Wednesday, February 11, 2015

15: The Frying Pan

Entry 015: Where Felix and Cor are misled, misused, and misplaced.

                They landed in Carpathia's largest port city mid-afternoon. After Ryyn's wet, swampy air, the dry weather threatened to make Felix's nose bleed as soon as they stepped out of the spaceport.
                "What is this place anyway?" Felix asked, having forgotten to catch the name of the city on the way down. "It smells funny."
                "That's because it's clean," Cor told him, knowing firsthand the kind of places the kid generally found himself. "Now come on. Mari set up the meeting at a Hybridian bar near the hotel district. I want to check it out before we have to meet our 'friends'. "
                Felix wasn't sure if Cor included the implied air quotes because he doubted their intentions or because he didn't want to be conspicuous and say contacts, but after everything he'd been through already, it made his spine stiffen just a little more.
                "When are we supposed to meet them?" he asked. Cor had been cagey with information over the three day long trip from Ryyn.
                Cor's stride didn't break as he followed the signs to baggage claim. They each had one bag, although Felix didn't actually know what was in his anymore. Presumably his clothes from the Helix 7, but there hadn't been time to look. The only thing he had brought with him that he cared about was his notebook, which hadn't left his sight since they'd started running and was even now tucked safely inside his jacket next to his shirt.
                "Tomorrow afternoon," Cor told him.
                Felix's eyebrows drew together. "Then why are we going there now?" He would have much preferred a shower and sleep in a bed that wasn't bolted to the floor.
                "I don't want no surprises, no matter who we're meeting. I'll feel better gettin' there early," Cor told him as he found Felix's ratty, gray-green canvas bag and slung it into Felix's chest, knocking the wind from his lungs.
                "Why do jeans and a couple shirts weigh so much?" he wheezed.
                Cor noticeably refused to answer him as he searched for his own bag – or more accurately, the yard-long travel cylinder commonly used to protect large papers or artwork during travel. To be honest, Felix was afraid to ask Cor what was in it, but he highly doubted Cor had suddenly taken a side job moving painted canvas.
                Felix spotted the tube by its large, neon-orange FRAGILE sticker wrapped around the outside. Judging by the scratches that hadn't been there before and the rent in the sticker, he didn't think the label meant much, even on an art hotspot like Carpathia.
                Cor grabbed it and slung it over his shoulder before making a beeline for the door, Felix scrambling to catch up.
                "So what now? We just sit at the bar and hope they don't take us away in body bags?" he muttered to the mechanic.
                "The Hybridians don't want you dead, Felix. If they did I woulda called in a different favor. Trust me, okay?"
                Felix frowned, but didn't have a retort. "Well we already know they're not the only ones looking for us. What's to keep Kla or someone else from just walking in and leading us out at blaster point?"
                Cor's crooked smile was as dry as the air outside baggage claim. "It's a Hybridian bar, kid. No one else is going to walk in without getting the attention of everyone else in the place."
                Cor hailed a cab from one of the unending lines outside the busy spaceport and they piled in after putting the duffel in the trunk. The transport tube, Felix noticed, stayed with them.
                "Do we really feel that different to you?" he asked once the cab was underway.
                Cor seemed distracted as he watched the people outside the window. "Who? Pure organics? A'course you all feel different. We identify our own with our static fields and you lot either don't have one at all or your current is just so small..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "To us it kinda feels like we're talkin' with someone who's only half alive, like your, uh," he snapped his fingers as he tried to think. "Whad'ya call 'em?"
                Felix stared at him. He had no idea what Cor was talking about.
                Cor must have remembered the word on his own because his bushy eyebrows rose. "Ah! Zombies. That's whatcha call 'em. Anyway, it's what's not there that sets our fields on edge. Gives most Hybrid'ns the willies to no end." He muttered the last.
                "Huh," Felix grunted. He'd never thought about what Hybridians picked up from other species before or what it might feel like to them. He'd just assumed that they preferred to stay on their home world because it was home, not because they found pure putting.
