Peacefully uneventful days.
With no major incident or similar event to disturb his peace, Cole’s second week on the Phylactery had been mostly marked by his own advances on the understanding of his Unit… and the worrying fact that his growing beard was starting to make him look like someone out of a Mad Max movie.
‘‘Now, try to grab that can.’‘ Said Cole as he input some lines of command on his laptop.
The Unit replied with its usual humming sound, moving towards the rusty tin can Cole had marked using its sensor array, which showed something akin to an infrared picture on the laptop’s screen. They moved using some kind of magnetic lifter that repelled the metal of the floor just enough to hover up a bit, so on the dirty ground of the NVSC9, it sometimes got stuck on pieces of metal or dirt piles.
It grabbed the can, crushing it in the process. Not the result Cole wanted.
‘‘Guess I’ll have to reduce the pressure applied to the arms.’‘ He mused as he changed one of the many numeric values on his screen.
The software Tetlekar had created to allow him control the Unit was primitive at best; having an interface akin to that of an old Windows 2.1 and requiring more keyboard commands than mouse ones. Still, for something he had cooked up in a couple of days using a technology he had never seen before showed just how superior Tetlekar’s mental processes were to those of a normal human, let alone a normal computer.
‘‘Let’s try again.’‘ He said, replacing the crushed can with a new one, placing it a couple of steps away from the Unit. ‘‘Now, try to grab that can.’‘ Again, he reentered the same command.
And the Unit responded. Maybe it had been his imagination, but it kinda sounded like its hums was starting to sound annoyed at the constant repetition. This was its 27th can after all.
It grabbed it. Using a bit more of force than necessary, but at least it wasn’t crushed entirely. He was making progress.
‘‘Cole, good morning.’‘ And suddenly, there was that salutation.
‘‘Oh, hey there Mizelle. What’s up?’‘ Replied Cole as he turned around to greet his visitor.
After the day of the generator, she had been coming to see him every once in a while. Sometimes helping him, sometimes just watching him work, and some other times asking him about his home world.
She had become quite open with him; showing that level of confidence he had only seen her show to Haudrica or Tetlekar. It really felt nice to have someone close with an interest on what he did, as well as an almost unquenchable desire to learn new things.
‘‘Nothing new, really. Just helping Tetlekar with the lunch and all. What about you?’‘ She still looked a bit fidgety. Perhaps that was just how she was. ‘‘Still working on this little guy; I already taught it how to walk, so now I’m trying to teach it how to grab things without breaking them.’‘ Cole pointed to the Unit as he spoke.
It remained there, hovering in the air, motionless. And Mizelle still looked a bit afraid of it.
‘‘I see. It must be hard.’‘ Mizelle looked at the laptop’s screen as she spoke, clearly baffled by the amount of data on it.
‘‘Hard but doable. It’s just a matter of trial and error.’‘ Added Cole confidently. ‘‘Also… how’s Haudrica? Haven’t seen her at all lately; she just comes, takes her food and goes away. And yesterday she didn’t even come.’‘ Guilt permeated his words as Cole asked that.
He had never told Mizelle of the fight he had with Haudrica after she left, and how he felt he had hurt her. She had been distancing herself from the rest of the group lately, and Cole’s mind gnawed on him because of that. Had it been because of what he said? Because he hurt her?
‘‘She’s okay, she just looks a bit uneasy lately. It might have something to do with her body.’‘ Replied Mizelle nonchalantly.
She didn’t seem to have told Mizelle anything about it, else she wouldn’t still be acting this way with him. But still, it worried him.
‘‘Her body?’‘ That answer wasn’t what he was expecting.
‘‘Y-Yeah, I don’t know why, but once in a while, she locks herself up in her place and doesn’t come out, not even to eat. This can last a few days.’‘ And she replied, in a manner as confused as Cole’s own.
‘‘Alright, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, then.’‘ Cole decided he didn’t want this topic to last too long, so he decided to change it.
‘‘Say, wanna see something amazing?’‘ He said as he typed down a few commands, causing a big black and white schematic to suddenly show on his laptop’s screen.
