New faces in the latest Special Entry! Felix meets another of his assistants and takes a big step back with his first in this Christmas-influenced tale of the Way.
The hairs rose on end at the back of Felix Cauldwell's neck. He felt himself go stiff, survival instinct screaming at him to look up even as his more rational mind told him to stay as he was and not give himself away.
Still facing his desk and the holo project he'd been working on – more specs for his drive – he swept his green eyes from side to side, reassuring himself that he was, in fact, alone.
Of course he knew he was being followed, that he had been ever since he'd stepped foot on the Hybridian ship, Persephone, but this was different. The security detail Au'relia had assigned him had never bothered to be covert since they were there, officially, for his own protection, and the more subtle watchers Commander Magnil had watching him from the background were too good to be so easily picked up by his mere human senses. But this, this stalker, had the gooseflesh rising on his arms every time he felt them. That and they'd only appeared about a month ago.
I've been here almost half a standardized year, Felix thought as he mentally tallied up his time with the Hybridians. Mags and Relia would exchange an experience spy for a completely inept one. They're too smart for that. Unless of course they'd wanted him to notice, but that led to such a convoluted trail of whys and throbbing headaches that Felix had dismissed it outright.
Of course he'd hoped it was merely his overly inflated sense of paranoia sneaking up on him again, but the more he watched, the more little signs he'd seen. A flash of dark hair. The muffled clatter of feet trying too hard to be quiet. The near-silent sound of fidgeting and repressed breathing.
A small, breathless gasp joined the list and Felix finally looked up. His door was open – to better combat the claustrophobia inspired by almost four months' imprisonment in a lab not different enough from the one he was in – and two figures were standing in it. The one that had just arrived was Divot – one of Au'relia's security boys with as plain a looking face as Felix had ever seen – but the other, standing in the open for the first time where Divot's sudden appearance had startled her from her hiding place, was a girl.
Felix felt a frown pull at the edges of his mouth. She was rather slight for a stalker, petite and skinny like some kind of sprite, with a curtain of straight ebony hair that just brushed her elbows. She was quickly looking between Divot and Felix, knowing she'd been caught out but not sure what to do or say, and Felix was amazed at how large her eyes were; onyx black and too big for her fine pert, upturned nose and fine cheekbones. She was visibly trembling.
Divot's brown eyebrows rose as she stood there shaking. "You get turned around there, deci?" he asked, his voice pleasant but just as plain as his face. He often called the youngest of the crew that, deci. Felix had never gotten a satisfactory answer for what it meant, but from context he figured it was one of those endearments that sprang up in every language, taken from different words that had no bearing on the new definition. English had them too of course. Sugar. Baby. Sweetie.
The girl shook her head, long hair swaying as she backed away from the big man. "Um," she stuttered. "I, ah-" More rapid movement from her eyes. Felix's frown grew. He could see the whites around them now, like a terrified horse. Her field must be roiling, he thought, but was too far away to tell.
Divot gave her a kind smile, revealing the one dimple at the side of his broad mouth that gave him his name. "Breathe, deci. I don't snap."
Color stained her cheeks and she finally looked down at her hands, held tight in the gray sleeves of her lab coat, complete with the blue seam-stripes of a Blue Sector technician. "I'm- I'm Eta'noella," she finally got out. "Dr. Watts told me to come." Her voice matched the rest of her, small and soprano, with a faint rasp that made her words fade in and out of easy hearing.
Divot gently told her he hadn't heard from Dr. Watts about any staff changes, but Felix quickly pulled up the data the head scientist had given him when he'd first arrived, the ones detailing his lab space, equipment requisition forms, and those techs assigned to assist him in the day-to-day. Sure enough, there were three names typed there: Lu'naiti, Cas'pintari, and Eta'noella.
"Wait a minute, Div," Felix stopped the security officer from gently but firmly guiding the young tech away from the restricted space. "I found the order. She's the last assistant. The one who never showed."
Divot paused, gray eyes on Felix a moment before turning on Noella. She hung her head, black hair curtaining off her face, but even that didn't hide the shame reddening her face.
