hate him so much, then go take it out on him! Drag out his corpse, grind his bones, burn him to ashes, put these ashes in a kettle and fucking pee all over them until they dissolve!!’‘ And his shouts continued to get louder.
‘‘Just quit putting the blame on me, because I didn’t-’‘
It was then when he realized that Haudrica’s pose and expression had radically changed.
She was no longer standing in a combat pose, or even looking at him anymore. She was looking down; blades holstered and fists clenched, and while her hair didn’t let him see the look in her eyes, he could clearly see her mouth, and her teeth, gnashing together so hard one could almost hear them grinding.
She looked deeply hurt, which made Cole realize all he had just spurted out on her in his anger.
But he had no chance to say anything.
Moving with her usual lightning speed, Haudrica slapped him with the back of her hand, and since it was covered in hard exoskeleton, it felt like getting hit by a hammer, it knocked him down and hurt probably just as much.
‘‘You… know nothing… about me…. NOTHING!!’‘ – Cried out Haudrica.
‘‘How dare you call me a coward!? Do you think I choose to be like this? To have this shackles put on my mind that make me powerless when I need my strength the most? To be enslaved to the whims of anyone who’ll simply toss me away like a piece of garbage when I’m no longer needed!?’‘
Now she looked just as hurt as him, yet Cole couldn’t make any sense of what she was saying.
But before, Cole had the chance to retort, she darted away, vanishing from his sight in an instant. And while it was only for a brief moment, he managed to see the tears that filled her eyes.
An absolute silence seemed to suddenly envelop everything as Cole sat in the ground, folding his legs until he could place his folded arms on his knees, and lower his head into them.
‘‘Haaah…. I’m such an hypocritical asshole…. ‘‘ He muttered after a sigh. Feeling the guilt crush him like a trash compactor.
Retaining self-control had never been a problem for Cole, but he knew just as well that whenever his control slipped off him, it would always lead to troubling times. And now he had lost it in the worst possible moment.
<End of Chapter 7>