Wednesday, May 27, 2015

28: Kerrie Cats and Jumble Rats (Part I)

Entry 028: Where there is dissension among the rats.

                The game of kerrie cat and Jumble rat that followed nearly broke Felix like a rotten board. He had never been so physically strained or mentally beleaguered. He had thought it was bad before when they'd run from the Helix 7, but this- the grueling heat and constant terror that came with always looking over their shoulders, even the feel of the open gorge stretching straight down not a foot away from his side; it was enough to drive Felix mad.
                They still had to stop every seven or twelve hours so Cor could transmit their call for help to whoever was close enough to hear them. At first they would find any nearby shelter and camp so Cor could sleep and recharge his batteries afterward. But they knew every signal they sent was a large blinking arrow that Kla could use to head straight for them, so they left after scant hours of sleep, gradually rising through the canyon's layered cliff levels.
                That had stopped last night when their decrepit old transmitter had finally blown a fuse. The internal fire it set off reduced half of the machine to slag and melted plastic. Even Cor had no chance of fixing it.
                "They had better have heard us," Felix finally snapped that night after a dinner of what he thought were cliff dwelling rodents. The rangers' emergency ration bars had run out the day after they'd left the cliff village.
                "Who?" Cor asked. His mental acuity hadn't yet recovered from his last shift as an intergalactic telegraph.
                Felix frowned at him with bloodshot eyes. "These so called friends of yours," he told him too loudly. "Friends that I haven't seen or heard from once, I might add."
                Cor rubbed at his eyes where he sat perched on a large, dust covered rock. "Keep yer voice down kid; I'm tired, not deaf. And I'ma little old fer imaginary friends in case ya haven't noticed. Just quit yer whinin' and get some rest. I'll wake ya when the moon's up." It was full tonight. For a few hours when it was visible between the parallel edges of the canyon, they'd have enough light to see by.
                Felix was too agitated for sleep. Every crack or snap made by the nocturnal wildlife had him jumping out of his skin. "No, no," he almost shouted, shooting to his feet. "I'm sick of this, Cor. I'm sick of running through this pit. We don't even know if help is coming!"
                Cor was starting to look more frustrated and Felix knew he wasn't helping things. He just couldn't keep it all in any longer. "They'll be here," Cor insisted.
                "You don't know that."
                "Well, you got any other bright ideas then, genius? Any other plans ya fergot ta tell me about that'll get us outta here?"
                Felix couldn't bring himself to admit that he didn't. He paced the shallow alcove they'd found, like an animal in a cage.
                "Asides," Cor went on when the silence grew too loud, "it's not like we gotta lot a choice in the matter, do we? Only other thing we can do besides wait for reinforcements is crawl back to O'Dowell and that crazy woman and I ain't doin' that! Just being around that guy gave me gooseflesh."
                Felix groaned and looked up at the sky. "Not this again..."
                He felt Cor's scowl. "I'm tellin' ya Felix, there was sumthin' not right about that guy!"
                "Yeah," Felix agreed, "he ordered a woman to kidnap us."
                Cor shifted on his rock. "I'm serious, kid! There's sumthin' wrong about him. I felt it."
                "Would you let that go already, old man? You were imagining things."
                Cor fumed. "No, yer just blind to what's right in front of ya. Ya always have been."
                Felix glared at him, hands clenched at his sides. He wanted to turn around and leave – just be anywhere else for awhile where he could be alone with his thoughts – but that wasn't about to happen.
                His next words were perhaps the stupidest he would ever utter.
                "Even the lab was better than this."
                He knew it was a mistake the moment he said it. A few feet away Cor froze. His face was angrier than Felix had ever seen. His static field would have looked like a fireworks display if it hadn't been so depleted from extending the range of the transmitter.
                "Are you sayin' you wanna go back?" Cor demanded. "After everything they put us through?"
                "You mean after everything we put ourselves through," Felix clarified. "Kla only wanted my research. If you hadn't stuck your big fat nose in, she never would have brought me into this at all!"
                "And is that what you want? To jus' stay in the dark while some thievin' woman robs ya blind and takes credit fer what you done?"
                "It sounds a mite easier than running straight into the arms of our pursuers!"
                "Well if ya wanted easy than you shoulda just given 'em yer fancy machine and taken the money!"
                "Dang right I should have!" Felix screamed. "I should have just taken the payout and left. At least then I could be on some beach somewhere and Tori would know we're still alive!"
                Cor had been angry before; now he was so livid that his gray eyes were full of metallic fire. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and disappointed.
                "I pegged ya fer a lot of different things Cauldwell. A sell out was ne'er one of 'em."
                Felix looked away, fists curling at his sides. He felt Cor turn away from him, taking the weight of his disappointment with him.
                Cor couldn't resist putting in one final word. "And you hate the beach. Yer allergic to fun."
                They didn't say another word for the rest of the night.