"Oh," the security officer said, and then, removing his guiding hand from her back, returned to his place by the open door.
Noella stood there, fumbling her slight weight from foot to foot. Felix tried to get on with his work, but when she remained in the doorway, he looked up at her with that slight frown still stamped on his face.
"Are you just gonna stand there all day or what?" he asked. He'd meant it to be light, a way to break some of the tension she so obviously felt, but as he heard the words leave his mouth, he knew he'd failed.
Head still bowed, Noella shuffled out of the door. She crossed the room in nervous strides, finally coming to stand at the end of his favorite table, the farthest point she could possibly be from him without leaving his immediate workspace.
Felix pinned her with a green eye, frown growing deeper. I guess that's an improvement, he muttered to himself.
She stood there as he got on with his work, fingers gripping the edge of the table in clear awkwardness.
Usually Felix preferred the silence, but this was too much even for him. "I thought you'd traded out," he told her. "What were you doing these past few months?"
She squeaked out an answer so shrill he had no idea what it was. Hiding? he guessed. Biding? Spying?
He tried again. "How old are you?"
This time the squeak was a little more coherent. "Seventeen."
He looked up, startling her when he met her dark eyes. The frown was back. "Aren't you a little young to be here?" he asked her, more sharply than he'd meant.
Those onyx eyes stared, unable to turn away. "Aren't you?" she asked. From the way she immediately flushed crimson and looked away, Felix didn't think she'd meant to speak at all.
He grunted low. At least I don't need a fake ID to get in a bar, he thought but didn't say. For one, he already had a tech that spit sparks whenever they were in the same room and he didn't need another, and for two, he wasn't sure what the ability to legally enter a bar proved anyway.
He ran a hand through his shaggy hair, realizing he'd spaced again. "Fine. Whatever. Hand me that repeater would you?" He pointed a hand at the tools spread out on the opposite end of the table, scattered around their container unit like one of Saturn's rings.
She hesitated, and then sidled around the desk, always keeping it between them. It took her twice as long as it should have and Felix felt his frown edge into a scowl at her irrational behavior.
Her hands hovered over his various bits and pieces, finally finding the one he wanted.
Felix exhaled loudly at her slowness, the sound making her agitated field pop like kids throwing snappers on Independence Day.
He gestured impatiently. "Come on, come on," he grumbled.
"Um, ah..." the little sounds of nervousness escaped her mouth as she clutched the repeater. He half expected her to dive under the table just to escape him, but no. Instead she set the repeater down and slid it forcefully across the level surface.
Right through the holo field.
Alerts and error boxes leapt into the air above the table as the field registered the alterations the tool had unthinkingly made. "What're you doing?" Felix yelled as he at once jumped for the sliding repeater and the knob that would reverse whatever she'd done. The tool slid past his fingers and broke on the hard floor and twisting the knob only brought a painfully loud alarm from hidden speakers along with another alert box telling him to take care of the other alert boxes before continuing with his adjustments.
He shot the girl a dark look as he wrestled with the knob and the too-loud bonk! Sound assaulted them again. "What was that for? He yelled over the cascade of error alarms. "Don't you know how a holo field works? What's the matter with you?"
The noise and accusations were too much for her. "Sorry. Sorry!" she babbled, hands held near her face, clutched tight together. "I'm just- I'm sorry!" And then she ran from the room, tears magnifying her already large eyes, turning them enormous.
Felix saw the side of Divot's head as he turned to watch Noella flee. When she was nothing more than the sound of high pitched sobs disappearing up the corridor, he looked back at Felix. The bland expression did nothing to hide how he felt.
"Nice going," he said before vanishing again.
Felix's forehead met the table with a thunk as he realized, on top of making some poor tech too young to rightfully be here cry, he'd forgotten to save his progress.
The day only got worse from there. Walking down the corridor to the mess hall for lunch, he was stopped by a loud, angry, "Hey Cauldwell!"
He turned with the rest of the passerby in earshot, and then stayed where he was when he saw the silvery-white ponytail streaked with midnight blue swaying towards him.
