Friday, May 15, 2015

26: Flat Canyons

Entry 026: Where Kla returns and Felix and Cor finally catch a break.

                Kla was in a decidedly good mood when she stepped off the company shuttle into the early Terrace sunlight. Things had gone well in Liaxus – she'd gotten to rattle the whole board and break some idiot's clavicle when he mistook her for easy prey and tried to rob her – but for once it was a relief to be back on this dust ball.
                That was a first for the city femme, but she didn't have to think hard to identify the sudden attraction. It was Cauldwell. Gloriously complicated, always contradictory Cauldwell.
                Kla allowed herself a sly smile alone in the elevator. He was quite distinct among his kind, her Felix. Most males were predictable, egotistical. Boring. They chased what they wanted and most wanted her so she had always had her pick of the lot. Cauldwell however...
                "He clearly finds me attractive-" That much was obvious from the way his skin would heat up when she stood too close to him or the way he stubbornly looked anywhere but at her figure when she drew attention to it. "-and yet he rejects me without fail. He is a complex case, my Felix."
                That and he was easy to fluster, which was always part of the fun.
                Kla grinned sharply to herself. She found none of his reluctance discouraging. Rather she found his resistance interesting. He was not the first to attempt it, however he had maintained his aloofness the longest and, strangest of all, she could not put her finger on why. He clearly preferred women and there was no competition for his affection as far as Kla had seen.
                "He was making eyes at the blonde pilot on the Helix," she remembered as the elevator climbed steadily, "but that was clearly a crush. Nothing substantial. But then..." Her eyes narrowed. "Perhaps that's the problem. We always want what we can't have."
                The elevator beeped and the doors slid open before she could realize just how true that was. She stepped out onto Level 7, planning to pay her favorite engineer a visit before reporting in to her employer.
                "Let the old man talk," she thought with a sneer, "as brilliant as he is, Felix Cauldwell is not a man of action. Add to that his youthful transparency and I will always see what he is planning before he even commits to a course of action. O'Dowell is worrying over shadows. I am in complete control of the situation."
                Kla rounded the last bend in the swooping hall and was suddenly forced to eat those words.
                O'Dowell himself stood before the door to Lac C. The door itself was closed and, gut tightening in apprehension, Kla saw that both of the guards she had placed there were absent.
                The graying man turned at her approach, pleasant smile on his face that only made Kla more uneasy.
                "Ah, there you are," he said when he saw her. "I had a feeling you would be stopping by. Come to survey the damage for yourself?"
                Kla approached him slowly, knowing she was missing something important that she no longer had the chance to find out gracefully.
                "Mr. O'Dowell," she greeted him warily. "What damage do you speak of?"
                His smile grew wider, even more pleasant, and Kla knew it was bad. "The damage your little love interest caused of course. He switched out some conflicting requisitions for the labs creating a rather fantastic, if not detrimental, explosion. Set us back a full half year in the chemical research department."
                "He...did?" Kla asked. The wind fell out of her sails rather dramatically and Kla did her best to keep the look off her face. There was nothing she could do, however, to keep her skin from paling to a light shade of lavender usually indicative of nausea.
                "Oh yes," O'Dowell confirmed. "And then – and I find this part rather cunning for a lab rat-”
                Kla deflated further, knowing this next part could not be good for her.
                "-he used the explosion as a distraction to overpower his remaining guards and escaped through the elevator shaft."
                Kla could barely comprehend what he was telling her. Felix? Crawled down an elevator shaft? "But- how?"
                O'Dowell lifted his arm, revealing a twisted metal piece in his hand. Kla thought it must have been some kind of metal rod before it was tortured into its present shape.
                "I'm not sure, but this had something to do with it."
                He held it out to her and, hesitantly, Kla took it. As soon as her fingers touched it an angry electric shock bit into her skin, making her digits spasm.
                She jerked back, withdrawing her hand with a strangled gasp. O'Dowell was still watching her, bent rod still extended. He raised an eyebrow at her.
                She frowned in annoyance, displeased that he had gotten such a vulnerable reaction out of her at all.
                "It will not be happening again."
                Kla reached out and grabbed the metal piece with her whole hand. There was no snap this time and O'Dowell let go with a slanted grin that more suited his rectangular features than his previous, overly pleasant demeanor.
                "There's my girl," he said and then nodded at the closed door before them. "The two former employees Mr. Cauldwell overcame are in there. Deal with them  however you like, but ensure he is found quickly. I realize he has no proof to give to any kind of authority, but investigations are a damn pain. Not to mention they spook potential investors."
                "Of course Mr. O'Dowell," Kla assured him as she pinned unforgiving eyes on the door. She didn't care what shape they were in, there would be a few more broken bones between them for making her look the fool. "I'll take care of it right away."
                The false pleasantness faded away and O'Dowell nodded, tension defused. "I know you will. Tell me when you've learned something worth knowing. I'll be in my office."
                He turned away and headed down the hall to the elevator. Kla waited until she heard the doors slide shut before letting herself in to the lab where the two men waited for her.
                "Now," she said, backlit in the doorway so they would only see her silhouette. She eyed their bruised and beaten bodies, identifying what would hurt the most. "Which of you idiots lost my hard won prize?"