Large rooms interconnected by winding corridors, with rooms of many sizes coming from their sides like branches on a tree. It was pretty complex and well-defined, but yet, some of the corridors seemed to move up a floor at certain places, but these ‘stairs’ led to an empty place of the map.
‘‘What is that?’‘ Asked Mizelle.
‘‘It’s a map of the Phylactery, or at least the areas that were within this Unit’s memory array. I get the feeling there’s much more beyond here.’‘ Commented Cole as he pointed to the ‘stairs to nowhere’.
‘‘See these big places? These are the Non-Volatile Salvage Collectors; all twelve of them. This one here is the NVSC9.’‘ He pointed at each of them before focusing on the one that had a blinking red mark.
‘‘What about the Organic Collectors?’‘ She asked as he moved closer, her fluffy ears perking up like those of a hare.
‘‘They are these tall but much smaller ones, and there’s plenty of them; there are twenty-five just in the part of this blueprint we can see. And since the one with the Regenerator is numbered ”73”, I dare say there are many more; that could explain from where all those Aberrations come from.’‘ Explained Cole in a worrisome manner as he pinpointed some of them. Mizelle nodded in acknowledgement.
‘‘The problem is, many of these corridors are blocked. See these thin lines? Those are emergency shutters. According to Tetlekar, most of them are locked until a Unit passes by.’‘ His way of saying that showed a great deal of disappointment.
‘‘So… could he open them?’‘ She asked after a short thought, pointing at the Unit.
‘‘Theoretically, yes. But it ain’t so simple…’‘ Replied Cole as he changed to another window.
There were thousands and thousands of lines of unintelligible characters on it, which shifted between brief time intervals, like a letter soup being stirred.
‘‘This is this Unit’s inner security encryption. Which is another way to say a big lock on its secret stuff.’‘ He explained. ‘‘Thing is, that while Tetlekar said that he could do it, he just doesn’t have what it takes to do it within our lifetimes. First he’d need to even understand this language; he said it doesn’t fit within any of his linguistic patterns. And secondly, he’d need some kind of decryption key to deal with the security of the code itself, else it will take decades to-.’‘
A blaring siren cut Cole’s speech short.
‘‘W-What the hell is that!?’‘ Shouted Cole as he jumped from his seat, wrench in hand. It sounded quite a bit like one of those old WWII-era Air Raid Alarms, which gave the impression that something bad was upon them.
‘‘I-It’s a ‘Jump’.’‘ Cried out Mizelle, also in a bit of a fright.
She didn’t give Cole the chance to ask what was going on, she just dashed away, and he followed after her.
‘‘Cole, Mizelle! Make haste, we are very short on time.’‘ Tetlekar called them out as soon as he saw their approach.
‘‘Can you tell me what’s going on?’‘ Asked Cole as he looked around.
‘‘No time for that now. Cole, go to the entrance; Zalura and Desri are securing the door, go help them.’‘ Said Tetlekar. ‘‘And Mizelle… go get Haudrica out of hiding. If she’s on her own, she could get hurt by whatever critter shows up here or worse, phased away.’‘ His manner of speaking was unusually agitated. Cole and Mizelle merely nodded and rushed out.
‘‘Ya ‘ere lad! Good timin’. Grab som’ more o’those an’ get pushin’.’‘
It took Cole a moment to realize what they were doing as he arrived at the entrance. There was one massive metal plate over the exit shutter, held in its place by Zalura, and Desri was trying to hold it into place with what looked like the busted-up cabin of a freighter truck.
‘‘Would you mind explaining me just what’s going on? What’s this whole ”Jump” thing?’‘ Asked Cole as he started pushing along with Desri.
‘‘Tha’ Phylactery’s a movin’; op’ning up a Tetherhole to som’where else. But like most things on this hunka junk o’a ship, its Inner Tethers are busted; so, we can end up warp’d to a locked room som’where in ‘ere, to a nest o’berrations or plain ol’ void o’space.’‘ Explained Desri as they pushed the wreck into place. ‘‘And da same goes for ’em Ab’rations; they could end up right in ‘ere next to ya ‘n me.’‘ He added as he motioned Zalura to come down.