"Lunai," he greeted the First Technician. "Something wr-?"
It was the wrong thing to say.
A strangled gurgle was all he got out as he suddenly found himself yanked down by the collar. He looked up into furious copper-brown eyes. "If you ask me if something's wrong I will zap you but good Earth-boy!" she shouted at him.
Survival instincts snapped his mouth shut.
"Now-" She managed to lower her volume as she gave him a single shake. "-what's this I hear about you making Little Noella cry today?"
His eyes widened. Oh...he'd been hoping this was a giant misunderstanding. "F-f-friend of yours?" he managed to stutter.
Another shake. She was yelling again. "Of course she's a friend of mine! I know everybody! Now explain to me why she's sitting in tears on my bunk!"
"Well I don't know why she's in your room-” he started, and then seeing the twitch of her eyebrows from furious to oh-scrap, quickly added, "-but she finally showed up for work today and broke my stuff and messed up nine hours worth of work in ten minutes. I yelled. She cried. And now you're breaking my neck!"
Lunai's eyes burned even hotter, but she managed to unclench her fingers from around his collar. Felix nearly fell over, rubbing at his neck. He looked down at the blue-gray carpet that covered the floor.
She crossed her arms tight over her chest and glared at him, one brightly clad foot tapping double time on the carpet. "She says she's going to transfer over this. Down to Level 8-3.
8-3! Do you know what they do down there?"
"Something only slightly less important than what they do on 8-2?"
Lunai threw up her arms. "It's the scientific equivalent of laundry!"
"Dirty, dingy, and there's a smell?" Felix dared.
That got a dark laugh out of her, so there was still a chance he could fix this. "Look, what do you want me to do? Apologize? I'll do it later when I'm done-"
"Working," they finished together, although the derision in Lunai's tone was scathing.
Felix scowled at her. "Yes. Working."
She rolled her eyes. "You're always working, Felix. You have to take a break eventually." She scowled harder. "Even if it is to make up for something stupid."
Felix looked up at the ceiling, an aggravated noise rolling out his throat. "You should know me better by now Lunai. Work is the only thing I know how to do where people don't grab me by the throat and yell at me." He scowled at Lunai for good measure.
She wasn't cowed. He could feel the contrasting currents swirling through her field, threatening to turn it into a vortex.
She leaned in close to him, and Felix leaned away from the static whirlwind so fast that his head thumped the wall behind him.
"I don't care how you do it," she told him, stabbing him in the chest with a sharp finger. "But fix it. And fix it now."
She spun on her heel and left in as sharp a temper as she had appeared.
Watts was waiting for him in the semi-crowded mess, a stork standing in a river of neutral colored uniforms.
"Mind if I sit with you?" the gray-haired man asked as Felix finished gathering up his meal.
Felix shrugged, then held out the serving spoon for the marble-sized spickka. Watts shook his head and held up a declining hand. "No thank you. I'm not that hungry."
"You're never hungry," Felix muttered before picking up an apple and biting into it, holding it in his teeth so he could pick up his tray with both hands.
Watts followed Felix through the winding throng, sitting across from him when he found an isolated corner not yet consumed by the growing lunch crowd. They sat in silence as Felix tasted his food, and then liberally salted what he thought were supposed to be mashed potatoes. Potatoes didn't grow on Hybridia as far as he knew, nor did he think most of them even knew what one was, but more and more 'human' food had been cropping up on the menus over the last few weeks regardless. He thought it was their attempt to make him more comfortable.
Or Lunai found a recipe on //organicisms//, he thought as he took a bite. He huffed a quiet laugh. Probably it's Lunai.
"I heard you and Noella Etalaine had an upset this morning." Watts disrupted his train of thought.
Felix dropped his fork onto the tray with a clatter and rested his head in his hands, elbows propped on the table's surface. "Don't tell me she's crying on your bunk too," he moaned.
Watts cocked his head at him, confusion disrupting his calm field with a soft ripple, but Felix shook his head, waving a hand at him to never mind as he started in on his food again.
