Wednesday, March 11, 2015

19: Lab C, Level 7

Entry 019: Where Felix has to depend on himself.

                Felix and Cor were shuffled off without anything more than a dry, "Welcome to the company," and a sly wave from Kla still standing behind O'Dowell's shoulder, like a daughter making faces where Daddy couldn't see. Felix noticed she didn't leave with them this time, and he privately hoped that whatever a 'Director of Acquisitions' did (although he had the sneaking suspicion he'd just experienced it first hand), it kept her far away from wherever he was being taken.
                It wasn't until they had piled back into the elevator that he realized another body had taken her place.
                "Complete waste of time," Redford grumbled as he tapped his foot angrily against the floor. "I'm telling you that woman just completely wasted everybody's time. Her time. O'Dowell's time. My time."
                This was obviously the worst offense by far.
                He still wasn't finished. "But then that is what she excels at. It's her purpose in life to waste time so completely-"
                Felix blew out a frustrated sigh, echoing everyone else's feelings as he did. "Oh would you just shut up already?"
                The shorter man – Felix was startled to see that he was shorter. The last time he'd seen the parrot it had felt like the man had towered over him no matter how thin he was – gave him a frigid look, his mouth opening into a squawking comeback that died as soon as he saw the look on Felix's face. Redford immediately faced the elevator doors with a surly scowl. Obviously he still remembered the last time he'd pushed Felix over the edge.
                "Didn't know I had an edge to be pushed over before all this."
                From the way he'd gone pale under his sunburn and how he flinched every time he moved his jaw, Redford would never forget.
                The elevator slowed to a stop and the bright ding! Announced they had arrived at their floor.
                "Right," Redford grumbled, "this is our stop."
                He stepped out proudly, hands shoved in the pockets of his lab coat – red to mark him as a part of the research department – with his head held high now that he was away from Kla and his employer.
                "Well someone's got their confidence back." Not that he could really blame Redford for shrinking in their combined presence. In the back of his mind, Felix began to seriously consider the possibility that Kla and O'Dowell were some kind of new life form that fed on the self-esteem of others, sucking them dry until they were whimpering, flinching shells of their former selves.
                "Like vampires," Felix thought as Ham-Hands shoved him from behind so that he stumbled out of the waiting elevator doors flat footed. "Confidence vampires that leave their victims as confidence zombies." He rolled his eyes at his own melodrama. "Who am I kidding? That's an awful name. And besides," his eyes narrowed in a scowl, "people like them are hardly new. They've been around since the start of time."
                He heard the elevator doors start to slide shut behind him, and with a surge of panic, realized that no one had gotten off after him.
                "Cor!" Felix shouted. He spun around, looking for the summons button and found a card reader instead, a little label above it marking this as Level 7. He wasn't sure if there was a motion detector in the doors that would keep his hands from being crushed, but he was about to take his chances and stick them into the shrinking gap anyway. He would have to if Cor hadn't called out, "Don't worry 'bout me kid. I've had worse."
                The doors slid shut before he could say anything else, cutting them off. And for the first time since he had left Earth, Felix realized he was completely on his own.
                His mouth went dry and he had to work to wet it again. The same irrational urge to run that had come over him at the end of his mother's funeral rose up in his chest. It flooded his insides so that his heart felt like a buoy floating on water, rising higher as the flood grew deeper, until his heart was bobbing in his throat, choking him. Only this time there was nowhere for him to run.
                "Oh this is bad," a small, panicky voice he knew very well muttered in his head, "so very, very, bad-”
                A hand clamped down on his shoulder, scaring whatever remaining wits he had right out of him. He turned and immediately found the irritated scowl of Redford.
                "Come on," he insisted, turning Felix around and striding away, knowing he had no other option but to follow. "The lab you'll be working in is just through here," he said, half looking over his shoulder as he pulled a security ID card from one of his pockets and held it up to a another gray pad for scanning. Undoubtedly all the doors worth going through would have one just like it. A little plaque above it read 'Lab C'.
                "Lab C, Level 7. Lab C, Level 7," Felix repeated in his head, needing some kind of reassurance that if he knew where he was, he could eventually find where he would need to be to get out. "Lab C, Level 7."
                Redford walked inside, unaware of Felix's thoughts. "I hope you'll like it here. I highly doubt you'll be seeing anywhere else for a long time."
                Felix eyed the back of Redford's head. "Only as long as it takes me to find a way out," he promised.
                But Redford didn't need to know that.


                Trying to escape without Cor's help proved to be a lot harder than Felix had anticipated. At first he had tried to think of all the things Cor would do if he was here, but soon realized they all required a good deal more muscle mass then he had on him. And even if he could overpower the two guards always standing watch outside the lab door, that wouldn't help him get past the electronic locks, the various security systems, or the small army he'd passed when Kla led them in the front door.