‘‘A’ight, we’re done ‘ere. Back to Tetlekar. Hurry!’‘ Said Desri as he darted ahead. The loud blare of the alarms was getting steadily faster.
And yet again, everyone ran away, with Cole tailing them as fast as he could. His mind still working its way to wrap around what Desri had explained.
But as they made their way back to Tetlekar, they found a quite different situation than what they had just left.
‘‘But we can’t just abandon her! She could get lost forever with the Jump.’‘ Cried out Mizelle in tears and exasperation.
‘‘And so can any of us if we leave now. This is not a matter of do or don’t.’‘ Retorted Tetlekar in what seemed like his usual calm demeanor, but the slightly louder tone of his voice indicated a certain level of exasperation.
‘‘Oi, wazza matter? Somethin’ wrong?’‘ Desri ran towards Mizelle as he spoke.
‘‘It’s….. it’s Haudrica….. she …. she’s gone….’‘ She said, between sobs.
Cole felt a cold sweat running through his back.
‘‘Was it because of me?’‘ This phrase quickly found its way to his mind.
But Cole’s inner voice was soon eclipsed by this long alarm note.
‘‘There is no time for that now! Everyone, hold onto me!’‘ Shouted Tetlekar as he extended his arms. Extended in more than one sense.
Like a pair of telescopic antennas, his wrists outstretched in a manner that reminded Cole of Inspector Gadget. Once they were far stretched, his fingers did something quite similar, as the plating covering them unfolded out into many oddly shaped spirals.
As everyone cuddled at his sides, the alarms died down, and a crackling sound became audible, followed by a smell like that of ozone.
‘‘Close your eyes!’‘ Tetlekar screamed.
Like a thousand high-power flashlights being turned on at the same time, Cole felt a strong light pierce his eyes, even through his closed eyelids, accompanied by that sensation of low weight one feels when going down in an elevator from a high floor.
Then, it ended. As abruptly as a blackout.
‘‘Eww-beh!!’‘ He resisted the urge to throw up as a sensation of nausea crashed against his body.
‘‘Tethers stabilized. Check immediate areas for hostiles.’‘ Cole could hear Tetlekar speaking as he regained his senses.
His whole body felt like he had just taken an hour-long ride on a roller coaster.
‘‘COle, yOU aLriGhT?’‘ Zalura’s concerned face was the first thing he saw as he recovered. For some reason, he was lying on the floor.
‘‘I’m OK, I just feel like I just came out of a bad hangover. What did just happen? And where’s everyone?’‘ Replied Cole as he looked around, and noticed everyone else was missing. Which was strange as he had just heard Tetlekar.
‘‘COle faiNteD aFtER JumP. DEsri aNd aRE TEtLeKar aRE sCOutIng tHE ARea. MiZeLLe iS loOkiNg FoR HaUdRIcA. ZALura jUsT fiNiSHeD cLeANinG heRe.’‘ She pointed to a couple of dead Aberrations that laid not far from her, bleeding on the ground.
He got up with Zalura’s help and stood there for a moment, trying to regain his bearings. So much had just happened in such a short time his mind was still overwhelmed.
‘‘… What about Haudrica? Any clues of her whereabouts?’‘ Asked Cole with a rather heavy heart.
But Zalura shook her head, ‘‘NoT A tRaCE. MiZeLLe fEArS THe wORst.’‘ she added.
‘‘BUt, ThIS is nOT fIrST tiME HaUdRIcA VaNIshEs. HaPpenED bEFoRe, aND ALwaYs rEtURneD, uNHarMed.’‘ Zalura’s manner of speaking showed a strange mixture of confidence and mild annoyance.
Cole said nothing back, he just sighs deeply as he heads back to his place.
Cole walked in quiet solitude, although he wasn’t by any measure at peace; with his mind drifting back to his argument with Haudrica almost at every step.
‘‘You… know nothing… about me…. NOTHING!!’‘ His memories echoed.
