A palpable sense of tension.
Like positive and negative wires, every time Cole got within five steps of Haudrica, she would hasten her pace and put some distance between them again. And if he tried to get even closer, she would lash out, like a spark in a short-circuit.
However, with every step taken away from the known tunnels and into the uncharted areas, the proverbial discharge began losing power, as both of them became increasingly worried about their lives with every dry Aberration carcass and bloody claw mark on the walls they walked past.
”Say….” Cole started, ”You sure we are on the correct path, right?” he asked nervously as his grip on the Zap-Light tightened, his other hand instinctively reaching for a wrench that wasn’t there whenever some shadow moved.
Cole hadn’t brought his wrench with him because he thought it would be a much shorter walk, and now he was wondering if he had misinterpreted Mizelle’s map, as this was taking longer than expected, and the tunnels increasingly hostile.
”If this scares you too much, the way back is right there. Besides, who was the brave maggot that boasted he could go on alone?” Replied Haudrica as she looked back, a mocking and unsettlingly wide grin on her face. A sadist, as usual.
”Well, I was just asking since you are on the vanguard; if you get attacked, I can run back fine. But what if YOU get attacked instead? Where will you run to?” As nervous as he was, her scares just didn’t work on him; in his current status, the dark tunnels were much scarier than her usual chaffs.
Haudrica let out a low growl and a loud sigh, and looked like she was just preparing what to say next when the corridor took a right turn, which she took without even looking. Big mistake.
Leaping from the shadow in classical predator fashion, an unseen Aberration ambushed her, and if it hadn’t for her quick reflexes which made her crouch down, Haudrica would be a head shorter.
”Taunt it up!” She cried as Cole turned on his Zap-Light’s taser.
The Aberration in question was quite nightmarish. Roughly the size of a small car and sporting six musclebound legs. Its skin was of a pulsating dark red color along with a spiraling pattern that seemed to swirl as it moved. However, it was its head which was the top grade nightmare fuel; it could only be described as a bouquet of fanged appendages which seemed to provide it with full range of vision, as it was following both Cole and Haudrica’s movements at the same time.
”HEEEEEEEY! C’mere you fucking Necromorph ripoff!” Cried Cole, taking a few steps back as he scanned his surroundings.
The walls were bare of anything save light fixtures and stains, and such had been the case for most of the way there. And while the corridor ahead seemed to widen into a handful of entries, it was clear they wouldn’t be able to outrun that thing.
And just like the Unit that day at the cryovaults, this Aberration quickly realized that Haudrica was the bigger threat. A grim déjà vu for Cole.
”Look at me you spawn of the Dunwich Horror! You’re not gonna like how she tastes; she’s too spicy for Yog-Sothoth.” He shouted, internally wondering if his sense of humor was adrenaline-powered.
As he did that, he also pushed the trigger of the Zap-Light, which made a small electric arc jump from one of the taser’s contacts to the other.
It was that which drew the Aberration’s attention, as it turned all its ‘eyestalks’ towards Cole and started to lurch slowly towards him.
Whatever that thing was, it was remarkably slow despite having six legs; it most likely relied on one-hit kills, like that one it had tried to pull on Haudrica, to hunt.
”That’s it! ‘C’mere!” Shrieked Cole as he stepped back, cold sweat all over his body.
It looked like it was about to jump again. However, it had made the mistake of ignoring Haudrica, and paid for it.
She hadn’t even drawn out her scythes, she had simply grabbed two of its crab-like eyes and chewed them away with her mandibles.
The Aberration let out a deafening wail as greenish-red fluid began to ooze from its wounds.
Using its torn appendages Haudrica was trying to overpower it in a manner reminiscent of a bull rider, and the Aberration wasn’t exactly docile.
”Do something, dammit!” She cried as it tried to buck her off.
Unarmed and unsure, it took Cole a few seconds to think of what to do, and all he could think of was the flare gun. But just where was he going to shot it?
”W-Where do I aim at!?” Cried Cole as he loaded a flare into the gun.
”The mouth! The mooooouuuth!” Haudrica was quite a skilled wrangler, but her resistance was starting to wear thin.