* * *

                Felix woke slowly to the sound of insects buzzing nearby.
                "Magicicada," he thought sleepily, still refusing to open his eyes. "Otherwise known as a periodical cicada. Must be. Sounds too big to be crickets."
                His mind trailed off and he dozed a little longer, semi-lucid dreams filled with overgrown insects that leaping after him as he drove madly away in a security rover that kept berating him for not signaling properly when he changed lanes to avoid being crushed by the bugs.
                "Shut up and drive!" He kept shouting at the thing, for some reason whacking its wheels with a riding crop that had magically appeared in his hand. "The hoppers are coming! The hoppers are coming!"
                He finally awoke when a new sound invaded his dream and made him and the bugs hold their ears; a high pitched squeal that fluctuated unpredictably, making it impossible to tune out.
                Insects disappearing in puffs of black and violet smoke, Felix awoke in a sour mood as the squealing continued to assault his ears. He sat up in his sleeping bag and looked around the sandy floored cliff dwelling he and Cor had set up camp in. Currently he was alone in the flat courtyard they slept in seeing as it was the only open space that had a wall at the edge to keep them from rolling off the cliff while they slept. Cor's sleeping bag was rolled up and stowed against the base of the short wall. Felix saw what remained of the coffee sitting on the camp stove they'd found in one of the ranger's packs.
                Grumbling to himself, Felix kicked his way free of his now-too-warm sleeping bag and shuffled, bleary eyed, through the opening along the back wall and opened up onto another, more central, courtyard. Unlike the one he'd just left, this one had no wall and opened up right onto the canyon's hundred-foot drop to the bottom.
                Cor was sitting cross-legged near the edge, equipment spread around him in a ragged circle with the biggest piece held at an angle in his lap. The squealing was coming from it.
                "Would you turn that hunk of scrap off?" Felix demanded over the ear-piercing noise.
                Cor twisted himself around and grinned when he saw Felix standing there, in his own clothes once more. "Hey there. Nice ta see ya up and about finally. How's yer head?" he asked once he'd clicked the squawk-box off.
                Felix glared at Cor as he came over and sat down just outside the circle of parts and tools. "Better now that you've shut the thing up." He jerked his chin at the radio Cor was fiddling with. They'd found the aging tech in one of their packs along with the tin coffee pot, the camping stove, and all the other odds and ends that Felix didn't have names for but had found quite useful over the last day and a half. "What are you doing to it anyway? I thought you said it was working."
                Cor shook his head as he kept his fingers on the exposed battery pack – the radio's electronic heartbeat as it were – reading the fluxes in output as he tightened something on the far side where Felix couldn't see. "Nah, said it would work just fine. I just gotta make sure the signal'll reach the Spindle Station when it passes o'erhead tonight. Given how their communications systems are all rigged together so they can talk amongst themselves like hens, our message will be passed on to friendly ears in no time."
                Felix nodded slowly. "If these friends of yours are anywhere near a station, then yes. Solid plan."
                He ran a hand through his dark hair, messing it up even more. They'd found this canyon a little before midnight, just like Felix had said they would, and they'd slept until mid-morning just under its jutting edge so that no overhead fly-by would pick them up. The rest of the day had been spent finding this place: a rundown, abandoned village carved entirely from the rough rock of the cliff and well hidden from anyone watching from above.
                That had been two days ago and, so far, Feilx hadn't heard anything other than the cicadas and the flying hoppers that jumped from rock to rock catching them with their wide mouths like bug catchers' nets.
                "You think they're still looking for us?" Felix asked as he stared out at the far canyon wall. It was surprisingly green down here, scraggy bushes  and even reaching trees growing right out of the cliff face. Felix leaned his head carefully over the side of the cliff, trying to see the bottom past the feathery bushes growing a few feet down from him. There must be a stream or some other kind of water source flowing down there because the lower his eye traveled, the greener it got. If you were looking down from the air, the canyon would probably look like some elongated stretch of moss growing smack dab in the middle of the flats.
                "Like a green island in a tan sea," Felix thought.
                Next to him, Cor snorted as he worked, static field plying the rundown wires. Obviously Terrace City's Parks and Services Department didn't have the same financial resources as Dowell & Stein. "Course they are," he answered Felix's question. "But it's like you said on the mountain; they're lookin' in the wrong direction." He untangled his closest arm and smacked Felix's shoulder with the back of his hand. "I gotta admit though. It was a good plan."
                Felix grunted his thanks, mind awake enough now to remember the hot coffee sitting on the gas stove. "It won't fool Kla long," he said what they were both thinking.
                The sound of Cor's tinkering paused before resuming at a more subdued level. "Ya think she's back yet?"
                Felix sighed through his nose and scrubbed at his face with the heels of his grit covered hands. "With our luck," he mumbled, "yeah probably."
                Cor nodded slowly. "Then we'd better prepare ourselves fer the worst," he said, perking up again. This was the sort of thing he was good at after all.
                He jerked a thumb back towards the sleeping yard. "Get some coffee in ya so you can help me get this thing workin' like we need. The sooner we get the call out, the sooner we can leave this place in our dust."
                There were still questions rolling lazily around in Felix's sleep fogged head, but they'd have to wait. Coffee always took precedent over work, no matter where he was.