‘‘And she was right on that.’‘ He uttered those words slowly. ‘‘Perhaps it’s better if I don’t get involved this time. I don’t wanna end up-’‘ But his train of thought was suddenly interrupted ‘‘Mizelle? What are you doing there?’‘
She was standing there with a battered clipboard in hand, focused at the map of the Phylactery that Cole had left open in his laptop’s screen.
‘‘Ah-Cole, I was, uhm…..’‘ She jumped at Cole calling her out, while pointlessly trying to hide the clipboard.
There’s a crudely drawn copy of the map scrawled over what looks like a faded inventory chart on the clipboard. But realizing that Cole saw it, Mizelle took a deep breath and takes an unusually serious expression.
‘‘…. There’s a place I must find without delay.’‘ And the serious manner of the speech in which she replied was clearly modeled after Tetlekar’s own. ‘‘I think Haudrica could be, no-she will be in there. I know it. So I must find it.’‘ She added, brimming with determination.
‘‘Alright.’‘ Cole’s answer was rather non-committal, for which Mizelle hadn’t prepared for.
‘‘Y-You will not try to stop me?’‘ Now she was back to her nervous and fidgety self.
‘‘For what I have seen of you these past days, you’re pretty smart and just as capable, so I really don’t see any need to babysit you; you should be able to do whatever you want, as long as you’re careful.’‘ Cole replied.
Cole was doing his best to say all that with his most confident smile, but deep inside, he was just trying to keep himself from getting involved with Haudrica again.
‘‘So, what is this place you’re looking for?’‘ He asked, turning his attention towards Mizelle’s scrawled map.
‘‘After Haudrica and I escaped from the Qauranites but before came here, we spent a long time wandering around the Phylactery; resting wherever we could and hunting Aberrations to eat. It was hard, but it was better than before.’‘ Narrated Mizelle, ’‘And even though we almost never went back to places we had been before, there was this one place we always went back to, specially when we were feeling bad…. I want to find that place; I know that Haudrica is there.’‘ she added, again with a strong determination.
‘‘Hm, I see. So, what was the place like? Did it have any peculiar shape?’‘ Asked Cole while looking at the map in his laptop.
‘‘Yes, it was in a small corridor between two large ones. There was one big room, and three smaller ones filled with strange machines. The big one had a shape like this.’‘ Explained Mizelle as she drew an L shape in the air.
‘‘That’s a decent start. Let’s see if anything matches here.’‘ He moved around the map as he replied, both he and Mizelle trying to spot anything similar in the countless corridors.
Hours came and went by as Cole and Mizelle continued to scrutinize the map. A few likely matches had been spotted; and while they fit Mizelle’s memories in terms of shape, many were quickly discarded due to how close they were to any of the Collectors, or to any other well-known area.
In the end, the list boiled down to three possible places, luckily not too far from each others. But the part that worried Cole was that Mizelle was driven to go there… alone.
‘‘I have to do it.’‘ she said, ’‘I-It really scares me to go out there like that, but Haudrica did it for me many times before and… and… I want to prove to everyone that I can do it.’‘ her words carrying a strange mixture of fear and courage.
‘‘……’‘ Cole didn’t reply; he merely put on a hollow, uneasy smile as his mind was at war with itself on what to reply.
He cared about her, and he didn’t want to see her in danger or worse. But, on the other hand, he was fearful that his meddling would lead to yet another unsavory event that could end up not only worsening his already tense relationship with Haudrica, but also crippling the one he had with Mizelle.
‘‘…. Alright.’‘ he said after a short pondering, ’‘But promise me one thing; that if your search proves too dangerous for you to do it alone, you’ll come back and ask for help.’‘ added Cole in a mildly admonishing manner.
‘‘I promise, but you must also promise that you will not come looking for me.’‘ Replied Mizelle, again mimicking Tetlekar’s manner of speaking.
‘‘I understand, and yes, I promise I will wait until you come back, hopefully with Haudrica.’‘ Cole replied.
At that time, Cole thought that he could just promise her that, thinking that Tetlekar would most certainly not let her go out alone, and would accompany her instead. However, it would later be clear that Mizelle had also been aware of such.