"Look, I already had this talk with Lunai," he said, rubbing his neck without thinking about it. "I already know I'm a moron and I promise I'll find her and apologize to the girl after lunch." He sure hoped she wasn't still crying by then. He wasn't sure what he would if she was.
He met Watts' eyes without raising his head. "That about cover it?" he asked grimly.
There was an amused glint in the old man's sterling eyes. "I'm sure Lunai will rejoice to know you've learned your lesson," he told him. "However, in light of what happened, I thought now would be a good time to...explain a thing or two about our Little Noella."
Felix frowned at him. "Like why she always kept the table between me'n her?"
Watts leaned his elbows on the table top and steepled his bony fingers together. When he spoke, his words were low, controlled. "To put it bluntly, Noella is...afraid of humans."
Felix stared. "She's scared of me?" It was like stepping into an alternate universe where gravity pulled you up instead of down.
Watts cocked his head to the side, his face screwing up just slightly. "Well-" He rubbed the knuckles of one hand with his opposite fingers. "-organics in general, really. But right now you're the only one in the near vicinity, so all her fear is focused on you."
This was weird. "Then why did you assign her to my lab?"
The older man leaned back. "Because she was you before you arrived. I have no doubt she'll be able to keep up with you."
Felix snorted. "I'm not cut out to be anyone's mentor, Doc, especially some girl that jumps at the sound of Bunsen burner igniting."
The older man gave a reprimanding look Felix hadn't known he had in him. The younger man ducked his head, guilt rising slightly.
"I think you'll be good for her," Watts went on. "Have her face her fears, so to say. As isolated as we've become as a whole we can't keep apart from organics entirely, and you're a reasonably safe one to be around. Now that we have your little friend in custody, anyway."
Felix felt a faint shiver at the reminder. On his best of days he could forget Kla was buried deep in the Persephone, prowling around her cell like some breed of violet, ultra-aggressive tiger. But it was infinitely harder when people kept bringing it up.
He shuffled in his seat, trying to dislodge the feeling that the femme was watching over his shoulder. It took him a moment to remember what they'd been talking about.
"If I'm so safe-”
"Relatively safe," Watts corrected.
Felix rolled his eyes, not really caring about the details. "-then why is she scared of me? It's not like-” Well, the obvious comparison was right there after all. "It's not like I'm Kla. I can't even touch my toes without bending my knees." He spooned up some more spickka. It was surprisingly good for something that had spots.
Watts chuckled, but the sound was tight and died quickly. He went back to watching the human with shrewd eyes.
Eventually he leaned forward, shortening the distance between them and cutting down the risk of eavesdroppers in the lunch room chatter.
"In all your time with Cor..." His words were slow as he watched him with sharp eyes that left Felix unsettled. "Did you ever hear of the war-born?"
Felix blinked. He'd been expecting some great and fiercely uncomfortable topic, like babies or something.
He shook his head. "No. Is that a generation name? Like tri-millennials or stargazers?"
Watts' expression changed, just a slight tightening of the skin around his eyes. "Not...exactly."
The rest of his words sagged out of him, like air leaking out of a balloon. "They were a product of an...experiment. During the Long War. Akin to your own super soldier projects in past centuries."
Felix's skin crawled as he remembered what he'd learned in school. "I hope they weren't as bloody," he mumbled, stabbing a marble with extra force. "Although it's hard to imagine anything could be."
The old man's face tightened further, his skin taking on an unhealthy shade of gray. For once, Felix didn't have any questions he wanted answers to.
The clamor of the mess receded into white noise, pushed back by the dark turn of their conversation. A few minutes ticked by before Watts sucked in a long breath through his nose. He closed his eyes and straightened up.
"The war-born arose as a way to immunize people against the Technovores, however there were-
"Complications," Felix said with him before adding on his own, "There always are." He flicked his empty fork at Watts' narrow chest. "What's this have to do with Noella?"