* * *

                Taking a shower out of a hanging bag was even worse than Felix had anticipated, but after so long without it was better than nothing.
                "Make any headway with that box?" Felix asked as he rejoined Cor in the center of the old village. The sun had moved while he'd been in the back where there was privacy, slanting down at an angel so that it filled most of the village and turned the tan stone white and glinted off the metal surrounding Cor.
                Cor's personal scrap yard had been thinned out while Felix was gone and the box looked heavier, if not lopsided and more off kilter. The Hybridian had added what looked like a miniature broadcasting tower to its side and there was more kibble that Felix would need a closer look to identify.
                "It's comin' along. Though we won't get much of a test run out of it." He glanced over as Felix sat in the sun outside the scrap circle. "Won't know if it works or not until someone shows up."
                Felix frowned as water dripped down the back of his neck and soaked into his collar. "Isn't there some way to tell who's coming?" He really didn't want to just wake up one day to find Kla standing over him.
                "'Fraid not," Cor inclined his head at the section of the scrap yard that had the plastic casing of a radio speaker scattered about the remains. "Had to scrap the receiver to make sure we had the best chance at getting' the call out in the first place. Shame though," Cor commented like it was nothing more than a gray cloud on the horizon.
                Felix rolled his eyes. Sometimes he wondered just what it would take to scare the old war vet. Fortunately, he always come to his sense before he could ask.
                "Cryin' shame," Felix agreed without much enthusiasm. "While we're on the subject, how are you so sure our message will reach your friends in the first place?"
                "'M not," Cor grunted as he pried at a particularly stubborn screw head. "Just gotta hope they're still listenin'. We did disappear without a word after all."
                Felix snorted, not exactly in a hopeful mood. "That's an awful lot to hang on such a thin thread."
                But Cor only chuckled. "I've gotten by on thinner," he said, grunting as the rusty screw finally gave way. He was quiet for some time after that and Felix saw no reason to break it. He sat there in the sun, passing Cor parts and tools as he needed them, but mostly he just sat there watching the canyon.
                There was a fair bit of wildlife down here besides the cicadas and the large mouthed hoppers – mostly things that buzzed or hid themselves against the striated walls – but there were a few predators as well. His favorite was a kind of bird of prey with a thin, whip-like body and knife shaped wings that he suspected were much longer than they appeared.  The eye-catcher was the tail though. Unlike the wings, it was spread so wide it dwarfed its thin body like a brilliant red fan.
                The one that had been wheeling around in the air on level with their cliff suddenly unfurled its wings – easily twice as long as the bird was tall with feathers lined in rusty red – and flashed past Felix in a flurry of scarlet and sand feathers as it descended in a dive that made his head spin.
                There was a started scream farther down the cliff side far below them. Felix leaned over the edge to get a look just in time to see the bird fly off with one of the hoppers dangling from its talons.
                "Looks like a red tailed sand dart."
                Felix glanced at Cor before looking back at the predator. It landed somewhere on the far side and vanished into its hidden nest with its dinner. "Huh?" he hummed distractedly.
                Cor looked up from the transmitter without raising his head. "The bird. It looks like a red tailed sand dart, or sumthin' like 'em anyway . They live on Hybridia's south-eastern coast. Brought over by some hoity-toity system lord back in the..." he squinted up at the sliver of sky they could see, transmitter temporarily forgotten. "When was Hy'sephi galavantin' about the void again?"
                Felix didn't particularly care to listen to another random Hybridian history lesson. He rearranged his legs to restore blood flow to his cramped feet. "You'll remember in a week. Tell me then. For now how bout you tell me your grand plan for how we're going to keep our transmission from reaching O'Dowell and Kla."
                Cor shot him a dry look. "Ya mean like you shared the existence of your little hidey hole here?"
                Felix continued to watch the sky, refusing to give Cor any sign he might have a point.
                After a moment, Cor continued. "I remember most of the old war codes they taught me when I was in the Corp. They haven't used 'em since you were in diapers, but it's not sumthin' a foreigner would know either. But the tricky part'll be translatin' whatever we use for radio use. It's not exactly Morse code."
                He chuckled before bending back over the box. Felix supposed it made sense. All those static fields operating at various frequencies were certain to mess with any radio waves cluttering up the air, therefore the Hybridians rarely used it for communication.