By the time everyone was up the next morning, she had already left on her own. And this would give Cole no small amount of worry.
The smell of hot solder, a good idea taken from paper into realization without major hassle and perhaps even a finished functional prototype. Under most circumstances, any of those things by themselves would had been enough to have him in a very good mood.
But somehow, it didn’t, and like a skilled chef realizing he hadn’t added salt to an otherwise flawless gourmet dish he had just finished preparing, he knew exactly what was wrong, and wondered if it was already too late to fix it.
With Haudrica gone and Mizelle gone as well to look for her, guilt and worry hung upon him like a pair of swords of Damocles pointed at his neck.
‘‘Haaahh….. Enough with that.’‘ He said, softly slapping his own cheeks as if to wake himself up.
His mind needed to clear of distracting thoughts, as he was just about to begin the most dangerous part of this current project.
An early bout of curiosity regarding that Access Key he had found long ago led him to the discovery that the key itself was no mere switch or keycard, but a small, contained power source that constantly generated a very specific set of voltages into its contacts.
This, combined with a chat he had with Tetlekar regarding what he did to the door panels of the Cryovaults back then to keep them from being closed again, where he employed a sort of maintenance override command he had once discovered, Cole thought that he could somehow create a device of his own to gain total control of any such doors, perhaps like that avoiding situations like the one they had to deal with in the Organic Collector, with a simple set of adjustable voltage generators.
However, in order to make that work, he would have to disassemble his Access Key, and repurpose it as a different device (which he had already christened as the ”Lock Hacker”), but that was easier said than done.
‘‘Considering this was meant as a security tool, it’ll probably take more than just prying some lid out or removing some screw….’‘ Thought Cole as he took the Access Key from a nearby table and began studying it for weaknesses.
It was roughly the size of a small remote controller, and with one flat end that sported seven flat metal pins. On its center it had a small and rather sticky indentation with tiny bits of something similar to paper clinging to its corner. Perhaps, there had been some kind of owner’s name or key tag of sorts there at some point, but the years it spent on the decaying hand of its former owner did away with it.
‘‘Haaaaaaah…..’‘ A deep breath for concentration. Cracking knuckles to relax shaky hands. And shaking away worrisome thoughts.
Pushing a thin flathead screwdriver between the side seams and applying substantial force to the torque, the back of the handle cracked audibly. Tiny bits of some ancient glue falling from the cracks.
‘‘Damn, that wasn’t as good as I had hoped.’‘ It wasn’t by any measure a gentle opening, but it got the job done. The insides of the Access Key finally laid bare on his hands.
Its contents were also vaguely anticlimactic; Cole had expected some kind of bizarre circuitry, like the one inside Tetlekar’s leg, but what he had in his hand more closely resembled a piece of tech from the late 70s.
A black circuit board, a tiny round chip with no visible pins, a thumb-sized box with two ends descending into the circuit and a few flat wires, which seemed to be part of the circuit board itself, exiting from one side into the contact pins outside.
Nonetheless, such ease of design also made it quite easy for him to realize what was going on within such device, and once it was clear the thumb-sized box was a power source and that the chip merely regulated the voltage being sent to the contact pins, it wasn’t hard to jury-rig it to his own device.
‘‘Aaaand, done!’‘ Announced Cole to nobody in particular after a well-spent roll of duct tape.
The really hard part, however, was just about to begin.
‘‘A nearby door, you say?’‘ Tetlekar replied while lifting an eyebrow as he filled everybody’s bowls with the day’s lunch.
Even though Desri and Zalura were eating as usual, there was an almost palpable tension in the air.
Just where had Haudrica vanished to? Was she caught in the Jump? Why did Mizelle leave? To look for her? Will she ever come back? Will any of them ever come back?
Those were the questions nobody asked, but they were written all over their faces, and probably Cole’s own as well.
‘‘Yes, just like those on the Organic Collector and the Cryovaults. I need a locked door with an access panel so I can test out this little gadget. Which one would be the nearest?’‘ Cole was brimming with enthusiasm, although Tetlekar wasn’t impressed by the Lock Hacker.
