Wednesday, October 28, 2015

35: Period of Adjustment

Entry 35: Where Felix meets a fellow insomniac.

                Felix had kind of assumed that once he and Cor reached the sanctuary of the Hybridian ship Persephone – and put the screaming and running and energy bolts sizzling past his ears behind them – things would be...less stressful.
                Boy, was he wrong.
                He shot up in bed, frightened shout only just kept from jumping out his mouth by his teeth clamped tight together. For a split-second the nightmare followed him into wakefulness, shadowy figures closing in on him, the smell of heated plasma and week old sweat choking his nose and throat closed.
                But it was only an instant. Then reality reasserted itself in his vision and he found himself staring at the foot of his bed, the door to his sleeping quarters lying just beyond.
                Felix took a deep breath, loosening the grip of panic as blood hammered in his ears. He covered his aching eyes with his hand and hung his head as his heart rate slowly ebbed back to normal. The shadows were just shadows, he told himself, and the burnt smell was probably coming from him where he'd seared his hair the other day on the cutting laser.
                Far too slowly, he felt the tension leave his body, his shoulders slumping, his gut unclenching under his empty stomach. With effort, he released his death grip on the too soft sheets and raised his head.
                He frowned at the room he refused to acknowledge as his. Done up in soft smoky blues meant to facilitate sleep, it was relatively large for a room on a space ship – Probably because exploratory vessels were so rarely expected to come into dock. What's the use of taking a crew to the unknown if they all go mad from cabin fever after all? – made even more so by the sparse amount of furniture around him. Besides the full bed, there was a small table on his right holding a lamp and a glass of water, and a small boxy vanity  near the open door that Felix didn't use for obvious reasons. Both were bolted to the floor in case of gravity failure so they wouldn't fly around and smack anyone in the head, while the closet and a set of drawers were bare seams in the two remaining walls.
                Felix had done nothing to the room since they'd given it to him and the blank walls seemed to scowl back at him in the dim light of the emergency panels dotting the base boards.
                "Stupid suite," he grumbled into the silence, his words bouncing off the uncovered walls. Ori'magnil, High Commander of Hybridia's Northern Continent, had stuck him in here, citing it was for important guests such as himself, and nothing Felix had said so far had convinced him to change his mind.
                Stainless steel would rust before that guy changed his mind about anything, Felix thought as he scrubbed his face, finally clean-shaven again after his mad dash with Cor across eleven sectors and stars alone knew how many individual systems.
                He sighed, exhaustion pressing down on him, but Felix knew there would be no more sleep for him tonight. Not with the thread of tension, the one he was never able to shake anymore, making his teeth hum. He'd talked to Hatch about it, but aside from hefty sleep aides that made Felix's brain too fuzzy to think, Persephone's head medic hadn't been able to help him.
                "You're on edge. Trauma does that to sentients," the yellow haired Hybridian had told him with a shrug of his broad shoulders. "Your brain's still on panic mode. Just give it time to calm down."
                Yeah, but how long will that take? Felix wondered. I can't live like this for much longer. I'm barely getting three hours a night as it is.
                Groaning, the human pushed himself out of the bed that threatened to eat him more often than not, and got dressed. He didn't bother turning on the lamp or the lights out in the living room as he groped his way past the matching sofa and chair set – also bolted down – and left the grandiose suite.
                The lights out in the corridor hurt his eyes, worsening his already sour mood as he looked down each arm of the hallway, trying to remember which led where.
                "Au'relia said left would take me aft and port," he muttered as he shuffled back and forth, "and right would be...aft and starboard?" He shook his head, holding it when his brain sloshed against the inside of his skull. "No, that can't be right."
                Felix dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out the watch Au'relia had given him upon his arrival two weeks ago. He slid it over his hand and fastened it around his wrist, face screwed up as he mumbled the instructions she'd given him about activating its different custom utilities, the ones tailor made to accommodate his...humanity on a ship specifically designed with Hybridians in mind.
                "Twist, snap, map," he muttered the mnemonic as he spun the outer rim of the watch face until he heard the sharp snap of it locking into place.
