Wednesday, June 17, 2015

29: Saved by Strangers


Entry 029: Where Kla meets her match.


                Felix's whole head felt like it was vibrating from the bells ringing in his ears. He was aware of a weight on his chest making it difficult to breathe, of black smoke pouring up into the sky...
                The weight moved and disappeared. Felix gasped in air and then brutally coughed out the thick taste of burnt oil and seared flesh.
                Something was dragging him away, a hand he thought, and desperate to escape the fire he smelled, he let it. Although he still had the presence of mind to grab Cor's hovering stretcher when he saw it floating nearby.
                The hand threw him behind a large rock far enough from the wreckage that the bushes around it wouldn't go up like kindling.
                The ringing was fading and was soon replaced by a deafening noise. The sounds of battle had reappeared, rife with the smell of ozone and the feel of electricity in the air.
                "Stay here!" a voice commanded. Felix looked up in time to catch a glimpse of bright blue eyes and bundled up yellow hair before his rescuer was gone, diving into the fray like it was an everyday occurrence.
                Felix leaned around the boulder. There was only one person out there not wearing red and black – a woman wrapped in what looked like steel blue body armor with a foot long metal baton strapped to one side of her belt. Felix couldn't understand why she didn't grab it as she went after the uniforms, fists raised. Obviously she was unafraid of close quarters combat. At first Felix thought she was just a proud idiot, but as she caught the closest man's arm and flipped him onto his back hard with a fancy hold, he caught sight of the elaborate metal vambraces that covered her arms from hand to elbow.
                "A Hybridian!"
                One of the D&S men farther away trained his stun gun on the Hybridian female. "On your left!" Felix shouted, not sure she could hear him over the noise. Whether she did or not, there was nothing she could do about it; she was already taking on two others.
                Another sizzling white ball of energy, much smaller than the one that had torn apart the shuttle, shot out of the canyon wall behind and above Felix's head and slammed into the man's chest, knocking him clean off his feet and out of the fight.
                Felix looked up and saw a narrow, elongated muzzle peeking over the edge of one of the cliffs. He couldn't see who the sniper was, but from the target he had a pretty good guess.
                "Make that several Hybridians," Felix amended. Which reminded him-
                "Cor!" Felix called as he shuffled over to the listing stretcher on his knees. "Cor wake up! People are shooting and I can't tell if they want to kill us or help us!"
                He shook the old Hybridian but Cor only rocked on his stretcher. "Cor. Cor!" Felix shouted right in his ear, but it was no good. Cor was out of this one.
                Swearing repeatedly to himself, Felix wrestled to undo the straps holding Cor down. He got them off, one by one, and slid the heavier man off the gurney. The anti-grav cones that kept it in the air must have been damaged in the explosion because one end of the stretcher was six inches higher than the other.
                He got Cor propped up against the boulder and dumped the ailing stretcher on its side, grav cones facing him. Knocking off the sleek black casings that protected the delicate mechanisms, Felix set to work, feverishly crossing wires and ramping output to dangerous levels.
                When the whine of overworked machinery rose to a pitch he could no longer hear, Felix threw the stretcher upright, peered around the boulder to get his bearings, and shoved the stretcher at the biggest group of red and black uniforms he could see.
                "Hold onto something!" he shouted at the Hybridian woman.
                She turned towards him, saw the stretcher wheeling freely over the dirt, and ran in the opposite direction.
                The enemy tried to do the same, but the generators Felix had gimmicked exploded in a super powered wave of energy before they could. It expanded as a blue-violet sphere that picked up everything not tied to the dirt – loose rocks, fallen leaves, people – and sent them spinning through the air at volatile speeds. To Felix sitting a few feet out of the sphere's influence, the ball of anti-gravity soup looked like a fishbowl full of angry people.
                The woman was trapped on the edge of the bowl. At the last minute she dove for ground outside the sphere, but she never hit. The blast caught her legs and threw her upwards. If she hadn't caught a branch of one of the cliff trees, she would have been carried high enough that a fall would have caused serious injury when the field ultimately failed.
                Which wasn't much later. Stone and organic matter rained down in a bizarre rain. Men hit the ground with painful sounding thumps. Some groaned, but most were still. Dead or unconscious, Felix couldn't tell.
                A scrabbling sound made him spin around and look up. It was the woman. She was hanging from the cliff tree and as Felix watched, she hooked a leg around the slanted trunk, taking her weight off her arms.
                "You all right up there, Relia?" a voice called from the cliffs where Felix had seen the muzzle. It was male and fairly young.
                "Did they offer extra credit for us or something?" Felix thought where he sat panting with his back pressed flat against the boulder.
                "I'm fine," the woman called back. Unlike her partner, she sounded closer to Felix's age, although seeing how short she was, Felix would have had a hard time guessing that just looking at her.
                She twisted around without letting go of the trunk or tree limb and scanned the floor of the canyon. "Where'd the Moraloran go? I don't see her."
                That sent a spike of fear through Felix's gut. He searched the canyon floor, hoping to see Kla's prone form with the rest of them, but all he saw was red and black. "Of all the people not to get..." he mumbled to himself, knowing the worst was yet to come.
                Movement. A round of chest-deep coughing.
                "There!" Felix flung out his arm. "She's under one of the stone shelves!"
                As the Hybridian femme followed the line of his arm, Kla crawled out from under the fan-like extension she'd taken shelter under. It was well within the sphere of anti-gravity, but Felix realized that it didn't matter. By hiding in such a narrow space Kla had outsmarted him, only dropping the foot from ceiling to ground when the sphere ruptured.