The Aberration was making circles like a dog chasing its own tail and Cole wasn’t exactly a trained firearms user; aiming at the mouth wasn’t by any measure easy.
The flare bounced off the floor and right into the area the appendages came out from, which made the Aberration swallow it, mayhaps by reflex.
*Phbuuuh, phu, phu!*
And like a smoker with a bad case of coughs, it began coughing up puffs like crazy.
”Move it!” Shouted Cole at Haudrica as he ran past the Aberration, and for once, she followed without complaint.
However, as they turned right on the corridor, it was clear luck wasn’t on their side.
It was much bigger; perhaps roughly about the side of a minivan, angrier and with friends. Or more precisely, cubs, like the one they had just fought.
Coming out of the door at the end of the corridor a larger version of the Aberration they had just fought showed up, along with two more cubs, it had most likely answered to the pained wails of their sibling.
”You gotta be fucking with me.” Muttered Cole as he realized they had been caught in a pincer attack.
Not even waiting for an answer, Haudrica grabbed Cole by the neck of his jumpsuit and practically flung him into an open door nearby before following suit.
”Hnk!” She kicked the door’s inner access panel, which made the door close itself, almost catching Cole’s feet.
Curiously enough, the door had a small window at the top, which Haudrica immediately used to keep watch of what was happening outside; readying herself to fight what could be her last battle.
However, the Aberration didn’t even come close to their door, it just walked, picked up its wounded cub with its mass of appendages, and walked away in the company of the other two. Not precisely the behavior Cole had expected.
”Haaaaah….” Letting out a sigh of relief, Haudrica collapsed onto the door; the last bits of adrenaline that had kept her standing had gone.
”We were lucky.” She said, ”Had that Shaaj’pur been alone, or a male, we would be food now.” Her mandible hung out as she spoke, perhaps also a sign of how much this had tired her.
”Guess even Aberrations have loved ones.” Replied Cole with a strange sense of irony. ”And also, thanks.” He added, to which Haudrica responded by slightly widening her right eye; if she had eyebrows, she would most likely be raising one.
”What for?” She asked, curtly and confused.
”Well, considering how you see me, you could had thrown me at that thing and then run here by yourself. But you didn’t do it, so thanks… I guess?” Cole realized how awkward was what he was saying.
”Hmph!” She scowled, ”You know nothing about me.” Again, there was that catchphrase, which did nothing to ease Cole’s sense of guilt.
”I know, I know. I’m well aware I failed. I’m not gonna play dumb…” Replied Cole with a sigh.
But yet again, Haudrica looked at him puzzled.
”… What are you babbling about?” Now she was even more confused.
”The chance you gave me, remember? Back after we came back from the Organic Collector, I asked you for a chance to prove that I wasn’t the kind of person you thought.” Said Cole in reminiscence, ”But I failed.” And those three words were almost a dagger at him.
”I lost my temper the other day, and lashed out some shit I shouldn’t have; I vented out my own demons at you, and that just wasn’t fair so-” Looking away, Cole voiced this apology.
”Tch, hahahh.” Out of the blue, Haudrica laughed. That by itself had been terrifying enough to freeze Cole’s words in his throat.
”You truly are a fool.” She said, smirking as she met his gaze. ”However, that is just how you are. And the same goes for me.” She stood as she spoke, now looking away.
”I am who I am, and I am the way I was made.” That was one cryptic phrase. ”And acting nice because you are ‘being tested’ will yield no change in that, as neither will any niceties you may employ. I don’t give anyone special treatment based on how they treat me back. The problem isn’t you or them; it’s me.”
For the first time ever, she was speaking to him in the same manner she used to speak to Mizelle or Zalura. It was truly strange.
However, there was one thing off with her claims.
”Then, why do you treat Mizelle differently?” That was the big question. ”If it indeed as you say, why is it that you treat Mizelle in such a starkly different way that how you treat everyone else?” Asked Cole as he, too, got up from the ground.
Haudrica didn’t reply at first, she just took a deep breath and adjusted her uniform.
”This is not the time nor the place for such banter. Now get moving.” Turning away to avoid his gaze, Haudrica returned to her usual hostile tone, leaving Cole in an utter state of confusion. Just what had been all that?