Watts nodded slowly, like he was nodding off. "The war-born were our Pandora's box. Once the technology was released, there was no way to take it back. We try to keep it out of enemy hands, but..." He breathed in deep and let it out, words carried along for the ride. "A particularly unpleasant race of organics called the Peretti found and attempted to use it in their mind control experiments. They've long been obsessed with the idea of mind control, practically a bred-in curiosity. From what I've learned, I believe they thought if they could control us, then that would be their stepping stone to pure organics. It's all pseudo-science of course, but Noella's parents paid the price for their obsession. They took them away when she was ten. She and her sister barely made it off world."
Felix was silent for a few minutes, comparing this to the girl he'd met in his lab. "That's a sad story," he finally murmured.
Watts' face twitched, a dry smile or a humorous grimace Felix couldn't decide. "I'm not telling you this to make you feel sorry for her. This is merely for your own understanding. Our Noella is a very gifted, very reclusive, very lonely girl." Sterling eyes pinned Felix down. "If anyone knows how difficult a live that is, I thought it would be you."
Felix looked down at his half-emptied lunch tray. He did know, but that didn't mean he knew how to help the Persephone's 'Little Noella' make her life any better.
I still don't even know what I'm doing...
Watts began the long process of standing. "That was all I wished to say," he said as he laid both hands on the table and pushed. "I hope I wasn't too much of a disruption."
Felix assured him of course not as a thought tickled at the back of his mind. He looked down at his food as he ferreted it out.
"Hey!" he called out when he finally pinned it down. "Are the Peretti still looking for her?"
Watts looked back, a slight lift of his mouth. No doubt he was thinking this was just yet another similarity between the two of them. "No, no. They're nothing to worry about now," he said as he adjusted his shirt into proper place. "They're all dead."
Felix looked up at him, but didn't rise. "Consequences of their failed research?"
Sterling eyes darkened into steel. "Quite the opposite," Watts assured.
His grim finality killed whatever other questions Felix had.
She was such a coward.
Noella sobbed at the thought. She tried not to be – she tried to be brave and strong and all those other things her mother had told her she was – but when she'd gotten close enough to feel how quiet his bioelectricity was – that trademark organic hollowness – all she remembered of her mother was the scared look on her face as they dragged her and Papi away.
Memories overtook her and she did what she always did when they resurfaced. She cried harder.
The door chimed three times before she heard it. Noella got up, sniffling and snuffling her nose back into something presentable, if not shiny and red. Thinking it was Lunai giving her a chance to clean her face before she popped in to see how she was doing, she got up and flicked her field at the door controls, making it slide open effortlessly.
The human Cauldwell stared down at her.
The memory stood out sharp as a nightmare, rendering reality unimportant. The blue of their uniforms, the glint of the house lights off their reflective gold buttons. The smell of ozone as her parents' fields burned air in their panic. And he just stood there. Stood there staring at her in his blue uniform with its gleaming buttons!
"I, uh, I came to apologize," the Peretti officer told her, his hesitation discordant with the menacing slant of his eyes.
For what? Noella's mind shrieked. For taking my family away? For not having the decency to kill them outright when you used them all up?
The man fidgeted. "For, um, for yelling at you. Earlier."
Noella paused, his answer so unexpected that for a nano she thought she'd spoken out loud.
But she hadn't – she hardly ever did – and she gave herself a little shake. The haze in her head slowly dissipated and, bit by bit, reality reasserted itself. The blue of the officer's jacket faded into the pale gray of a Blue Sector lab coat, the buttons winking out entirely. The cruel eyes softened, became tired and contrite and very green. Unkempt hair grew too long for any sort of regulation and the whole body folded in on itself until all that was left was the scrawny organic male she'd met that morning.
He was starting at her and Noella felt her face turn red as she realized he was waiting for a response. Only she couldn't remember the question.
"Sorry?" she squeaked, hoping he would repeat himself.
He shook his head and tapped his chest. "No. I'm sorry." He enunciated carefully like she didn't understand the prime vernacular.
Already in an emotional spiral, it didn't take much to display her irritation. He didn't seem to notice though.
"What's that?" she asked, wincing at the soft rasp to her words.