                "If that's true, then why aren't you back home on Hybridia?" Felix asked Cor.
                Cor's reflection grinned dryly. "Who said Hybridia was home?"
                The Power Grid was quiet at this time of day, most of its patrons still working the day jobs that paid their tabs. The name flashed above the bar in electric yellow, one letter coming on at a time before flashing twice altogether and starting the process over. The inside of the bar was overly warm, done up in black sasha wood, but not smoky like Felix had feared.
                Cor walked in like he belonged nowhere else, but Felix hesitated with one foot raised over the threshold. The electricity in the air from so many static fields in one place was palpable, physically hanging in the air and making the stray hairs on Felix's forehead float in the air as surely as if he'd run a balloon over his head.
                Cor finally noticed him standing there like an idiot and backtracked, shaking his head. He put a large hand on Felix's back and propelled him forward. Ignoring the sharp bite of static that made Felix want to yelp.
                He bit it back when he saw the looks the other bar-goers were giving him, ranging from wary curiosity to outright hostility.
                "Don't pay him no mind," Cor said loud enough for the seven or eight watchers to hear. "My friend here won't bother ya none."
                The other Hybridians didn't look so sure of that, but went back to their drinks and muted conversation. Evidently who Cor decided to drink with was his business, even if it was a human like Felix.
                Cor guided Felix to a table away from the others, making sure to keep a grip on him as if he thought Felix would wander off if he didn't. "That's one thing," Felix thought, "he has nothing to worry about."
                The barkeep – a big man with even bigger shoulders and an intimidating static field that made Felix stutter when he tried to speak – came and took their order without much more than a grunt and a surly glance at Felix.
                "Who are we meeting anyway?" Felix asked almost like it really didn't matter who it was as long as they didn't try and pressgang him again. "Hybridians, obviously, and ones with enough power or influence to be shielded from a man like O'Dowell, but who exactly?"
                He leaned his elbows on the table as the clear tubes stretching from floor to ceiling sparked with yellow light, run off electricity that had gathered in the conductive sasha wood, that harshly lit their faces. Cor sat with his back to the wall, eyes locked on the door and his posture deceptively loose. Only the stiffness in his shoulders and the tightness at the corners of his eyes betrayed his focus.
                He shrugged as a barmaid brought their drinks – mugs of sluggishly liquid that steamed and made Felix's mouth tingle when he drank it. The human took one swallow, coughed indignantly at the uncomfortable sensation, and didn't take another.
                "Don't know for sure," Cor told Felix as he put his mug down and resumed watching the door. "Mari was the one to make the arrangements. She told me the Commander was sendin' someone here," he tapped the table hard with a stubby digit, "and that they'd have the proper ident when they showed."
                He raised his glass again as Felix fidgeted in his chair. He was really starting to hate all this cloak and dagger stuff, even more than the run-for-your-life stuff they'd gone through just to get here.
                People trickled in over the next few hours, mostly Hybridians given the high collars to protect their secondary skeletons and the increase in pressure from added static fields, but a few honored guests could be seen as well. Like Felix, they hesitated at the door as the electricity in the room slammed into them and had to give themselves a little shake to adjust to the heavy weight of the air on their various ventilatory systems. Felix took solace in the fact that most of them looked about as comfortable in the static jammed room as he felt.
                The place was packed by early evening, not an empty seat in sight. Given the lack of space, Felix didn't find anything unusual about the man in the gray long coat. A Hybridian, given the rigid high collar, he stopped at the door and surveyed the room with tight eyes. Jagged lines of discolored skin tore up from his jaw line and ended in pointed tips just under his left eye – flash scars from the war – and short cropped steel-gray hair marked him as former military like Cor.
                But even that wasn't very surprising. True, ever since the war had ended almost five decades ago enlistment numbers had gone down, but given the severe impact of the war itself – not to mention the attacks fifteen years ago that had killed most of the royal family and almost their stewards as well – they tended to have a healthy number in the reserves.
                "Suspicious group of people if you ask me," Felix thought as the man with the flash scars saw who he was looking for and waded to the bar. "But then none of them do."