A small ladder leading into a vent and a hole in the ceiling later, Cole and Haudrica were once again in the corridor. The familiarity with which Haudrica had located the ladder and the hole leading out showed quite a level of experience, which made Cole wonder just how many times had Haudrica been there.
”Is it gone?” Asked Cole as he ducked his head out of the hole before jumping down, warily looking at the nearby corridors once he was in the ground.
And also by that time, Haudrica was already walking towards one of the corridors, offering no reply.
”Sheesh…. Back to default mode, I guess.” Muttered Cole with a hanging of the shoulders as the trudged after her.
Their walk continued in an uneventful albeit twisty way; more than once, a way was found blocked by a shutter or close by to a hostile critter. And with Haudrica weakened and Cole’s arsenal now down to just one flare, fighting was a last resource.
However, there was one thing Cole couldn’t help but notice, and that was the change in the scenery as they distanced themselves from the known areas.
The black and featureless metal corridors had given way to some slightly more utilitarian ones; all sorts of hatches and service panels; along with a shattered screen or two and more than a handful of signs and signals, all written in some incomprehensible symbols. Also, while there were still more than a few old bloodstains and claw marks on the walls and bits of bone and skin in the floor, they were far fewer in number than in previous areas.
Some of those service panels and hatches were open, with loose contents spilling forth on enough regular basis that Cole soon found himself picking up a few of them.
”Hm, I wonder why there are so many of these. Were they some kind of box, or cartridge for something?” Muttered Cole as he picked up what looked like a couple of flat round cans with some kind of opening at one end.
He would often find that Haudrica hadn’t waited for him to pick things up and kept moving forwards.
However, this time was different.
She had stopped at the corner, looking around the wall carefully enough that it made Cole wonder if there was an Aberration around it.
”What’s the matter?” Asked Cole in a soft voice as he came close.
”We are almost there, this is the ‘Corpse Junction’; the place I first encountered a Unit on.” Replied Haudrica, she was talkative all of a sudden.
”Is there one now?” Cole was ready to leg it if she had replied yes.
”Not right now, just keep moving or you’ll end like these guys.” She said as he darted ahead.
And just as Cole was about to voice his inquiry regarding who were ‘these guys’, he saw ‘them’.
The junction ahead was shaped like an inverted ‘T’, with a curve on its left end being where they had just stopped. But in the connecting hall in the middle, were the remnants of what must have been an intense firefight.
What looked like a handful of shattered metal furniture and half a dozen metal crates had been hastily repurposed as impromptu cover, one on each side of the corridor, facing each others. And given the charred marks on the walls and the fact only the left one had corpses, it was clear they weren’t allies, and one side won.
”Just what the fuck happened here?” Cole had stopped to look at the trio of corpses, still behind their decayed barricade.
Their garments may have one day been blue, but between the rusting of their metallic components as well as the decay of their owners’ flesh, the color had all but turned into a murky, rotten black.
One was slumped against the wall, with an old bloodstain descending from it. Of the other two, one was hiding behind the barricade, while another was looking over it, the latter was missing his head and part of his right shoulder. Torn bits of clothing around the wound showed it was most likely blown away.
Curiously enough however, the two dead bodies in the barricade itself had the remains of a tail of some sort emerging from their tailbones and still covered in a dry, scaly skin that crumbles into dust with the slightest touch. The one slumping against the wall, however, looks increasingly human, although the shape of his skull is somewhat different.
”If you don’t want to end like them, better get moving.” Said Haudrica without even looking back or stopping.
”Alright, alright! Just, please, give me a moment.” Cole is unable to tear himself from the scene; his curiosity holds him like a leashed dog to a post.
”… I am going to count up to five to start walking again.” Muttered Haudrica, stopping in her tracks and looking at Cole over her shoulder.
”One” She began. And Cole rushed his inspection.
Whomever they had been fighting, it wasn’t shy about robbing the dead; the pouches on their belts and clothes are all cut open and empty. They probably didn’t take their clothes because those were torn and bloody.
”Two” She continued.
On the other barricade, however, all that was present was a couple small bloodstains and two more of those flat cans Cole had found in the corridor. Were they supplies? Ammo? Did the other side have no corpses because those on it won and were able to carry their dead and wounded away?