Cauldwell looked down as if he'd forgotten the box he held, wrapped in shiny red paper that threw back the fluorescents beaming down on them. "Oh," he said in such a way that she was sure he had forgotten it. "Right. This is for you, actually. So, um, here." He held it out.
Noella stared, eyes as wide as a globe bird from Thrace. What was she supposed to do? Was it a bomb? Bombs came in boxes right? What did you do when an organic handed you a bomb?
She held up her hands, inching back into Lunai's room. "Um...no. Really. That's not-”
Her protests were so weak he didn't even hear them. "With as gaga as Lunai went over Halloween, I figured I'd better get ahead of her on Christmas. I got you all something, although I didn't think you'd show up for yours." He shrugged his shoulders, stating a simple fact.
Grudgingly curious, Noella reached for a fold in the reflective paper. She just about jumped out of her skin when he cried out, "No!"
He gave her an apologetic wince that might have started as a smile. "Sorry," he said again. "Just-" He held his hands palms out to her, as if warding her off. "-don't open it. Least not while I'm here. I was, well I was trying to be clever and-" He flicked several fingers at the gift in a muted wave. "-I don't think it worked."
Noella blinked her brown eyes, under laid with onyx that turned them nearly black in all but the brightest light. If he was only trying to solve himself embarrassment then...
"It's not a bomb?" she asked.
Most people would have laughed and assumed she was either joking or constitutionally nervous.
Cauldwell was silent for a beat, thoughtful, and then said, "No."
Relief snuck up on her as much from his seriousness as his assurance. "Oh, okay then." She fidgeted with a bit of paper that had managed to escape the second skin of tape he'd covered the box in. "Thanks," she mumbled.
Cauldwell gave her part of a nod and turned to leave. Before he did more than twist around though, he stopped and found her eyes again.
"Watts said you might transfer." He didn't waste words. "No hard feelings if that's what you want, but if you do stay, you should know that, well, I'm surly and sulky and I don't- I don't always know how to act around people. Never learned how I guess."
Neither did I, Noella thought as he ran a hand through his dark hair, but was too nervous to say.
He made a face, eyes unfocused. "That sounds like I'm trying to scare you off," he said to himself. He looked up, seeing her again. "I'm not, I swear. I just want you to know what you're getting into."
Noella didn't answer him. She wasn't sure what to say. From his silence, neither did he.
Chronic ailment of the intellectually gifted, she thought.
Noella hefted the little box. "Okay then, I'll just..."
"Yeah," Cauldwell said too loudly into the stale air. "Right, so I'll..." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and started to walk backwards away from her.
They hemmed and hawed and made uncomfortable noises until the door, mercifully, cut them off.
Noella stood there a moment, watching the blank slate of the door with the box still in her hands. Not sure what to do, she went and perched on the edge of the lower bunk, heels touching, knees together, box held lightly in her lap.
It's pretty... she couldn't help but think. It's almost a shame to open it.
But open it she did, carefully peeling back tape and unfolding the pinched together flaps done at one end.
At least I know it's not a bomb, she continued thinking as she pried the box from the still un-rent paper. Too much time has passed. It would have blown up by now if it was.
The box – a plain, square, storage container – finally slipped free and she placed the now hollow wrapping paper on the bed next to her. She peered at it, turning it carefully over, gave it a gentle shake. No rattling. Just the shush of protective fluff.
Without anything left to do, Noella opened it.
The fluff turned out to be gauze, probably stolen from the med bay – Hatch won't like that. – and sitting on top, pillowed on all the canvas-textured bindings was a pendant, cut into the shape of an unfurling banner.
It's a necklace, she realized in surprise. There's something written on it.
She lifted it out for a better look. The metal was frosted and cool on her fingers.
It read Sing We Noella.
She blinked slowly at it, sure the words would reassemble into something mean and derogatory, but they stayed the same. It was the single nicest thing anyone, much less an organic, had ever given her, and after a long moment of soaking-in, she giggled.
She wore it the next morning when she showed up, bright and early, for her shift with Cauldwell.
Merry Christmas 2015!