* * *

                They saw the first signs of their pursuit the next day.
                They'd spent the morning picking their way across the shelf they'd been following, hoping to find a way either up or down to another level to, hopefully, throw off their pursuers. Their packs had shrunk in size as they left behind the equipment that would either slow them down or had been rendered useless by their run, but Felix's was still heavy enough to make his back feel on fire from the constant strain.
                They found a small flow of water running vertically down the wall of their level to the one below it and beyond, so they stopped to refill their canteens. Each was equipped with a standard purifier that could make even the dankest, rankest sludge potable.
                Cor straightened up as Felix splashed the shaded water on his face and neck. "Didja hear that?"
                Felix looked around, listened, and shook his head. "No," he replied, still surly from their argument the night before. "What-”
                "Shh." Cor motioned for silence and Felix, grudgingly, obliged.
                The soft sound of bootheels on dust reached his ears.
                He swallowed his thumping heart back down to its proper place. "Where?" He whispered so softly only Cor could have possibly heard him. Even the gurgle of the water threatened to overshadow him.
                Cor put his canteen on his pack at his feet and silently crept to the edge of the shelf, laying down on his belly to peer over the ledge to the cliff below them. Needing to see this for himself, Felix copied him, moving slower to ensure he didn't kick anything noise-producing on accident.
                He swept his eyes along the lower cliff. There was more greenery there than the one he and Cor were on, growing in spurts and patches, so at first he thought they'd only heard an animal.
                And then a red and black uniform came into view, angrily shoving aside the dusty green-blue bushes that dared to get in his way.
                Felix cringed back. It was the guy he'd shocked into unconsciousness outside the lab and he did not look happy.
                "Oh man," he groaned under his breath.
                Two more men in D&S security uniforms came into view behind the first, even bigger and openly carrying what looked like very powerful stun guns. The kind used to take down bears and other large, dangerous wildlife.
                "Oh man."
                "Well," Cor murmured after the last one passed beneath them, "at least I din't see anything purple."
                "Somehow I don't find that reassuring," Felix mumbled back.
                They stood, finished filling their canteens, and picked up their packs.
                "Where are you going?" Felix asked when Cor started heading back the way they had just come.
                Cor jostled his pack, resettling its weight as he looked at Felix over his shoulder. "Well ya don't expect me ta go the way they're goin', do ya?"
                Felix made a face. "And how do you know there aren't more on this level coming up behind us?"
                "Don't," Cor called back. He was a few yards away now and getting farther.
                Not knowing what else to do, and not about to strike off on his own no matter how mad he was, Felix followed Cor, hoping the rock in his stomach was the result of his recent diet of cliff squirrel rather than anything else.