”Three” The counting was halfway.
There was really nothing in there that could provide any clues to what had happened there; it was like finding one lone jigsaw piece and trying to figure what the full picture was from just looking at it.
”Four” Cole was growing desperate.
But suddenly, he saw it; a tiny glint of metal hidden under a crust of dry blood behind the back of the corpse by the wall.
”Bingo!” Shouted Cole as he reached for it, which made the skeleton lean to the side, partially collapsing over the barricade.
It was a very tiny box; roughly the size of a Zippo lighter and with a similar shape. Scraping away the dry blood with his thumb, a translucent glass filled with all sorts of intricate forms of a silvery metal in the shape of tiny interconnecting lines. Two of the box’s sides were encased in metal, polished to a mirror shine.
He didn’t knew what it was, but it was better than walking from such scene empty-handed, and it was enough to stop Haudrica’s countdown.
”Good, get moving then.” She replied as she started to walk. Cole had to run a bit to keep up with her.
However, even though Haudrica had all the patience of an embittered drill sergeant, she had gotten much more ‘talkative’, and her insults have dwindled just a bit. This was enough to give Cole some semblance of progress.
”This is it.” She suddenly muttered, stopping at a broken door. Equal proportions of happiness and anxiety coating her expression.
After the ‘Corpse Junction’, they had still walked for what felt like another hour, and just as Cole had started to wonder if it was time to turn back, Haudrica found her destination.
However, rather than rushing in like Cole had expected, she just stood there by the door, seemingly pondering.
”Hey-” Said Cole as he put his hand on her shoulder, ”She’ll be there.” he added. Haudrica’s concerns were practically written all over her face.
”I did not ask for your opinion.” She replied, brushing his hand off and reaching for some kind of valve in the right side of the door.
The door didn’t quite open, more like it stopped working, allowing Haudrica to lift it and make her way under it.
However, as Cole tried to follow her, Haudrica moved back, quickly pointing one of her all-too-familiar blades at his neck.
”I will go in alone. You wait here.” She said with her usual bitterness.
”I understand.” Cole replied, ”Besides, I did promise Mizelle I wouldn’t come looking for her, so it’s fair.” a tinge of guilt in his words.
That wasn’t the answer Haudrica was expecting, so she looked a bit puzzled for a moment. This allowed Cole to notice that, unlike the almost metallic gleam her blade had on previous times she had done this to him, now it looked dull and faded; like the difference between the paint of a brand new car and that of one left abandoned under the sun for half a decade.
”Good.” She added. And having reached that agreement, she reached for the door’s valve once more, raising it to go under it.
”I wonder if I did the right thing…” Thought Cole as he gazed at the door, now in solitude.
And suddenly, that noise came from the other side. It sounded like a blow, so he thought maybe Haudrica had tripped on something.
”Gyaaaargh!!” But the scream that followed it made him realize otherwise.
”Oh shit.” He thought, as he reached for that valve, but it wouldn’t budge. It took him a few seconds to realize that he had been moving it the wrong way.
”Haudrica, what’s goin-”
He didn’t even have the time to react, let alone look around, when he felt a strong blow in his stomach. Taking his breath out of him.
”Well, now this is a surprise.” A mocking line, spoken in clear English.
That was all he could hear before he blacked out from the pain.
His body felt like it was flying, or more precisely, hanging, and certain parts of it refused to move.
”Ugha… what the hell…?” Muttered Cole as he tried to move, only to find out he couldn’t.
But as his eyes opened, his first sight was this unfamiliar man, looking at him amusedly.
”Rise and shine, my fellow kinsman.” He said without losing his smirk.
He looked like he was in his mid thirties, although given how worn he looked, he could be even younger. The hiking pants and work boots he was clad in looked completely at odds with the formal waistcoat he wore over a long-sleeved denim work shirt, as well as the leather longcoat he had on top of all the above. Like a bum who dressed himself with whatever clothes he could find in the dumpster behind a thrift store.
And the interested way he looked at Cole was akin to that of a child looking at a new toy.
”Who… are you?” Cole had yet to recover his full breath, so his words were slow.