                "No," Felix thought idly as he tested the soldering iron to see if it was hot enough yet, "definitely can't use the front door. Although it would be rather poetic if I did find a way."
                Poetic but stupid. No, the front door was out, he decided. It was about the only concrete part of his plan so far.
                The rest of it was proving very hard to formulate. Even if Felix found a way passed his own guards and into the elevator and from there into the rest of the building, he still had no idea where Cor was. And even if he found the old mechanic, they would have to find a way out of the building without the private army seeing them. And even if they made it passed them, there was the no small matter of where to go from there. There was no public spaceport as far as Felix could tell – no steady stream of incoming or outgoing ships that would require one – so any ship would have to be privately hired and, more than likely, flown in from some other location, possibly from outside the planet sector entirely. All of that would take time to set up, time that Felix knew they wouldn't have. It had only taken Kla a week to work through the tangled trail Cor had left for her at Zephyr Station, trace them to Ryyn, before beating them to Titania by a full twelve hours. Confined to a city she knew like the sight of a designer dress, and with even more friends and resources at her disposal, Felix felt safe assuming it would take her three hours at the outside to catch them again.
                And if there wasn't anywhere safe in the city, then that left the wilderness around it. 'Inhospitable' hardly even began to describe it. The salt flats so pragmatic for field testing were less so for hiding out. They stretched on for miles, completely flat and totally unlivable. Trying to cross them without a plan would get them killed more like than not.
                That left the mountains, but they weren't much better. While they certainly offered more places to hide, they had no springs, no rivers, no water of any kind. The scraggly, woody scrub that dotted the orange and dust-red rocks were the kings of frugality, surviving on water they had stored up during one of the monsoon-like rainstorms that flared up once every ten years or so.
                Which – all added together – left them with no good options.
                Felix concentrated on his soldering, hoping that if he kept his hands busy, his brain would be left free to sort through this heap of trouble. It worked like that sometimes when he got stuck on his formula. You just had to wait for the answer to come to you. You could kick yourself when it turned out to be obvious later.
                And there was an obvious answer in here somewhere Felix knew. Something he'd read or heard someone say a long time ago and promptly dismissed as superfluous information. It was kicking about in the back of his head, rattling the shelves and disturbing the dust that had settled over the other oddities he'd collected and filed away as unimportant, but refusing to come forward.
                Felix frowned at the little circuit board magnified by the table stand lens suspended over it. "Stupid," he chided himself, feeling frustrated, "nothing is ever unimportant. Every fact has its use and I've gone and misplaced the one that could get us out of here."
                The muted click of the lab door unlocking made him look up. The lab itself was open and spacious, filled with every piece of equipment eh could ever possibly want or need. Sterile white walls and tiled floors encased him, aluminum tables with sturdy work surfaces surrounded him, most covered with the high-grade equipment, but more than one supporting the weight of the copious, long-hand notes Redford had taken so far to try and catch up with Felix's thought process.
                Aside from the tables and stools and tools, there were two doors – one leading out to the hall and the other to the small box with the cot where Felix slept – and a large bank of unobscured windows. They took up the entire exterior wall, giving Felix a crystal clear view of the empty lands that awaited him outside.
                When he'd first been brought here, two of the tables and the 3D printer (one of the largest pieces of equipment in the lab) had sat in front of it, but they'd been moved at Kla's instruction. She'd never made any attempt to keep him away from the view – there were no curtains and no one ever tinted them even though they could easily be made as opaque as walls – and he'd spent as much time memorizing what part of the city he could see as he dared.
                Her message was clear. Kla wanted him to know where he was. She wanted him to try and escape. She wanted to catch him again. To prove to him that no matter what he saw, what he thought he knew, she wanted him to know that she knew more.
                She wanted to break him down until he no longer had the spirit to try.
                It was a cruel game, just as it was a very pleasant prison cell.
                Redford swept through the door, his lab coat blowing back like white tail feathers where it hung off his wiry body. "There you are!" he boomed, or tried to. He did not have a voice made for booming.
                Felix glanced up at him over the magnifying lens. "Where else would I be?" he muttered. Honestly, did the man use his brain at all?
                Redford made a face. "It's an expression," he said as he slapped an armful of files on the desk he'd claimed as his and started rifling through the other organized stacks already there.
                "Pretty sure it's not."