A few dials and some calculator screens, part of a multimeter, and an old cellphone turned into a keypad. All of it bolted onto side of a dented metal briefcase like those that criminal types use to move stacks of cash and drugs in movies. And from a hole in one of its corners, a cord led to the repurposed Access Key.
‘‘As a matter of fact, there is one of such doors here, within the NVSC9.’‘ Said Tetlekar after a short ponder.
‘‘I am not sure if it will suffice for what you have in mind, but I will show you nonetheless.’‘ He added as he took the now-empty pot out of the fire.
‘‘Cool! Where is it?’‘ Asked Cole, rubbing his hands.
‘‘Right over there, behind that pile next to my chambers.’‘ Tetlekar pointed to the right as he spoke.
That was highly anticlimactic.
‘‘So, how long as this been here?’‘ Said Cole as he put the Lock Hacker down and began inspecting the door.
While the panel was intact and functional, the door itself was covered in the marks of previous and failed attempts to force it.
‘‘How ’bout since forever? Place’s been a myst’ry since we first settl’d in ‘ere. And I swear I’ve seen it open once or twice, but when I look’d at it, it was lock’d ‘gain. Tetlekar has n’ver gotten it open.’‘ Replied Desri with a gruff.
While there was no danger in opening the door itself, there was no telling of what could lie behind it, so Desri and Zalura had gone along with Cole.
However, Zalura had gotten strangely nervous since Tetlekar had first made mention of it. Still, she had said nothing, so Cole assumed it was just his rather troubled mind, making him see things that weren’t there.
‘‘Alright then.’‘ He took the Access Key and inserted it into the slot.
A handful of lights sparked up in the Lock Hacker’s control panel, while the screen of the door’s panel turned red.
‘‘Everything within parameters.’‘ Muttered Cole as he fiddled with some of the dials.
‘‘Hope whatev’r yer doin’ works better than it did back at the o’ganic collector.’‘ Commented Desri in mild amusement.
‘‘An Access Key works in a very unique way; it’s both a key and a power source. Each of the pins at its ends carries a distinctive voltage value that react with the door’s system somehow.’‘ Said Cole.
‘‘If the values are incorrect, nothing happens, at least as far as I know. But if it’s correct, the key makes the door draw a small amount of power from its source, which kickstarts the door’s opening or closing, kind of like a car’s starter engine.’‘ He fiddled with the controls, which made the calculator screens react in different ways.
‘‘I dunno what’s a car, or what its startin’ engine does, but I kinda get what yer sayin’. Ya say these doors have no power o’ their own?’‘ Asked Tetlekar as he brought his hand to his chin.
‘‘Indeed, that’s why you can’t just force them open, and that’s also why Units can open and close them at-Oh! I think I got it.’‘ Cole’s phrase changed abruptly as a few red lights became green.
A few more adjustments to the controls and the lights were all green. Desri and Zalura peered over his shoulder at the controls.
‘‘Gotcha!’‘ He shouted boastfully.
*Din! Bwoo. Din! Bwoo. Din! Bwoo.*
The door opened and closed, nonstop, and in rapid succession.
‘‘…. Why it doesn’t stay op’n?’‘ Asked Desri as he approached to Cole.
‘‘Hm, I guess it’s still not perfect. I’ll have to add an automated circuit breaker of sorts to prevent this.’‘ Replied Cole as he turned the Lock Hacker off, stopping the door.
‘‘Still, it opened, so that’s a passing sco-’‘ As he spoke, he took his Zap-Light out of his pocket and pointed at the now open doorway.
Something slimy had just slithered away when the light had touched it, and realizing that made Cole halt his phrase.
‘‘There’s something in there!’‘ He said, focusing on the interior of the room.
The room inside seemed empty, save for yet another door on a nearby wall.
However, what drew Cole’s attention wasn’t the door or the room itself, but the fact the whole floor was peppered with some kind of ‘white flakes’; like the torn pieces of many shopping bags.
‘‘COle, yoU sHOuLd NoT gO In tHeRE.’‘ All of a sudden, Zalura spoke.