                The persistent violet woman climbed unsteadily to her feet, her face set in an expression of violence Felix instinctively feared. Oh, he'd done it now. He'd finally managed to unleash the beast.
                It took Kla a moment to speak. Her shoulders were slumped, her chest heaving. She was coated in a thick layer of yellow dust that hid the violet hue of her skin. One of her headspines had cracked and smeared bright blue blood across the others, mixing with the dust to become a chalky paste.
                Her eyes burned like a demon's. Her words were hard and clipped. "That is enough playing around, Cauldwell. If you do not come now I will be forced to take drastic measures." Her spice flecked eyes bored into him. Her mouth was predatory. "And you do not want me to do that."
                For once Felix agreed with her. Fearing for his life – not to mention the unconscious Cor's – Felix even thought of crawling out from behind his rock, hoping it would buy him enough goodwill that she wouldn't slaughter them on the spot.
                The sound of something heavy dropping to the ground reminded them both they were not alone in the canyon. Felix looked over, jerking like a startled rabbit, and saw that the yellow haired Hybridian woman had dropped down from her tree. Unlike Kla, she wasn't bleeding, although she had a few bruises that he didn't think had been there before, and she was still relatively clean. Dressed in her body armor and strange braces, she reminded him of better dressed version of the female leads in all those B-movie kung-fu space operas he'd watched as a kid. Those shows could still make him laugh without fail, but this woman-
                "Stay where I put you." Her voice was hard and Felix was a little surprised to realize she was talking to him. Holding onto the one last thread of hope that she could actually help them, Felix did as she said.
                The Hybridian walked into the canyon, stopping a few yards from Felix's rock, and planted herself in front of them.
                "Leave while you still have the ability," she told Kla.
                Kla's polished veneer had been stripped from her and she seemed to have no interest in getting it back. "I will rip the tongue from your head," she spat, voice hoarse.
                The Hybridian didn't back down. Instead she raised her fists, keeping them up in front of her upper body and her chin, and moved one foot behind the other. Electricity arced off her braces in visible lines, despite the strong sunlight bearing down on them.
                Kla grinned, wide and wicked, as she slipped out of her high wedges and left them in the dust. Even unable to see the Hybridian's face, Felix thought she was a little surprised that Kla was approaching her so boldly.
                She shook it off quickly. And when she went to meet Kla in the center of the circle cleared out by Felix's anit-grav sphere, it was without hesitation.
                The Hybridian struck first, surprising Felix a little since he had expected  Kla to lose her patience and close in quick. Instead she dodged the blonde's strike by stepping sideways, narrowly avoiding the electric crackle coming off the Hybridian's fist as it swung past her ear.
                The Hybridian followed Kla's gliding steps, unrelenting in her advance, but even in her unpolished state of mind, Kla expected her movements. She caught the blow on the outside of her closest forearm, energy dispelling violently into the air around them but refusing to touch either fighter.
                "They Hybridian's got to have some kind of grounding hardware in her armor," Felix reasoned as he watched with wide eyes and a tight mouth. "But how's Kla not getting fried by all this electricity? Even when she gets in close the sparks go in the opposite direction like she's actively repelling them."
                It wasn't a natural phenomenon of course, so that meant she had to have some kind of specialized equipment shielding her from the jags of artificial lightning.
                Felix frowned. "And given who she works for I shouldn't be all that surprised. Although how they made a machine that rejects energy is beyond even me," Felix muttered as he tried to think of a way around the effects.
                "I need a look at this thing." He leaned around his rock just in time to see Kla swipe at the Hybridian's neck with a pair of needle-like blades she'd pulled from somewhere. The Hybridian threw herself backwards, narrowly avoiding having her throat opened like a butcher's hog only to end up on her back in the dust when she couldn't recover her balance in time.
                Kla hissed something malicious and went to one knee to drive the blades into the other woman's heart. With the force behind her, Felix had no doubt she would pierce that armor like it was air.
                But all she found was dirt as the blonde twisted onto her side, then contorted herself so she had room to draw her legs up and kicked out, catching Kla high on the chest and tossing her back.
                "No good," Felix muttered as the Hybridian rolled to her feet and closed quarters again, not willing to give Kla any kind of breathing space. "I don't see anything that could have that kind of effect."
                He sunk back down with his back to the warm stone so he wouldn't give Kla a target, not that she was paying much attention to him with the Hybridian throwing punches that would drive Felix to his knees.
                Felix's eyes flicked back and forth as he thought, heart hammering in his chest. "All right, back to basics. Any kind of personal shield has to project away from the body or it'll interfere with normal functions. And since Kla's not seizing with her eyes rolling back into her head, that has to be true with this mystery device too. So," he frowned as one of the women shouting behind him. He couldn't be sure but he had the feeling Kla was paying the other back for the new cracks in her sternum. "So you just have to get under the shielding with the current still running somehow. Easiest way to do that is..."
                He thought hard, feeling like the simple answer was escaping him. Frustrated, he found his eyes drown up the canyon wall where he saw the sun glinting off the muzzle of the other Hybridian's volt slinger.
                "Overload!" Felix realized. He scrambled upright, keeping his head down as he abandoned cover.
                "Hey! You up there! Shooter Guy, I got an idea!"