”Man, it’s been so long; I had almost forgotten the feeling of how it was to have a conversation with another human being. I almost teared up!” The man said all of this in an overly dramatic fashion while turning around towards an empty space; as if he was speaking to some unseen person.
”Anyhow, sorry about that; solitude makes one soliloquy a bit too much.” He added as he extended his right hand to the tied up Cole. ”The name’s Eustace, Eustace Stanford. Buuuuut that name’s a bit too long, so just call me ‘Taz’ like all my friends do-uh…” he stopped to get a bit close and read Cole’s name tag on his overall ”Cole, is it? Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’d shake your hand, but you seem a bit…. tied up at the moment, hehe.” The smile he put on tried to look friendly, but something in his eyes told Cole otherwise.
It was then when Cole saw Haudrica; tied just like him, hanging from a pipe in the roof on the other side of the room and with some kind of half mask that blocked her mouth. Yet none of this stopped her from thrashing around; trying her best to free herself.
”You…” That was all Cole managed to say, as his expression turned grim.
”Ah! I know that face. You probably already heard about me from this angry lil’ weevil here, yes? The same lie she told everyone? That I betrayed her? That she killed me? ME! And you believed her? Hah!”
With those words, he slapped Haudrica with the back of his hand. The blow was so hard it made her head rebound against the wall that was behind her.
”You shouldn’t put any more trust her than in any of the Aberrations that roam these tunnels, y’know. She ain’t right in the head.” Added Eustace with an amused smile as he gripped Haudrica’s face by the cheeks.
”Heh, you ain’t exactly portraying yourself as a paragon of sanity and good behavior either, y’know?” Said Cole as he tried to mimic Eustace’s way of speaking.
”Hah! Good behavior? You must be new here, friend. ‘Cuz it looks like you haven’t gotten your ‘game face’ on yet.” Eustace grabbed Cole’s head by the chin as he said this.
”Up here, in this big metal cage, there are only two types of people: those with you, and everyone else. So it’s either eat or be eaten… sometimes in a frighteningly literal sense. So choosing your friends properly is a life-or-death choice.”
”For instance-” He turned Cole’s head towards Haudrica. ”That Weevil there, she made good use of me once. I’m pretty good at making maps, and overall keeping good track of my surroundings, and she made good use of that skill to keep herself and her friend alive, until she found some new friends with better skills and I was of no more use, so she tried to dispose of me. The same goes for her now.”
”Now, the only reason I haven’t done to her head what an army boot does to a cockroach, is because the fluffy Kitten will most likely be back here soon, and I need a good bargaining chip, y’see. Fluffy might look sweet and childish, but she’s more capable than you can even imagine; however, just like a character from a children’s cartoon, she’d give it all for her friends, specially this one.” He flicked Haudrica’s forehead playfully as he said that last sentence. Had Haudrica been capable of such, she would had bitten his hand off.
”But guess what, just as she made some new friends, I did the same. So now I’m just gonna have Fluffy trade the Weevil’s life for her own, so I can trade hers to my own Shroom friends. They may be disgusting, but they honor their word, especially if profit’s involved. After all, the ones you now call ‘friends’ would probably do the same with you if it was of some use to them; specially the Bitter Mutt and the Fancy Tinman.”
Eustace was trying to sound friendly, but the patronizing manner in which he was speaking was akin to that of someone teaching a kid how to play a game just so they could beat the kid in it.
”You’re crazy, man. Or more precisely, paranoid. You’re telling me everyone is just waiting for the right time to stick a dagger in my back?” Cole replied in mild amusement.
Eustace sighed before speaking, ”And you friend, are as naïve as a newborn. I dunno how much mankind may have changed in the few years I’ve been out of touch, but you don’t seem very street-savvy, do you? Here lemme show you.” he said in disappointment as he turned Cole around, ”Hm, looks like he’s gotten better at hiding them…. oh, wait, nevermind; here it is.”
The sound of ripping cloth followed his words, but he turned back around before he could say something.
”What do you see in here?” Said Eustace as he held one of the jumpsuit’s belt loops. It looked mostly normal, except for some tiny rivet-like thing it had in the center that shone with a dim, almost invisible light.
”….” Cole remained silent; he was well aware that had never been part of his jumpsuit.