‘‘Uhm, why? Do you sense something dangerous in there?’‘ Asked Cole as he turned back.
‘‘JuSt No GO In, CANnoT sEE wHaT iNSIde.’‘ Zalura’s speech got worse all of a sudden.
‘‘I can’t see what’s inside either. That’s why I’m looking-HOLY SHIT!’‘
Cole totally misunderstood what Zalura meant, but before she could clarify, he had seen it.
Hanging from the roof in a rather creepy fashion, there was a translucent, body-like structure, formed of something that looked like some wrinkly plastic bag. It had a very peculiar shape; like a human but slimmer, and it was holding from the ceiling with a pair of very familiar scythes.
‘‘H-Haudrica!?’‘ He shouted in terror.
Just like before, ”bad thoughts” had begun overpowering Cole’s mind. Did the jump do this to her? Was she dead? What would become of Mizelle now? Would she even come back now?
‘‘Oi, kiddo, snap outta it!’‘ It was Desri who brought Cole back to his senses.
‘‘That’s not Haudrica, that’s just an ol’ skin. Look ov’r dat corner.’‘ He pointed with his paw as he spoke, a rather amused smile adorning his muzzle.
‘‘It looks like som’one got herself into a hassle, or like, more like outta one, heheh.’‘ Added Desri with a soft chuckle.
There was a uncannily white lump, white enough to rival corrective fluid, leaning against that corner of the wall. And while Cole was trying to make out any features from that distance, a familiar pair of greenish-red eyes stared furiously back at him.
‘‘Yooouuuuu bbaaaaasssstaaaaarrddssss…….’‘ She dragged her words, as if her mouth was moving slower.
She was lying in the ground, in a quasi-fetal position, and apparently naked.
‘‘HaUdRIcA, ZALura iS soRrY. DiD nOT BeLiEVe COle coULd OpEn tHe doOr.’‘ Zalura surged forwards towards the crumpled Haudrica, apologising profusely.
‘‘Wait, what? You knew she had been here all this time!?’‘ Cole was more shocked by this sudden revelation than by Haudrica’s strange appearance.
Zalura lets out a big sigh before speaking.
‘‘ZALura foUNd oF tHIs LoNg aGO, BuT PrOmiSed HaUdRIcA TO noT tELL aNyOne.’‘ She said in an unusually stern manner.
‘‘I understand that, and I would had done exactly the same, but you could had at least told Mize-Ugh!’‘ The moment Cole was about to mention that name, Zalura pushed him out; a fast palm to the stomach had robbed him of breath.
This was the first time he had felt her true strength, and it was indeed overwhelming. It had almost reminded him of a time he had been hit by a car.
‘‘PLeASe saY No MOrE, aND leAvE. I wiLL TAke CaRE oF HaUdRIcA.’‘ She said as she stood in the door frame, blocking it.
‘‘A’right Cole, ya heard the girl. Let’s leave ’em to their alone time and friendly ecdysis.’‘
Following Zalura’s suit, Desri motioned Cole to follow him away from there.
‘‘Ecdysis?’‘ Thought Cole as he picked up the Lock Hacker.
At first, he thought it was just him mishearing Desri’s accent, but then something clicked in his mind; an old, almost forgotten memory of his highschool days, of dozing off in the biology class as the teacher explained something about the nature of insects.
‘‘She’s…. changing skin?’‘ The realization hit him almost as hard as Zalura’s blow.
‘‘Yeah, kinda, more like sheddin’ her exoskellie’. I’d love to make fun o’ how that’s kinda primitive, but I…. sorta change my coat now and then, so Imma not gonna mock that one thing.’‘ Desri said that with a bit of embarrassment, but he was still quite amused to see Haudrica like that.
‘‘Still, it’s kinda funny to see ‘er like that, at her weak’st. She’s nothing but a pale grub as she’s now.’‘ He added.
‘‘What do you mean?’‘ That had triggered Cole’s curiosity.