                It didn't bother him. What did was when the stranger in the gray long coat came right up behind him and bellowed, "Cor'althan as I live and breathe!"
                Felix sputtered the too-thick liquid as the gravelly voice shouted just over his head. He looked around wildly and saw it was the man with the flash scars.
                For a nano-second Cor actually looked surprised. "Darl'markins? What, uh, what are you doin' here?"
                Darl'markins ignored Cor's stutter and leaned over to grip him in a bear hug as the other man half stood from his chair.
                "What do you think I'm doing here? I'm looking for you!" Darl dragged a chair from another table without asking and plunked it down at their table. "And you won't believe how surprised I was when I heard it was you I was supposed to find."
                "I dunno," Cor mumbled as he eyed the other Hybridian, "I think I can imagine pretty well on m'own."
                Felix looked between Cor and the newcomer, not sure how he was supposed to react. Even Cor looked a little...uncertain.
                "Who's, uh, who's your friend?" Felix muttered to Cor, lifting his drink to try and disguise his question.
                It didn't work. Darl laughed, the loud, carrying sound earning him several glares from tables halfway across the bar. "What? Old Althan never mentioned me? Ha! Shouldn't be surprised. Always out there looking for the next adventure insteada minding what's right in front of him."
                Felix had put his drink down after pretending to swallow some and the newcomer swiped and polished it off without remorse.
                "We were in the army together," he said as he thunked the empty tankard back down. "Met before the big push to Nexus Junction a year before we finally beat them static stealers back. Helluva day that was."
                Felix wasn't sure if he meant victory day or the battle at Nexus Junction.
                "We, uh, we ain't exactly 'friends'," Cor muttered as Darl pulled a barmaid aside and ordered another round. Felix thought about telling him he was good, but then realized that Darl would probably just take his again anyway and figured it didn't matter since he wasn't paying.
                "I gotta admit," Cor said when the other man turned back to them with a too-wide smile, "I'm surprised to see ya here, specially a day early. I was exptecin', well, just about anyone else."
                Darl'markins barked a laugh. "Yer telling me. There I was, mindin' my own business when I get a call from you-know-who tellin' me to hightail it to the Power Grid or else." He shrugged one shoulder. "First time anyone's ever ordered me to a bar before. Usually it's the other way around."
                He barked another laugh as the barmaid returned with their second round. Felix was not reassured. He sent Cor a questioning look, but the mechanic was too busy watching the other Hybridian to give him any kind of answer.
                "So why are ya here today Darl?" Cor asked, a hard edge to his voice. "The meet's not set til tomorrow."
                Darl stared at him, mug half raised to his lips. He slowly set it down and looked away with a put upon sigh. "All right," he muttered, "all right, you caught me. I came to bum a round or two from whatever offworld fool might be hanging at the bar tonight. I didn't expect to find you here early either. Although," he tilted his head sideways, "since you are I wouldn't object to getting the gears turning sooner. You-know-who-” he repeated with a look around them to ensure there were no prying ears, "gave me instructions to make the call when we made contact. Don't see any point in waiting another day when I can get paid now, know what I mean?"
                He winked at Felix and Cor and smiled jovially. The expression set Felix on edge more than anything as Darl pulled out a cheap comm. unit, most likely for one time use, and put in the frequency. Cor didn't look happy, but didn't object as Darl sent the message on the cheap unit.
                "So what happ'ned to ya after the static crawlers disappeared Darl? I thought I heard something about you and theft charges a lil while afore I left."
                Felix could tell Cor was fishing, but Darl just waved him off with an easy motion. "Nah, that was just a big misunderstanding." Felix noticed he didn't bother to explain what had been misunderstood.
                They sat for another half hour, supposedly catching up, but Darl did most of the talking. Felix listened with half an ear, the rest of his attention wandering the bar nervously. He would feel much better when they were out of this over charged atmosphere.
                "You got somewhere to be Darl?" Cor asked when he caught Darl checking his chrono for the fourth time in ten minutes.