                A holographic window projected in the air a few inches above the face. Felix raised it to eye level and swung it around to face the left arm of the hall and peered through the circular projection.
                He could still see the lines of the hallway through the hologram, but it was overlaid with bold lines of color that followed the walls as if they'd been painted on. A red stripe sat above a black one on the left wall and a single blue one on the right.
                "Okay then," Felix muttered, frowning at the clearly marked colors in concentration. "Blue leads to Blue Sector – go figure – which is their fancy term for the science and research levels. Red is for security. Black is the scary guys down in the hanger. Green, where's green? Ah!"
                He found it leading off to his right. Green was used to denote the public use areas of the Persephone, including the recreation rooms, holo decks, and the commissary.
                Stomach thoroughly emptied by yet another night's relentless nightmares, Felix followed the green line until he found himself in familiar surroundings and deactivated the hologram.
                The commissary was empty at this early hour, the serving stations line free for the first time Felix had ever seen. He ordered a bowl of Lucky Loops cereal and a couple of juji fruit that was a favorite of practically everybody on board. They were always out by the time he gave up on sleep and dragged himself out of bed.
                He bit into one and held the oblong fruit in his teeth as he picked the other three up and hid them away in various pockets before taking his box of cereal and the carton of powdered milk that came with it. He pressed the spout of the carton down, puncturing the mist ring inside and rehydrating the contents as he took a handful of sugar packets and a spoon from the bar attached to the nearby wall. The box sloshed as Felix shook it before picking up the rest of his breakfast and leaving the large room. He didn't want to stay in the echoing space with all its empty tables. Often filled to capacity, if felt unnatural to be in there alone, like he had snuck in.
                There was a small observation room a level up and Felix made his way there, chewing on the juji in the quietly humming lift. Longer than it was wide, the room was small and intimate, its exterior wall was taken up by a clear, domed-shape viewing window. Chairs were clustered together in twos and threes along its length, facing a truly spectacular starscape.
                He almost left again when he realized the room wasn't empty.
                "Oh," he stuttered to a stop when he saw the thin Hybridian sitting in one of the cushioned chairs before the viewing window. "Sorry, I'll just-”
                The gray-haired male smiled and Felix finally recognized him as the Science Director, Doctor Watts. Felix had never seen him without his blue researcher's coat before. He looked far thinner without it, like an old man.
                Watts smiled at him, wrinkles creasing his angular face, and waved him forward. "There's no need for that, Felix. Please, come join me. I was just enjoying the quiet before the nocturnal shift changes over."
                Hesitantly, as if he suspected some sort of trap, Felix padded over, his socks making no sound on the thick carpet. Silvery light from the stars sifted past the tempered plastic, giving him a better look at the older man. His brown hair was touched with gray, giving it a neutral hue, while his eyes had the typical Hybridian metallic sheen – sterling in this case. That combined with his oval face, his eyes set deep into his head and a polite but pleasant smile on his face, made it easy for him to fade into the background. If it weren't for the faded blue lab coat he wore as the Blue Sector's head scientist, Felix would never notice him at all.
                Juggling his breakfast, Felix sank into one of the chairs, the cushion surprisingly springy. He kept an empty seat between them, and then placed his milk carton and two of the juji on it to make it seem like he wasn't avoiding getting too close to the older man.
                Watts' eyebrows twitched slightly. "I'm sorry," he said, and for a horribly embarrassing moment Felix thought he'd taken offense. "I didn't think to ask. Do you mind if I call you Felix or do you prefer Cauldwell?"
                "Um," Felix hesitated, twisting the unopened box of Lucky Loops around in his hands as he peeled up the side along perforated lines. "Either. Either is fine. Just no misters. My last captain called me Mr. Cauldwell and he turned out to be a raging hypocrite so..."
                He trailed off, fidgeting and unable to meet Watts' steady gaze. Were you supposed to say bad things about your last boss to your new boss? Granted it was all true...