                Redford ignored him as he finally found the file he wanted and pulled it free, making sure to angle all the files that had been above it so it could be returned to its proper place when he was finished with it. He frowned as he read it over and then, satisfied, stalked over and slapped it down on the free space next to Felix's elbow. "That one." He pointed imperiously at it. "If you want to clear lab space for your-” he shook his hands near his head as if Felix expected some kind of ground-shaking miracle from him, "-precious power source, you're going to have to find whatever it is holding up the work on the new liquid engine. You close that project," he swept his arms in an ex in front of his chest before putting his hands on his narrow hips, angular elbows jutting out to the sides, "then you can have the space for your prototype assembly."
                Felix didn't look up from his enlarged circuit board. "You're trying to power an engine originally designed to run on standard solid fuel-blocks with liquid cores. There. Problem found." He held out his empty hand to Redford without looking up from his work. "Keys please."
                Redford scowled, unmoved. "That's not what I meant."
                "No, but it's all you're going to get. Now quit trying to pawn your work off on me and do something useful for once and leave."
                "But if you would just look at the plans-” Redford started.
                Felix cut him off with an exasperated sigh. He straightened from where he sat hunched over the counter and swung his stool around so that he faced his – ugh – 'project supervisor'.
                "I don't need to look at the plans Redford, and you know why?" He asked and then answered his own question. "Because it's a dumb idea! The concept is fundamentally flawed. You can power an engine on standard blocks or you can use a liquid core powered by the various fluids that build up and run off due to all the basic system mechanics. You cannot," he repeated loudly, "do both. They're entirely different machines. You'll have to start from scratch."
                Redford was livid, his back straightening with every emphasized word until Felix thought he must be standing on his toes. "I know all that," he insisted, although Felix had no proof if that was true or not. "But this is meant to be a back-up system, for emergencies only so that a ship without fuel reserves can use runoff to limp to port."
                He held out the file under Felix's nose and, already regretting it, Felix took it. He flipped open to the blueprints and gave them a look. Redford watched him, an almost pathetic eagerness in his eyes. Finding the original projected end date of the project, Felix saw why. They were supposed to have finished this two months ago.
                "O'Dowell must be breathing fire down his neck," Felix thought, but couldn't bring himself to feel all that sorry for the macaw-man. The past few days that Redford wasn't a complete idiot, but he was no true scientist either. He had a few ideas, but what he did best was managing everybody else –makings sure things were exactly where they were supposed to be and done exactly when they were supposed to be done – and apart from a few sticky projects like the liquid engine dud, he ensured that R&D  ran like a well oiled machine.
                But when it came to problems – or even thinking for himself – he always preferred to pass it on to someone else.
                Which was probably why Felix next said what he did.
                "Right, here's what you do." He took a ballpoint pen from the counter and began covering the margins of the project file with his chicken scratch. "Move the fluid intake here-" He made a large arrow sweeping from the intake's current position on the top right over to the left near the heating coil, "-and the recycling unit here-" Another arrow covered a shorter distance from the right side closer to the underbelly of the fuel processor. "That way you have room to add a micro-compressor that will be able to process the runoff more efficiently, making it more reliable as a 'just in case' function."
                He put the pen down with a sharp click and handed Redford the marked-up file. The parrot drank it in over the tops of his clear glass spectacles.
                Felix stubbornly kept his eyes on his work, not wanting to give anything away.
                "That's perfect," Redford mumbled, making Felix relax briefly, "but engine runoff is generally flammable. Won't moving the intake next to the heating coil increase the chances of-” He searched for the right description.
                "Violent 'mayday-mayday' explosions?" Felix provided.
                Redford snapped his fingers and pointed at him. "Yes."
                Felix nodded his understanding before explaining. "Engine runoff is generally just this side of vacuum-frozen, so the heat from the coil only melts it a little more before it passes into the engine for use. So, no, it shouldn't cause any problems." Felix lied through his teeth.
                "Oh." But Redford still frowned at Felix's adjustments. He could see the man trying to decide whether he should just take Felix at his word or not. But he was out of his depth and he knew it. Unless he wanted to face O'Dowell head on and admit that, he'd believe his new coworker.
                He suddenly straightened, adjusting the front of his lab coat like a bird smooths its feathers. "Right," he announced with certainty, "right of course. Thank you Cauldwell. I'll get this in motion immediately."
                Felix sounded bored. "You do that."
                The man was halfway to the door when it suddenly buzzed and opened from the other side. Redford's step faltered when he caught sight of the woman that came through. Felix just made a face and tried to make himself smaller where he hunched over the magnifying glass.
                "Good morning Kla," Redford greeted the violet-skinned Moraloran with what might have been a winning smile if Kla had been another sort of woman. "Come for your daily inspection?"
                Kla, who's eyes had swept over the room, the equipment, the counters, and the only other person in the room, finally stopped on Redford's own with a sharp-edged smile of her own. "What else is worth coming down here for Redford? You?" She laughed and passed him by.