                Darl shook his watch near his ear to make sure it was still working. "We all do," he told Cor. "Just can't tell if the dang blasted thing is broke or not."
                He grumbled to himself as he tapped the face, Felix still watching the room. Faint traces of electricity were crawling over his skin, making the hairs on the back of his neck and arms stand on end, so when the charge in the air shifted, he couldn't help but notice.
                He looked over his shoulder at the door as the mass of static fields tensed up like it had every time non-Hybridians came into the Power Grid. Felix expected to see another stunned tourist brought in by a friend, but the two figures standing in the open doorway definitely weren't sightseers.
                Felix put his back to them quickly, clasping his hands together on the table, suddenly unsure of what to do with them. The guys had 'hired muscle' written across their broad bodies to match the various tattoos scrawled over their shoulders and big arms. Unlike every other organic that had come in, no Hybridian led them inside.
                The whole bar noticed immediately, including Cor and Darl'markins.
                "Uh-oh," Cor mumbled when he saw them.
                Darl sent him a look over the top of his drink. "Friends of yours?" he asked.
                Cor put some credits on the table to cover their bill but didn't stand. "Nope."
                "Right," Darl said, pounding back the rest of his drink as if steeling himself for what came next. "I'll meet you outside in ten."
                Cor nodded and before Felix could ask what they were planning, Darl vanished back into the crowd.
                Cor gave him a head start, eyeing the two humans shoving a path to the bar, before pushing his chair back. He tilted his head to the side door marked 'STAFF ONLY' in three different languages and with a nod Felix followed him, keeping his head down and hoping he didn't attract too much attention as he tried not to step on anyone. He got a few 'ows' from passerby, but not much else so he thought he was doing all right.
                Or at least he did until what felt like a five fingered vice grabbed the back of his neck and hauled him bodily to a stop.
                The hand squeezed his neck, threatening to snap it in two and choking off his instinctive shout for help. Ahead of him, Cor kept sidling through the bar patrons, unaware of Felix's new friend.
                "Hey there Cauldwell," a deep voice he didn't recognize spoke next to him, "we've been waiting for you all week. Nice of you to finally show."
                Terrified down to his core, Felix had no idea how he kept the shake out of his voice. "Sorry, unexpected layovers."
                The man with the neck tattoos and who was easily twice as wide as Felix himself, chuckled as he tightened his grip on Felix's neck and propelled him towards the front door, away from where he'd last seen Cor. "You're funny," he muttered. "She didn't tell me you was funny."
                Felix managed to snag an empty beer tankard off a table waiting to be cleared off without his new friend noticing. "She?" he asked even though he was pretty sure he already knew who had sent the two men.
                The big guy shot him a look and Felix didn't have to pretend to look scared. He made sure to keep the thick glass mug behind his back.
                "Lady friend of mind," the man told him, looking forward again as a group of young Hybridians – college students by the looks of them, Felix thought – stood up right in front of them, making the humans come to a sudden stop.
                Felix flinched at the shooting pain that snapped down his spine, but lifted one of the drunker student's comm. unit from where he'd left it lying on the table. Impressed with himself – who knew sneaking pieces of his stolen lunch from the school bullies as they'd gloated would ever come in handy? – he shoved the comm. into his pocket as his handler pleasantly waved off apologies from the wobbling students.
                Voices started to rise behind them and Felix turned his head to try and see where the fight was brewing.
                "Don't get curious on me now Cauldwell," the man rumbled in a low voice as he pinched Felix's neck and pushed him forward again. "You were doing so well not drawing attention before now."
                Felix sucked in air as the building pressure at the base of his skull started to make his vision narrow. Growing panic got in the way of any pithy comebacks.
                Behind them, the argument grew louder, the people nearest the noise starting to rumble like a thundercloud. He could feel the fight about to start and Felix dragged his feet, hoping if they got caught up in the mayhem, he could ditch Ham-Hands here and escape.