                He snatched up the milk carton and popped it open just as Watts chuckled. "No misters. Got it," he said with a slow nod. He went back to staring out the viewport. He had one thin leg crossed over the other's knee and his elbows resting on the arms of the chair, one set of bony fingers gripping the other. He didn't move, and his lack of fidgeting unnerved Felix even more.
                The organic engineer poured lukewarm milk over his cereal, listening to the dehydrated marshmallows pop as they soaked up liquid. Knee bobbing restlessly, he held the box above his lap, pulling the spoon out of his pocket and flicking a piece of dark lint off with a frown. He tried not to watch the gray-haired man out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't help it. Felix had never hung out with his employers before, had actually gone to great lengths to avoid being in the same room as them. What were you supposed to say to them at four in the morning when you had only been looking for a quiet place to eat?
                Watts must have noticed because he tilted his head just slightly in Felix's direction. "You're nervous," he stated.
                Felix felt embarrassment burn his ears. He had to clear his throat before he could stutter, "Y-yes."
                The human frowned. Wasn't it obvious? "Because you're the one in charge."
                "Ah," Watts said in a somewhat discordant hum. His static field hummed on the edge of Felix's hearing as it cycled around the man, not far from his thin body. Unlike Cor's, Felix could feel the unbroken field of bioelectricity moving, like water caught in a current. "I must look terribly unreasonable to you then. How interesting."
                Felix almost gagged on his spoon. It dropped into the box, almost upending newly re-hydrated marshmallows. "What? No! That's not what I meant." His voice was too loud in the small room as textured milk spilled over his fingers.
                He almost didn't hear the old man's chuckle. "Relax, Felix, relax. I was only joking. A bad habit of mine I'm afraid."
                Felix felt the fist around his heart unclench and he sagged with relief. "Haven't had enough sleep to handle jokes," he muttered as he spooned up another mouthful.
                Watts made a noise in his throat. Felix hadn't meant for him to hear, but like Cor, the older Hybridian seemed to have the nasty habit of overhearing things he shouldn't. "You as well? And here I thought I was the only one tonight." He sighed, sinking further into his chair. "But then I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Hatch told me what you've been through these past few months. It must have been quite a shock to be uprooted so suddenly."
                Felix frowned into his cereal. The milk was starting to turn blue from the marshmallows. "I guess Cor's been talking again," he grumbled, not bothering to add that he'd been uprooted long before he'd left the Helix 7.
                "I've observed over the last week that he rarely stops." Watts chuckled, face relaxed into a smile.
                Felix titled his head to the side, not about to argue. If anything, Cor was even more vocal now that he was back among other Hybridians.
                He felt Watts' gaze on him and looked over to see him watching with surprisingly sharp eyes. "Nightmares I take it?" He shrugged and shook his head as if kicking himself for even asking. "You're awake before Perseph, of course you're having nightmares. You may not know this but we have a councilor on board. I think Magnil keeps him around in case Rody's sense of humor finally breaks down, but he's more than willing to talk to anyone that feels the need. If you ever want to speak to him, I'll be glad to introduce you. Dallaham is a good listener-"
                Even Felix knew how far from professional this conversation had gone. He held up his free hand, the other holding onto the edge of his box full of sloshing cereal so it didn't end up on the floor. "Doctor Watts," he cut him off. "With all due respect, my nightmares are none of your business, much less some shrink that'll only smile and nod and tell me to stop eating sugar before I go to sleep. I mean, what do you even know about what I'm going through? You weren't there-” He read the dry smile on Watt's face for what it was a split second too late. "-and oh scrap, you know firsthand he's a good listener, don't you?"
                Watts' eyes returned to the starscape. He breathed in deep, air hissing past partly open teeth. The hairs on Felix's arms lifted, giving him goose bumps, as Watts' static field shifted against itself, its current reversing for a brief second.
                He smoothed it out again like he might smooth out a crease in his clothes before he tapped a slippered foot in a short, staccato rhythm. "Yes, yes," Watts admitted. "Dallaham and I know each other quite well. Like many of my generation I had...scratches to buff out after the war."
                Felix drew back, surprised by the admission. He rubbed his forearm to get rid of the goose bumps. "Sorry," he mumbled. "In case it wasn't obvious before, I'm only good with machines. Exposure to people turns me into a blockhead."