* * *

                Elation filled Kla's chest as she felt her mirdaki connect with her enemy's face. She wasn't sure where the interfering woman had come from, but she could only assume she was here for Felix and she would take him away if given half the chance.
                Unfortunately for her, Kla wasn't about to give her any such thing.
                Kla felt her lips widen as bright red blood seeped from the two parallel scratches she'd carved into the armored woman's face. It should have opened her up from nose to ear, but she'd moved fast enough to avoid the worst of Kla's intent.
                "You're lucky to still be breathing," Kla told her, knowing luck had nothing to do with it. Whoever she was, the woman was good. If Kla hadn't had her 'allergy' to deflect her static attacks, she had no doubt this fight would be over already with her laid out cold on the ground.
                The Hybridian remained silent, obviously not about to speak with her enemy.
                Kla grinned, sensing a chance to push her. "I could have poisoned them for all you know."
                The woman didn't even flinch, much to Kla's disappointment. "You didn't," she said, eyes narrowed as she let the cuts bleed, unwilling to weaken her guard to see how bad they were. "Although why escapes me. You struck me as the type that would enjoy that sort of agony."
                Kla rolled her head back with a much put upon sigh. "Why does everyone say that? Poison is just so...impersonal. Do I really look like someone who would go through all that effort to kill someone and then not be around to see all my efforts pay off?"
                The Hybridian didn't answer, although her eyes narrowed farther with disgust. Obviously she didn't approve of Kla's chosen occupation.
                Kla felt her own eyes follow suit as she tried to gauge her opponent's static field. She could barely pick it up with the somewhat vague sense that warned her before she got too close to technology, but what little she could feel was warped and pitted.
                "Good."
                She hadn't been sure if her allergy would affect a living electric field like what the Hybridians produced, but from the lack of sparks around her techno-organic friend, the woman seemed to be even more susceptible than an ordinary machine. At this rate, she would be too weak to stand in short order. Any longer than that and her field would grow too weak to support even the most basic cardiac rhythm.
                The Hybridian took another swing, which Kla avoided, followed by an uppercut that grazed her jaw, the edge of the metal brace slicing open a clean line in the skin of Kla's cheek near the corner of her mouth. It would have missed altogether if Kla hadn't struck out with her mirdaki.
                For all the good it did her; the needle-shaped knives skidded across the armor plating, lacking the strength to punch through.
                Her probing cost Kla a sharp blow to the stomach and then the world was abruptly wrenched end over end as she found herself twisted over the Hybridian's knee and thrown to the hard stone ground when she proved too slow to get back.
                Kla twisted sideways, expecting a painful follow-up, but she made it to her feet without interrupting. The woman was several feet away, arms still held in front of her body, vambraces charged but useless. But her eyes were focused on something else, like she was listening to someone talk.
                That made Kla uneasy. It was never wise to let the enemy get its act together.
                "I expected a better follow through," she called loudly, hoping to cut through the other woman's concentration.
                The blonde's eyes flicked to her but nothing broke. If anything, she looked even more focused. "You expect a lot," she called back evenly.
                They closed quarters again and Kla found herself having to act quicker, think faster, as the Hybridian upped her game. Confusion tried to seep into the Moraloran's brain, but she ignored it. Why wasn't she getting any weaker? Her field was still a weak and dented mess from being near Kla. Why wasn't she gasping on the ground yet?
                The thought that the woman's field hadn't shrunk because of her struck Kla's brain just as the Hybridian dropped to one knee in front of her. Kla's brain screamed alarm bells as her strike went neatly over the other woman's yellow head. Too late to stop, too late to get out of the way of what was coming, Kla could only watch in horror as the bright ball of energy came barreling towards her from the far cliffs.
                The high powered blast hit her square in the chest, momentum knocking the wind out of her chest where the electric charge could not. But even with her allergy, Kla still felt the force of the energy crackle through the air around her. For the first time in her life, her fingertips tingled with the faint touch of static electricity.
                And then it was no longer a faint touch; it was a lightning strike sizzling through her bones. Kla heard herself scream as all control of her body was rudely and suddenly ripped away from her. Consciousness followed control and Kla dimly felt herself start to fall before the world was lost to her entirely.