‘‘Ya’ve seen her crazy regenin’ powers; ya could stomp her flat, and she would just pull ‘erself t’gether. But she can’t do that now as she is; if dat Unit o’ yours ripped her limbs off now, they wouldn’t grow back an’more.’‘
It was unnerving how much evil glee was in Desri’s comment. He hated her that much?
‘‘……’‘ But that was the least of Cole’s worries.
‘‘… If she finds out Mizelle’s gone looking for her, she’ll go to find her as well, even in that state of hers!’‘ Said Cole with a fright.
‘‘Good! Maybe she’ll lose a limb or two, or maybe an Unit will rip ‘er tongue out. I’d pref’r the later, t’be honest.’‘ Added Desri with the same evil grin he had worn for a while now. And it was starting to get on Cole’s nerves.
‘‘Could you please drop that for a moment? Do you realize that she means a lot not just to Mizelle, but also to Zalura? Do you think they would be happy if she was gone?’‘ Said Cole as he stopped in his tracks. Desri’s grin fell from him like an unclasped cloak.
‘‘… Neither o’ them have any idea o’ what an Irisonian is capable of.’‘ Desri’s voice was almost a whisper, a hostile whisper.
‘‘They’re like machines, pup. They don’t think, they don’t feel, they don’t care. They just do as they’re order’d and never b’ther to ask why; slashin’ away at all and any who crosses their path. I have more hopes in ya makin’ that Unit o’ yours serve me food than have Haudrica be an’thing other than a loose cog of a long since defective m’chine.’‘ Desri’s every word practically oozed hatred.
‘‘Heh, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree then.’‘ Replied Cole as he turned back, flashing a hollow smile.
‘‘Besides, I am doing this for Mizelle, not for her. So, try to see it that way.’‘ Added Cole as he resumed his walking.
‘‘Suit y’self, pup. I won’t stop ya in what yer gonna do; I have no qualms with Mizelle. So I’ll just look the other way.’‘ Desri took his own phrase literally and turned around, walking in the other direction.
A small courier bag loaded with the last of his aberration jerky, and one lone bottle of water. As well as early draft of Mizelle’s map. That, along with his Zap-Light and flare gun, were all he was carrying. Even his wrench had been left behind.
It was the dead of the night, or at least, what would had been the dead of the night if the lights of the NVSC9 weren’t permanently on. But everyone was already asleep.
‘‘Now, to open this damn thing.’‘
The exit shutter opened easily, and while Cole was prepared to find either Tetlekar or Zalura standing on the other side, he hadn’t expected to find her there.
‘‘Haudrica!?’‘ He said in shock.
She had gotten a lot of her emerald-green color back in her body, but her hair was still purely white, and maybe there were even more white parts now hidden under her clothes.
‘‘If you don’t want to get hurt badly, you will shut up and leave me, now.’‘ She said with her usual scowl.
However, it was clear that she wasn’t her usual, as she would had bared her scythes at him as threat.
‘‘I am not going back.’‘ Replied Cole as he closed the shutter behind him, and defiantly walked past her.
‘‘I’ll be blunt, if you want, we can work together on this. Or, we can just go different ways once we reach the end of this tunnel. The choice is yours, and I am fine either way.’‘ He added, turning around.
‘‘…. Do you think I am going to accept that just because I am a bit slower and softer now?’‘ She asked with a mocking smirk.
‘‘No, I don’t.’‘ His answer was sudden enough to slightly startle her. ‘‘You are how you are, and nothing I do is gonna change that; only you can change yourself.’‘ He added.
‘‘But Mizelle wouldn’t want you to get hurt; she wouldn’t want either of us to get hurt. That’s why, I think it’s better if we stick together for this; don’t do it for me, do it for her.’‘ And with those final words, he extended his hand to her.
‘‘Hmph! Just keep walking.’‘
Haudrica didn’t take his hand, but she made no attempts to separate herself from him; she just walked at a brisk pace, which Cole had no difficulty in keeping with.
However, even if she had agreed to this rather uneasy deal, their situation wasn’t very good; with Haudrica weakened and vulnerable, and him not precisely any stronger than before, there was no telling what they could encounter on their way, or even if Mizelle would be at the end of it.
<End of Chapter 8>