* * *

                They heard them well before they saw them.
                "I told you there were more of them!" Felix hissed, whacking Cor's arm with more force than he had meant.
                Cor growled something electronic and probably offensive before grabbing Felix's pack and shoving him at the rock wall next to them. As he bounced against the stone, pack taking most of the blow, Felix was shocked Cor would react that way, even fighting as they were.
                As he landed in the dirt he saw the trench he'd missed, half hidden by the scrub. He scrambled deeper into it just as Cor dove down next to him.
                They crouched there, breathing shallow, and waited.
                Two more men in security uniforms broke through the brush two minutes later. Unlike the three they'd seen earlier, these two knew what they were about. They moved quietly, even in the waist high scrub, and they watched the path ahead of them with keen eyes, looking for signs of previous passage.
                There were plenty to find, but fortunately most of it was from Cor and Felix's first trek earlier that morning. With the thick, snagging branches broken from their first trip, they had had a relatively clear path when they backtracked after seeing the search party below them.
                Felix watched the two men – one human and the other some kind of keen-eyed avian being he had never seen before – making sure to keep his head down and the thick screen of coin-shaped blue-green leaves in front of him.
                The men were almost past when the avian abruptly turned, his head swiveling three hundred and fifty degrees like an owl. Felix ducked his eyes, afraid the D&S tracker would feel him watching.
                The avian made a strange trill in his feathered throat, a narrow head crest beginning to rise above his circular black eyes. Felix stared unblinking at his boots, willing the other two to leave and logically knowing just thinking it would never work.
                There was a heart stopping moment where Felix was sure the bird man had found them...and then the avian alien walked on, turning his attention back to the broken bushes.
                "That was close," Cor grumbled when they were out of sight.
                Felix didn't hear him. He was staring at a groove in the stone near his boots. He'd thought it had been naturally worn, but now he saw there were more. Too many and too evenly placed to be nature's doing.
                He elbowed Cor and nodded at the grooves. They followed the trail through the trench and found a hole in the cliff floor. Looking down, they saw it went all the way through to the next cliff. More grooves dotted the sloping wall at regular intervals, leading down.
                "Looks like more remains from them cliff dwellers," Cor muttered. Then without a word of explanation, he shrugged off his pack and dropped it through. It landed with a dusty thump on the ground far below.
                "What're you doing?" Felix asked as Cor tried to fit the toes of his boots in the grooves only to find they were far too big. He stripped those off as well and threw them down.
                "Goin' down, what's it look like I'm doing?" He fit his thick fingers in the worn grooves and twisted around to maneuver his bare toes into one farther down.
                Felix leveled a skeptical look at the top of Cor's head. "Are you telling me that's supposed to be a ladder?"
                "Looks like one to me," Cor grunted as he levered himself through the wall. Felix couldn't see it where he stood, but the wall Cor crept down must still be stable to hold the stockier man's weight.
                The old Hybridian picked his way down  the finger hold path, making sure the grooves didn't crumble before searching out the next one down.
                He finally dropped to the ground and mopped his forehead with a sleeve as he looked around. "All's clear down here," he called up. "The grooves've shrunk some with time an' all that, but jus' make sure ya've got a good grip afore ya put yer weight on it."
                Felix balked. "You crazy? I'm not using those!"
                Cor frowned and propped a fist on his hip. "Ya are if ya don't want to break yer dang neck. It's too far ta jump."
                "Who says we have to go down at all?" Felix argued. "We go down and eventually we'll be trapped at the bottom of the gorge. We should go up." He jerked a thumb at the rock ceiling to illustrate his point.
                "No easy way up. And they'll be expectin' that so we'd have to go through all'a them to boot. Down is our best bet," Cor insisted. "We can find someplace ta hide down there until they get farther down the canyon. Then we can come back up."
                Felix still wasn't convinced. He stayed at the top of the so-called ladder, looking skeptically between it and Cor.
                The Hybridian sighed loudly, fed up with Felix's hesitation. "Look, these're the coordinates I sent. This-” he pointed strongly at the dirt beneath his boots, "is where we're stayin'."
                Felix grimaced, but finally gave in. "Great," he grumbled as he dropped pack and boots through the hole, socks balled up in the toes, before turning himself around and starting the slow feel down the slope. "You're friends will find our bones down in this gorge. If they ever get here at all."
                Cor didn't hear him and Felix knew better than to repeat himself where he could.

< Entry 27                                                                                                                                         Entry 28.5 >

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