”This, my dear friend, is one of Buttler-Bot Nine Thousand’s tracking bits. He once put one of those on me as well, to follow me around, until I found it way too odd for ‘help’ to show up whenever I wanted to be alone and got rid of it. It happened to you already, hasn’t it? Either him or Big Red showing up in a place you were going by yourself for no reason?” Eustace asked this while lifting an eyebrow.
Cole gulped unconsciously as he remembered how Zalura had suddenly showed up in his expedition to the NVSC5.
”Bullseye, eh?” He couldn’t hide his reaction from Eustace. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if he was already halfway here with Four Arms in tow.”
With those last words, he dropped the belt loop and stomped on it with all his might, a fizzing sound was heard following a short electric crackle.
”Not if I can help it anyway, but I’m sure he can still track its last location, so I’ll keep this brief.” He straightened his clothes as he finished his sentence.
”Help me catch Fluffy Ears and bring her back to the Shrooms. I can put in a good word for you with them; they’ll keep us safe, fed, happy and even give us a few cool toys to play with until we can find a way to break out of this cage and go somewhere better.”
For the first time, Eustace’s face looked genuine.
”T-They have a way to get back to Earth!?” Cole’s interest was piqued.
”Back to Earth? Dude, you crazy!? Why would you want to go back to that stinkhole? We have all fukken space before your eyes; shit straight out of a videogame but for realsies. Why would you want to go back to a life of slog, tedium and cubicles? Did you take the Blue Pill instead?” His words were a mixture of shock and bewilderment.
”I… I…” Cole was absentminded.
A war of thoughts raged within his head; one hand, he could see the logic behind Eustace’s arguments, but on the other, he refused to agree with someone who had just displayed such selfish behavior, because it was clear he wasn’t saying all this stuff out of some altruistic desire to help him.
”I… hate…” Muttered Cole before he took a deep breath. He could see the smile forming on Eustace’s face as well as the blend of terror and hatred washing over Haudrica.
”I hate when people tells me how I should live my life!!” Cole roared.
Eustace was so distracted with his speech that he hadn’t realized Cole had slipped his legs out of their bindings. And one of Cole’s boots found its way towards Eustace’s crotch.
”Grgh…. you little….” Muttered Eustace, out of breath, crouching as he held his man-bits.
”Do you think I am so naïve as to fall for that one!? You probably told Haudrica and Mizelle something like that once as well! How do I know one day I won’t be the ‘bargaining chip’ to be traded away in shackles!?” Shouted Cole as hard as he could, as if he was trying toexpel from his mind how he had doubted his friends. But the suspicion had been already instilled in him, and it wouldn’t go away so easily.
”Heh, you’re really not good at this.” Eustace snarked as he got up.
A punch straight to Cole’s cheek, strong enough to almost make him lose consciousness.
”I gave you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live a life like no other, and you threw it away for a fistful of liars and hypocrites in a dirt-caked junk heap? Something wrong with your head, friend.” He added as he grabbed Cole by the neck of his jumpsuit, slowly strangling him.
”I… really… like… junk…. y’know.” Even short of breath, Cole couldn’t help but snark. Eustace sighed.
”Sure you do, Dell Conagher. Truly, there’s something off with your noggin-” Eustace pulled a short revolver from one of his coat’s pockets and put it to Cole’s temple, ”So I’ll just do you a favor and remove it for you. Maybe, if you ever respawn, you’ll come to realize you picked the wrong team. Bye bye.”
He pulled the trigger, or at least, he tried to, the hammer was frozen in the air, as if something was blocking it.
”What the-!?” Eustace even tried to pull his hand away, but it was frozen in midair, to much of his confusion, ”You!” until he saw something outside Cole’s field of vision.
”Go AWAY!!” From behind him came this roar, and Eustace’s body was flung away like a rag doll. It was a familiar voice.
”Mizelle!” Cried Cole as he turned around, his bindings falling apart, clearly her doing.
They had all been so distracted they hadn’t seen her show up. Her face bore an expression of anger as well as one of fear.
”He-ey! But if it isn’t my favorite Kitten! Ready to go back to your masters?”
Getting up from the ground like nothing had happened, Eustace looked for the gun, only to find it at Cole’s feet.