                "We'd better keep it short, whatever we say," Felix muttered. "As soon as we start transmitting, Kla will know where we are. It won't take her long to get out here."
                "No," Cor agreed, "but she can't just hare off into the wilderness either. These salt flats are just about public property, remember? And she'll have to think of a good enough reason to be out in the canyon where no one ever goes. You're still O'Dowell's big secret weapon. And, erm, speakin' a which..."
                The old man hesitated, looking down at the ratchet he was spinning anxiously around on its axis. That alone made Felix nervous. Since when did Cor fidget?
                "What?" he asked when the only sound came from the tickaticka of the spinning ratchet.
                Cor glanced at him, mouth thin. "This is gonna sound...well, a bit out there-”
                One side of Felix's mouth turned down sharply. "Since when do you say things that aren't?"
                Cor shot him a look that Felix brushed off. "-but how sure are ya O'Dowell's human?"
                Felix came up short. "Pretty darn," he told him. "I did a project on him when I was in school. His father's parents were part of that 'clean roots' movement back when. Not exactly the kind of people to marry outside the family tree, if you get my meaning." The humans in the clean roots movement had been very outspoken against inter-species relationships, citing reasons ranging from economical stability to all out speciesism. They had largely fallen out of the public eye since then, having been written off as a bunch of xenophobic seniors, but the name was still recognizable.
                He leaned forward. "Why? You think they lied about his parentage to save themselves some grief?" If O'Dowell's grandparents had been as committed as he'd read and their son had been with someone they considered less than themselves, Felix had no problem imaging them doing whatever they could to cover it up.
                Cor's eyes were narrowed as he stared at the ground, thinking. "Nah, nuthin' like that. It's just that...," he tried to pinpoint the reasons for his misgivings. "He just knows so much about everythin'. I mean, he's an old guy now. His mental acuity should be spiralin' down, not up."
                Felix slanted him a look. "You don't think he's human because he's smart?" Since when did Cor buy into that superioristic slag some of the other Hybridians did?
                Cor pressed a thumb to the space between his eyes. "No, no that's not what I meant."
                "Well then what did you mean?" Felix asked, feeling a little defensive. "And what does it matter what he is? He's still after us."
                "It could matter a lot," Cor insisted. He sighed loudly. "Look, when we were all in that office of his I thought I picked up something off about him. That's all."
                Felix's dark eyebrows descended. Of course O'Dowell felt off; he was already off his rocker! "What kind of something?" he asked suspiciously.
                Cor swung him arm as if to wipe away the whole conversation. "Just sumthin' from the war," he muttered quickly. "Look ferget I said anythin', yeah? It's prol'ly nuthin'."
                The thickening of his accent  suggested otherwise, but Felix wasn't sure how much more he could take, so he gladly let it drop.
                He jerked his pointed chin at the box forgotten on Cor's knee. "Why don't you let me finish up. You're the one with the codes and the power source so you'll have to be the one to send it. Might as well sleep while you can."
                But Cor shook his head. "Nah, I like this kind of work. Reduces white noise. I actually kinda missed it actually since we started this mad dash. I was about to fry mah own brains out sittin' around that cell doin' nuthin' day after day. And besides," he grinned, "I'm not the one recoverin' from a head injury."
                Mouth twisting, Felix rolled his eyes and let his hands drop. "Have it your way. Just don't complain when I end up cooking again tonight."
                "Oh c'mon now," Cor spread his grease smeared arms beseechingly. "You can't blame me fer that. There were rocks in it for spark's sake!"
                Felix held out a hand, palm out. "Yeah, yeah. Talk to the head injury."
                Cor chuckled as he left to go deal with the general running of their camp. Felix didn't know much about it really, but that wasn't the point. He needed to keep his hands busy with something or his brain would go mad.
                "I don't know how Cor deals with all this waiting. I mean look at him! He's just sitting there like the only thing standing between us and Kla isn't a beat up old box that's older than me."
                He scrubbed their tin dishes with a handful of damp sand harder than he needed to and stubbornly turned his attention to the more mundane facts of camping. It wasn't like he could do anything else at the moment. Because the long and short of it was that even after they sent their message, the only thing they could do was wait and pray that their call for help reached friendly ears first.

< Entry 25                                                                                                                                             Entry 27 >

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