* * *

                Relia watched as the violet-skinned Moraloran fell to the dirt and stayed there. Only when it became very clear that she wasn't going to get up again anytime soon did she allow herself to catch her breath.
                "Psychotic woman," she grumbled as she braced her hands on her knees and breathed hard. "I'm adding another two weeks vacation to my demand for putting up with you."
                She was still slightly winded when she straightened up and pulled the livewire restraints from their place on her wide belt. Like vambraces, they attracted an individual's static field; unlike vambraces however, they twisted it into an infinite loop, making it impossible for the individual to lash out with his or her field and effectively binding them.
                Not that it would have much an effect on a non-Hybridian except to keep her from using her arms, but they were all Relia had in the way of cuffs.
                "And I'm not about to let someone like her run free while my back is turned," Relia thought as she wound the restraints around her wrists in a finger eight and then tightened them so she couldn't wriggle out without first cutting off one of her hands.
                Threat sufficiently nullified for the present, Relia straightened up and turned around just in time to see Aster drop the last few feet to the floor of the canyon. The black-haired human she'd shoved out of the blast radius when the transport exploded stood next to him, looking between her brother and herself as if he wasn't sure what to make of them, but was willing to hear them out seeing as they'd just saved his sorry hide.
                Relia started forward. "Hey!" she called out sharp enough to make the human jump and spin around. "You Felix Cauldwell?"
                He hesitated before he nodded.
                Relia felt her eyes narrow as she looked him up and down. "Huh," she mumbled to herself. So this was the boy wonder. He was taller than she had expected, and quite lanky. Obviously a brain over any kind of brawn. His dark hair was shaggy and unkempt and he had dark circles under green eyes that had gone dull from stress and fatigue.
                She looked around quickly, but didn't see anyone else. "Where's Sergeant Cortis?" she demanded.
                Cauldwell leaned back as Relia approached him, but he didn't shirk away. "Sergeant who?" he asked in a voice neutral enough for most people to overlook.
                "The one that dragged us all the way out here," she clarified, tilting her head back so she could meet his eyes. She wished she could say that didn't happen often. "Althan Cortis, former engineering sergeant. Where is he?"
                Realization made Cauldwell's eyes light up. "Oh, you mean Cor." He took a half step back and pointed at something behind the boulder where she had stashed him. "He's right here. I haven't been able to wake him up though."
                Frowning, Relia looked to see an older Hybridian male leaning against the rock, dead to the world. She looked at Aster and tilted her head in the old man's direction.
                Aster nodded and went to crouch down next to Cortis, tentatively prying at his static field with his own while Relia looked over Felix. This way she wouldn't have to take off her braces and free her own field to make sure the old man was all right. Besides, she knew more about human anatomy than her brother did.
                "How long you two been out here?" she asked brusquely as she reached up on her toes to put her hands on either side of Cauldwell's head. She pulled him down closer to her level and he gave a startled yelp that she ignored as she peered into each of his eyes. Responsive, pupils the same size, no signs of concussion that she could detect. Good.
                "Uh, little over a week," he told her as she finally let go of his head and quickly checked for any bumps or bruises or bug bites that could be signs of something more problematic. "Look, not to sound ungrateful, but the only reason we're here is because of a Hybridian, so if you could just show me some ID or something to prove your not about to kill us dead or toss us off the top of the canyon, that'd be great."
                Relia stopped her exam and leaned back far enough to skewer him with a look. It was undoubtedly the smartest thing she'd heard him say so far – and she definitely could understand his hesitation after meeting Darl'markins herself – but it was still blasted annoying.
                She sighed loudly and pulled out her security badge, thinking it would reassure him more than her ident card. "Assistant Security Director of his highness's ship Persephone, Au'relia," she listed off, letting him squint briefly at her badge before flipping it closed and putting it away. She nodded at her brother. "This is Senior Cadet Ori'astorum-”
                "Aster," he said over his shoulder, all of his attention on Cortis.
                Relia crossed her arms over her chest as she looked back up at Cauldwell. "The Commander sent us. We were supposed to meet up with you in Titania at The Power Grid, but you never showed."