”You backbiting maggot! I’ll tear your worthless spine out your body.” Haudrica’s bindings, too, had fallen from her, and she had wasted no time to put her mouth to use. The same applied to her scythes, which apparently were already solid enough to use; she charged at Eustace almost immediately.
”Heh, not bad.” But he dodged her effortlessly.
”Rhaaah!” Cole tried to follow suit as he grabbed a piece of metal from the ground and charged at him, only to be kicked back. Eustace was abnormally fast; there was something else at play with him.
”Leave my friends ALONE.” Mizelle wasted no time either as she floated some pieces of metallic furniture and threw them Eustace’s way, but once again, he moved out of the way.
No matter how they attacked, Eustace would either block them or get out of the way. Even Haudrica had failed to as much as scratch him. Was she still not at her full power? Or was there something else at work?
”Gee, this is really fun, but-” Said Eustace as he stopped after putting some distance between him and everyone, ”One on one’s a duel, two on one’s a brawl, but three’s a bit too much. So I guess I’ll call this a day.” he pulled some kind of cylinder out of one of his pockets, it took Cole a moment to realize what it was but it was also then when Eustace pulled its pin out, ”Smell ya later, fellas! Take good care of Fluffy, Isaac Clarke, and you too Evil Weevil. Bye!” he tossed it as he said that.
”Watch out!” Cole moved to cover Haudrica and Mizelle, but it was too late.
A blinding flash of light enveloped all as Cole pushed them down, and by the time their vision recovered, Eustace was gone.
”A flashbang. Where did he even get that here, anyway?” Thought Cole as he blinked, realizing he was on top of both Mizelle and Haudrica.
”You monster!” Shouted Haudrica as she pushed Cole aside, but for once, that insult wasn’t directed at him. ”Come back here! I’m still not done with you!” she cried, her angry voice turning weak, ”Why!?… Why do you keep coming back to torment me!?…. Aaaaaaaahhhh!!” it was a wail of pain what Haudrica let out as she collapsed, sobbing in desperation.
”Cole, a-are you alright?” Said Mizelle as she helped him to get up.
”Why….. why…. why….” Haudrica continued sobbing; hugging her chest as tears poured from the corners of her open eyes. This whole thing had hit her the hardest.
”I’m a bit bruised, but I think she needs your help more than me.” He replied as he got up.
She just gave him a nod in reply before walking towards Haudrica, who was still crumpled in the floor.
”Haudrica….” Mizelle approached her, but she didn’t come too close.
”Why… why… why is he back…. I killed him… I know I did…. I’m… not a liar….” She muttered between sobs.
”No one is saying you are.” With those words, Mizelle brought her close, Haudrica’s face resting on her chest. She looked almost motherly.
”This is all my fault; I shouldn’t have gone out by myself. I’m sure everyone will be angry when we get back.” Mizelle’s voice was so soothing it was almost a whisper.
”No it’s not! I shouldn’t have gone into hiding or lied to your about my condition; had I told you everything, you wouldn’t have suffered like you did… I’m sorry…” Replied Haudrica, her voice regaining some strength.
”There’s no point in looking for a culprit; what matters is that we’re all here, and we are alive. Taking blame will not change any of that.” Said Cole as he finally made his entrance.
”Shut up, you piece of shit.” Bellowed Haudrica, ”You can’t fool me; I saw your expression when that bastard made you an offer, you were almost drooling. You are just the same shit as him; the very same.” Her tears didn’t stop, even as she lashed at Cole.
”That’s true. I admit I wavered, I would be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. But in the end, I didn’t do it, even though I could had earned something from it. Doesn’t that tell you something? How can you still think I am the same as that bastard!?” Each of Cole’s words was heavy with guilt, although by the end, also with anger; anger at himself.
Strangely enough, she said nothing back. Even though she usually would had done so. She merely evaded his gaze.
”Are you sure this will hold up?” Asked Cole as he tightened the valves on the sides of the damaged door.
”Yes, those things are some sort of override; the door may still be opened from inside if the outer ones are tightened, but not from the outside if the inner ones are tightened. Why else do you think we chose this place from the start?”