                Watts' lips twitched. "Then it's a good thing I'm half machine," he said, slight smile touching his thin mouth. Shifting in his chair he added, "Breathe, Felix. You made a fool of yourself. Now just take your foot out of your mouth and move past it. I'm hardly a saint myself."
                Looking down at his cereal, Felix tried to do as he said. He took a few more bites, chewing slowly. Most of his brain just wanted to do the smart thing and sit there quietly and finish his breakfast, but the voice at the back of his mind – the one that never knew when to shut up – pestered, Ask! Ask! Ask!
                And, well, Watts had said move past it.
                "The war-" he said hesitantly, "-the one you were in, is that the same one Cor keeps talking about?"
                Watts glanced over at him sharply, but answered anyway. "Probably. The war with the Technovores was the fiercest in our history, at least since the first emperor brought the kings of the north under his roof. It consumed the planet. Billions dead, some shredded from the inside out until only their shells remained. It was...brutal."
                The simple word carried more horror in it than his previous descriptions and Felix felt his curiosity shrink. But again that pesky voice squeaked up, Oh come on! Just one more!
                But Watts was already standing. Felix worried he'd pushed him too far, but then he noticed a high pitched beep sounding consistently at Watts' wrist.
                "Oh." He sighed the word. "Sorry Felix, but the chrono beckons," he told him with a weary smile.
                "Wait!" Felix yelped, twisting around in his chair.
                Watts stopped and looked back at him, expectant shimmer in his circling field.
                Felix had to wet his mouth, it had gone so dry. "Did...did talking really buff out the scratches?"
                Watts' kindly face softened into understanding. He gave him half a sideways nod. "It took some time, but yes. What you should remember, Felix, is that after ordeals like ours, there is always a period of adjustment. Logically you know you are safe, but the subconscious is rather paranoid. Slow to trust, even in the face of hard fact." He spread his hands and lifted one shoulder in a gesture that reminded Felix of a professor in front of an auditorium. "It just needs some time to realize it can trust this new safety."
                Felix grunted. "That's what Hatch told me," he grumbled. "I was kind of hoping for a different answer this time."
                Watts laughed. "Sorry to disappoint, but we are old friends." He smiled and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Anything else before I go?"
                Felix blinked at him. Then, squirming in his chair, he rummaged in his pockets until he found what he was looking for.
                He held out an oblong fruit to the Hybridian. "Juji?" he offered.
                Clearly not what he was expecting, it took Watts a moment to answer. "Yes, thank you."
                He took it and bit into it, twitching as his static field popped gleefully, like a child with a caramel apple.
                "Mm," he hummed with enjoyment. "You know why we like these so much?" He waved the red-purple fruit at him.
                Felix shook his head.
                Watts smiled, his static field still puckering. "It goes beyond taste. They affect our fields. It gives us a pleasant snap in our mouths like-” He waved the hand holding the juji, searching for the right word. "Like-”
                "Pop rocks?" Felix tried.
                Watts smiled at him. "Yes, exactly."
                The human waited for more, but none came. "And this is important because...?"
                Watts shrugged. "Just one of those fascinating little things organics don't often know. I thought I'd share now that I have the chance."
                "So..." Felix's eyebrows crunched together. "It's irrelevant?"
                The Hybridian scientist smiled wide. "Nothing is irrelevant, Felix. There is the important and the trivial, but never the irrelevant."
                The human didn't understand the Hybridian's dry humor. "Oh...kay?"
                Watts only grinned and took another bite of the juji as he left the observation room. The door closed behind him with a soft sigh, leaving Felix  alone with a bowl of soggy Lucky Loops.
                "Period of adjustment, huh?" he muttered to his bowl of blue milk and the silent stars. He sighed loudly, cheeks blowing out.
                He picked up the spoon and dug it into what was left of the cereal. "Times like these I wish I was more adaptable," he groused before scooping up the last of the soft cereal and marshmallows and shoving them into his mouth.

< Entry 34                                                            Special Entry >                                                Entry 36 >

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