                Felix noticed Redford's engaging expression soured into simmering fury as soon as Kla had her back to him, but didn't have time to notice much else as the woman advanced on him.
                "Hello Felix," she murmured as she stopped next to his counter and leaned a hip against his work space. "And how was your night last night?"
                Felix rolled his eyes but didn't look up. Every day for the past week or so that he'd been here, she had come in and made small talk for half an hour before leaving. Of course she was covertly checking his work and making sure he wasn't planning to be troublesome, but why she had decided to pretend she wasn't, Felix couldn't figure out.
                "Cold," he answered sharply. "And dark." The room where he slept was drafty, drippy, and they had removed the controls for the single light so he couldn't even turn it on and off when he liked.
                Kla made a sound of mock sympathy in the back of her throat, lips condensing into a pout that in no way softened her appearance. "I'm sorry about that Felix, but it won't be that way forever. I'm sure once O'Dowell has been reassured of your reliability we'll be able to find you some more comfortable accommodations. Who knows?" She leaned in close to his ear and whispered, fingers playing with his hair. "Maybe they'll be close to mine."
                Felix made a dark sound in the back of his throat. "Knock it off," he snapped and knocked her hand away.
                Kla only laughed as she stepped away, but didn't remove herself entirely. Felix tried not to fidget as his face flashed red. She knew it unsettled him to have her looking over his shoulder like that.
                She became continuously harder to ignore over the next ten minutes as she stood there, picking up file after file from Redford's nearby desk and flipping through each one before setting it down again in sloppy chaos on Felix's.
                Redford gave a squawk when he saw her. "Kla! What are you doing? You're messing up my system!"
                "Oh really?" Kla asked without interest as she skimmed another page, closed another file, and slapped it down on the pile starting to encroach on Felix's workspace. Felix forced himself to focus on the magnifying glass, refusing to let her see how much her prodding affected him.
                Redford darted over, red coat flying out behind him in disorder, and immediately began to straighten and nitpick his desk back into order. For such a sloppy scientist he had an immaculate filing system.
                "Borders on OCD if you ask me,” Felix thought. But then given the organized chaos he preferred to work with, any filing system would.
                A hesitation appeared in Kla's pick up-skim-drop-repeat pattern and Felix glanced over at her from under his overlong bangs. She was holding another of Redford's files, troubled by what she read if the slight crease between her eyebrows was any indication.
                "Redford," she asked, the nonchalance gone from her voice, "are you an idiot?"
                Felix snorted a laugh without meaning to. Redford just sighed. "What? Have you finally run out of veiled insults Kla? You're more creative than that."
                The sharp look Kla shot him said she would find some very creative punishments for him if he didn't adjust his attitude. "These changes to the fluid-intake emergency system on the BX-500 engine," she held up the file, "who did them?"
                Redford pulled himself up, a smarmy smile on his face. "Well, not to brag-” he started.
                Felix rolled his eyes, inwardly enjoying the show. "Can't even tell the danger he's in."
                "Then don't." Kla slapped the closed file into his chest, ending his posturing and forcing him a step back. "What were you thinking, letting someone move that much flammable liquid close to a heating coil? Do you want to cause a mass recall after the first fifty explode in the consumers' faces?"
                Redford sputtered as Kla backed him up another step. "Cauldwell-” he tried to pass the blame, "he-”
                Kla pinned him with a stare. "Of course Felix made these notes. Even conscripted, he's better at your job than you are."
                "B-but you just said they would explode!"
                Kla gave a sigh that clearly said he was being a moron. "Of course they would. He wanted them to. Silly man still thinks he can get out of here if he causes enough trouble. Now stop lazing about and do your job."
                She gave him one final push, sending the man stumbling backward as he clutched the open file awkwardly to his chest. Felix saw his eyes were wide behind his ridiculous glasses as he stared at Kla like a bird a cat before he finally managed to make it out the door.
                Silence followed the click of the lock engaging behind him. Felix enjoyed a small grin as he continued to carefully soldering circuits into place.
                He looked up when the feeling of someone watching him became too distracting for him to work.
                Kla was observing him with narrowed eyes. "You didn't really expect that to work?" she asked. She sounded as if she had expected better from him.
                Felix gave her a dull expression. It was the closest he could come to a poker face. "Nope, but at least now he'll do his own dang work."
                Kla laughed, low and soft, and left with an approving curve to her violet lips. Felix just looked back down at the magnifying lens, returning to his little circuit board as the door closed firmly behind her and automatically locked once more.

< Entry 18                                                                                                                                          Entry  20 >

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