Having regained her calm and slightly toned down her usual anger, Haudrica was trying to secure that room so they could rest before departing; between the Aberrations from before and the fight with Eustace, they were tired to the point of collapse, and there was no telling what else they could encounter on their way back. Resting was the most sensible option.
”Alright, then. You know this better than me. Still, I can’t help but wonder, just what was this place?” added Cole as he tightened the last valve.
The main type of furniture scattered around were chairs and small desks, beyond that, it was just a big empty room with remarkably intact light fixtures.
”Beyond a good hiding place? Don’t really care, and I’d rather you not start poking around.” That was the expected answer.
”Gee, have you no curiosity? Don’t you ever wonder how your surroundings work? Or have you never wanted to put your finger on something you never had before to see what would happen?” Said Cole, half jokingly.
”Hmph!” Haudrica snorted, ”If I did that, I’d have no fingers left. Now shut up; I’m tired of speaking.” apparently, she DID have a sense of humor of sorts.
”I’m sure they would grow back anyway.” Thought Cole as he held in his laughter.
None of them had brought even some kind of bedding to this adventure, so sleeping on the cold, hard floor was all they had.
”Uwaaa… guess there’s nothing else to do but lie down and hope we can shut our eyelids hard enough to sleep with all this light.” Mumbled Cole as he sprawled himself in the floor following a loud yawn.
”Ah!” Mizelle’s ears perked up with this exclamation, ”A-Actually, I can help with that last part.”
As if she had suddenly remembered something, Mizelle began to search around the scattered trash of the room.
”Do you really think that’s still around here? I’m sure that bastard took it away just to mess with us.” Added Haudrica without raising from the floor; either she didn’t care or she was just too tired. Most likely a bit of both.
”Maybe, but I found more than one that day and-oh! Found one.” Said Mizelle as she fished out piece of metal from the heap of trash. A tiny Zippo-sized box of glass and metal.
”It’s the same…” Cole’s mind immediately clicked, ”Look-” he pulled it out of his pocket, ”And you said they fit into some machine here?”
”Yes, that one by the corner.” With a nod, Mizelle pointed to a structure of metal that emerged from the wall by the back of the room.
Whatever that device was, most of its workings seemed to be concealed within the wall itself, with only an outlying shape and a panel of sorts. And while the panel itself contained a myriad of knobs and buttons with unintelligible characters written upon them, there was one rectangular slot with a clear image of the same trinket he was holding pointing towards it.
Cole didn’t need to read it to be able to understand it.
”So, we just put it here and-” Cole was already reaching for the machine when Haudrica let out a shout.
”Could you leave fiddling with that thing for a time when we at least have the energy to think about what we are doing, please!?” Said Haudrica from her place in the floor. She was truly tired beyond measure, or else she would had never used the word ‘please’.
”Ok, I guess.” Replied Cole as he looked back at Mizelle, who gave a sympathetic nod, ”Just use the one you found.”
With those words, Mizelle put hers in the machine. Almost immediately, the entire room went dark, save for a faint shimmering of white in the wall opposed to the device in question.
”So, it’s like a projector of sorts…” Thought Cole as he laid on the floor himself, using his bag as a rather uncomfortable pillow.
Mizelle followed suit, and soon enough, both she and Haudrica were fast asleep. Not Cole however.
”…” Even amidst that darkness, he gazed at the blackened metal ceiling, pondering in silence.
So much had happened since he-no, they, had left the NVSC9; he had seen a whole new area of the Phylactery, a new side of Haudrica, Mizelle’s determination, and a new face that he still failed to comprehend.
”’Taz’, huh? Not quite the Tasmanian one, but most certainly a devil.” He thought, laughing silently as his own joke.
He tried to not think about it but, that tracking device on him; how long had it been there? What had it been used for? Did it only follow him around, or did it go as far as listening to what he spoke? It had always been very strange how Tetlekar always turned out to be right there when he least expected it, but had there been ulterior motives behind all that? Did others like Desri and Zalura also have one of those on them? Did they know about it? And more importantly, would he confront Tetlekar about it when he returned? What would Tetlekar reply? And how this whole revelation would change his life in the NVSC9?
The questions came at him like a tsunami, and he had answer for none of them.
All he could do was wait; wait and see what would happen when they made the journey back.
<End of Chapter 9>