                Cauldwell frowned, slightly overgrown eyebrows crashing into each other. "We did show," he protested. "That's where we met that other Hybridian. Darkin- Malra-” He frowned harder, trying to remember the name correctly.
                "Darl'markins?" Relia tried.
                Cauldwell nodded. "Yeah, him. We thought he was you but he sold us out to Kla instead."
                He nodded at the Moraloran. Relia followed his gaze, but she was still unconscious. That last punch had really knocked her out, though it helped that Relia had packed enough electricity behind the punch to put down a rampaging tigatron.
                "Was that your idea?" She turned to Cauldwell again. "To overwhelm her shielding with the volt slinger so I could make it through with enough static to hit her with a direct blow?" The direct contact had finally opened her up to Relia's static field, letting the electricity jump straight from the supercharged braces into the other woman's body.
                Cauldwell nodded. "Basic principles," he muttered, shoving his hands in the pockets of what was obviously someone else's clothes. "No matter what she's got wrapped around her outsides, she's just as conductive on the inside as the rest of us."
                Relia eyed him, making him uncomfortable. "Good thinking," she finally said. "I can see why Cortis speaks so highly of you."
                Cauldwell looked down, unable to meet her gaze. "I can also see why he was afraid to leave you on your own," she thought, but had enough sympathy not to say it out loud.
                She turned to her brother. "How is he?"
                Aster looked up at her. "His field was overwhelmed, but given how drained it is, I'm not surprised. Otherwise he's in good shape. He should come out of it soon."
                "Good," Relia mumbled. "I already called Kizaly. She'll be here soon." Already she could hear the matching whine and thrum of their vessel, Windjammer.
                Cauldwell looked up, picking up the sounds as well. He did a double take as Relia began to walk away, leaving Cortis in Aster's hands. "Hey wait! Where are you going?" he shouted after her.
                "To make sure your purple friend there doesn't wake up and make a run for it. She's got some questions to answer when she wakes up."
                She heard Cauldwell's footsteps stop behind her, and then break into a short run to catch up again. "Do," he hesitated, "do we have to take her?"
                Relia shot him a glare. "You mean the woman that kidnapped, illegally imprisoned, and almost killed the Hybridian that asked us for help?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
                The human looked a little paler than before, because the Moraloran was coming with them or because he was terrified of the look on her own face, Relia couldn't be certain. "Right." His voice was subdued, filled with equal parts anger and fear.
                Relia had expected the fear, but the anger surprised her. He didn't seem like the kind of person who could work up much aggression at all. "Hoping to be rid of her once you got out of here?" she asked.
                Cauldwell was still a moment, then nodded. He didn't speak and his eyes were suddenly quite hard. Apparently he had some brawn in him after all. "At least a pinch," she decided.
                "Well," Relia said aloud as the sound of engines grew closer, threatening to overtake her words, "if it makes you feel better, you shouldn't have to see her again once we get to the Persephone. The Commander's going to be the one with all the questions."
                His eyebrows sunk low over his eyes, like dark thunderheads. "Who's this Commander,
anyway? Cor never told me anything about him." He paused, thinking. "Or you guys, really."
                Relia wasn't surprised. "Commander Magnil is-”
                The sound of the Windjammer's approach grew too loud before she could think of the right words for what Magnil was. As his niece, she knew him about as well as anyone...but then that wasn't saying much.
                Kizaly landed their sleek, long range shuttle and left the engines running as she came to the boarding ramp with twin med sleds to help load the two unconscious passengers. Relia noticed in between giving orders that Cauldwell waited for his friend to be loaded onto a stretcher before he even thought of approaching the ship himself.
                Even then he stopped at the base of the ramp.
                Relia waited for him to make up his mind, watching him as he watched the ship over his head. When it became clear that he could stand there thinking the whole live-long day, she stepped onto the top of the ramp and called down.
                "Come on, Cauldwell. The Commander doesn't like to be kept waiting."
                Face set despite his misgivings, Felix nodded and followed her into the shuttle.



< Entry 28.5                                                                                                                                           Entry 30 >

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