                But Ham-Hands righted him with a rough shake that had the world spinning around Felix's head. He thought this was it – either tomorrow would find him shackled to a D&S desk somewhere or his body in a gutter if 'she' turned out to be someone else – when a frightened shout rang out above the growing thunderstorm at the bar. Felix thought it sounded like someone had gotten a good shock form one of the Hybridians.
                Ham-Hands turned around, eyes narrowing as he dragged Felix with him. Around his massive bulk, Felix could just see the other human shaking out his hand. Even Felix could see the murder in his eyes as he eyed the smug Hybridian that had zapped him.
                Ham-Hands must have seen the glint of stupidity too because he yelled out a warning, "Davy!"
                But Davy ignored him and cold-cocked the Hybridian – Was that Darl? – right in the eye.
                Felix winced, and not for Darl. "Bad move..."
                Before Darl could finish stumbling backward, the Hybridians nearest Davy lashed out. Sparks popped and made the air sizzle as Davy suddenly found himself on the wrong side of the fight.
                Felix caught a few angry sparks under the eye as the electric tension he'd felt in the air all night abruptly snapped. Muscles spasmed in his cheek with the sudden jolt, but Felix ignored it as he raised his hand and brought the empty glass tankard down hard on Ham-Hand's head. It didn't break like Felix had hoped, but it still crumpled the man to the floor.
                Felix dropped the tankard and bolted for the door with the other customers that didn't want to get caught up  in the brawl. His pulse was racing in his neck when he finally made it back to the street, only to shout when a hand grabbed his shoulder and hauled him out of the stream of displaced people.
                "Shut it Felix!" Cor hissed as Felix's brain finally caught up with him. "What? You want 'em to follow us outta here?"
                Felix was breathing too hard to answer right away. "If we keep going on like this it won't matter much longer." He hissed. "You guys are gonna give me a heart attack by the end of the week!"
                Cor slapped him on the back, making the already unsteady Felix stumble. "Don't worry. We'll shock yer ticker back into working order when it gives out on ya."
                Felix shot him a glare and grumbled something under his breath about getting a 'Do Not Resuscitate' tag.
                They stayed in the alley, watching both the front door around the corner and the side exit at their backs. Ham-Hands and Davy never made an appearance, but Darl was politely but firmly tossed out the front door fifteen minutes later.
                "Well that was fun," he said with an easy smile, despite the black eye blooming brightly on the right side of his face. " We should do this more often Cor. Once e'ry fifty years or so is far too long."
                Cor gave Darl a tight but true grin. "Sure, but yer payin' yer own tab next time."
                Darl barked his single laugh as he led them down the street away from the Power Grid. "Bar owner's holding those two for the damage, so we should probably get out of here before they pay up," Darl told them as they navigated the busy streets. "And I got a call from Boss Man before they kicked me out. Ship's ready and waitin' for  you two in East Titan Shipyards not far from here, dock C-1220. Cab would take an hour at this hour," he looked up at the early twilight sky, the last daylight meeting the oncoming night in stripes of bright orange and smoky violet, "but it's only a twenty minute walk on foot."
                They followed the Hybridian through Titania's streets, the neon signs of the bar street quickly giving way to the greasier, oil-spotted paths of the shipyards and docking district.
                Felix hung back with Cor, giving Darl the lead so he could ask without being overheard, "Was he really a solider way back when? He doesn't exactly act like one."
                Cor shrugged, his jacket bunching up when he refused to take his hands out of his pockets, cylindrical tube lying diagonally across his back. "He weren't the best at it," he admitted. "Got in trouble pretty often actually. Always expected to see him dishonorably discharged mahself."
                Felix blinked in surprise. "Harsh words for a friend."
                Cor made a face. "'Friend' might be a bit of'a stretch. We were more...talkative acquaintances."
                Felix looked up at Darl's back, feeling uneasy about putting all his trust in a man Cor only sorta knew and had already admitted caused more trouble than he fixed.
                Cor must have seen his uncertainty because he added, "Don't worry too much, kid. Self-serving as Darl is, he wouldn't've pulled our backsides out of the fire if there wasn't sumthin' innit for him. I imagine the Commander's payin' him a shiny cred to get us aboard ship in one piece."
                Felix nodded, but decided not to say anything. He was sure his stomach cramps were from oily Hybridian alcohol and the fresh kink in his spinal cord.
                He relaxed a little when they entered East Titan Shipyards, the familiar sounds of maintenance and the smells of oil leaks and engine fuel setting him at ease. C-1220 was near the back where there were fewer people. Ideal for a covert departure.
                Felix's eyes just about popped out of his head when he caught sight of the ship waiting for them.
                "Wow," he gasped in an engineer's awe. "That's the 740 Star Skimmer with a Maximus Prime engine, capable of speeds near twice the speed of light." He stopped, suddenly aware he was drooling. He dragged his sleeve across his mouth, hoping they hadn't noticed. He had to remind himself not to touch the silvered hull of the ship, no matter how gorgeous she was...
                Felix vaguely heard Darl whistle appreciatively behind him. "Lucky you," he mumbled. "I've only seen those things through a view screen."
                "You sure this is the right place Darl?" Cor sounded wary. "That's a pretty spendy hunk of metal-”
                "Hunk of metal?!" Felix squeaked indignantly before shooting off the Star Skimmer's impressive specs.
                Cor ignored him. "I just mean the Commander's hardly one to break budget for a simple pick-up."
                Darl's barked laugh had a bitter edge to it this time. "Maybe the royal whelp wanted to get a load of you two himself. The Commander don't move for much unless the crown prince has his foot stuck in it anyway."
                Cor gave Darl a concerned look. "Do you hear yourself Darl?"
                Darl didn't flinch away from Cor's gaze. "You don't think I'm right?" he challenged. "H'rodrich is impetuous and spoiled, and never where he's supposed to be."
                Cor chuckled, a wry smile on his face. "So were we at twenty-five. Worse actually."
                Darl snorted mulishly, but didn't naysay him. "If you ask me," he grumbled in a surly tone, "the House should just bypass the whelp altogether and put Von'dakar in charge. It's not like he don't do it all himself anyhow."
                Cor was shocked. Von'dakar was the crown prince's second cousin on his father's side and H'rodrich's only heir since the rest of his brothers and sisters were dead and he had yet to start a family of his own. And, true, Von'dakar had been taking care of the day-to-day business of the continent while his cousin was off exploring the shattered systems that had crippled the Hybridian Way all those generations ago, but H'rodrich was still prince and Cor had faith he would do right by his people.
                "Just might take him a lil longer than most others to get the adventurer outta his system."
                Out loud all he said was, "That sounds awful close to treason Darl."
                Darl scowled and then with visible effort let go of his resentment. "Look," he said in a low voice instead, "they must've finally noticed we exist."
                Cor recognized a subject change when he heard one, and despite his misgivings, let it pass.
                "'Bout time," he grumbled back, "I'm sweatin' right down to mah socks out here."
                Nobody walked down the gangway to greet them and after pulling Felix away from what he could see of the engine housing, the three tromped inside, Darl at the rear.
                The inside of the Star Skimmer was just as finely appointed as the ship itself would suggest. Cor took in the rich blue carpet, the tan D'linku leather upholstery, and what looked like an original Renoire hanging on the wall with its own lamp to illuminate its masterful brush strokes.
                Wariness exploded into dark knowing, making Cor's field pop angrily.
                "Darl," he growled at the man out of easy reach, "what is this?"
                Darl shrugged, his face neutral. "A paycheck," he told Cor simply.
                Felix's tight words dragged Cor away from the traitor. "Uh, Cor?"
                Cor turned to face the newcomers as they entered from farther in the ship. Two broad-shouldered males – one a well muscled wruvian and the other their friend from the Power Grid that had started the brawl – flanked the third; a purple skinned female with spice colored eyes and vivid green head spines swept back from her attractive face.
                "Hello boys," Kla murmured as she gave them a smug smile. "Miss me?"

< Enry 14.5                                                                                                                                              Entry 16 >

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