Wednesday, September 24, 2014

09: The Captain's Ultimatum

Entry 09: Where Torrik finally makes a choice.

                Torrik stood easily at the top of the ramp, his hands clasped behind his back as he waited. He had been watching the street from the shade of the ship, his tongue flicking out every few seconds as he caught the ever-changing scent of the passerby. Presumably he had been waiting for Felix to return from town, but as he half turned towards his two crew members, he didn't seem surprised at their presence on board either.
                Cor and Felix ground to a sudden stop, one more alarmed than the other.
                Felix felt his shoulders slacken in relief when he realized who it was blocking their way. "Captain!" He exhaled. "Thank goodness! You're never going to believe what Cor's been telling me. He says he just heard one of the passengers saying she wants to kill me!" He laughed and scratched at his head, relieved this mad scramble was finally over. "Isn't that nuts?"
                But Cor gripped his shoulder and gave him a shake. "He's in on it kid." The older man reminded him grimly, eyes never leaving Torrik's backlit silhouette.
                Felix went strangely numb. "But..." he dimly heard himself stammer, "but that's absurd!" He tried to tell them. "That can't be true. Cor, whatever's going on you're taking it too far!"
                Cor didn't start laughing at his own joke like Felix had hoped.
                He looked between Cor and Torrik as the confusion and anxiety reached new heights. "I mean- it's the captain." Why were they even trying to make him believe this story? Torrik was, well he was Torrik! "He wouldn't-he couldn't-" Felix stammered whirling on Torrik with nervous eyes. "Tell him Captain! Tell him this is all just crazy!"
                But Torrik's face didn't change. He just watched Felix with unmoving eyes and stern shoulders.
                It slowly sank in. Felix looked away, unable to believe this. He had been so sure Cor was just overreacting..."No, no," he mumbled, suddenly realizing the madness was only just beginning, "no this is-this has got to be some kind of mistake. Cor heard wrong! Or-or she must've meant something else! Kla's not after me. I'm nobody! And-and you wouldn't allow it even if it were true!" He stared at Torrik's impassive, reptilian face and doubt crept in. "Right?"
                Torrik wouldn't meet his eyes.
                Felix stumbled back and only managed to keep his feet because of Cor's grip on his shoulder. He felt like the floor had just been yanked from under him. Like he was walking in the vacuum. "This," he huffed a laugh and mumbled, "this is crazy."
                Cor and Torrik didn't argue.
                "I mean," Felix kept on going, too nervous to stop, "why would she even want to kill me in the first place? I'm just-I'm just an engineer on a half rate cargo hauler." His face went red with embarrassment and he looked down. "Sorry Cap'n. No offense..."
                For once Torrik didn't take any. He was too ashamed of himself to take pride in anything he'd done, even his precious Helix 7.
                "You're more than an engineer Cauldwell," Torrik finally spoke, his voice dry and soft like dust on rocks, "and you know it. You're brilliant – beyond human measure – and I think one day, you're machine is going to change the world for a lot of people."
                "'Cept no one'll know it's his machine." Cor growled. "And he'll either be the genius crackpot no one's heard of or buried six feet under by yer friends." Cor had never gotten on with Torrik – everybody with half a brain knew that – but the scowl he gave the lizard now was full of a poison Felix had never seen before. It made the old mechanic look...dangerous.
                Felix snorted. The only danger Cor posed was to whoever got too close to his static field when he had a cold. And even then he was so easy going and apologized so much between blowing his nose and explosively sneezing that you felt too sorry for him to be offended by the accidental shock.
                But then...
                Six months ago the Helix 7 had been transporting a load of Imo'apian star fruit to a buyer across the Way. Their fuel cells had burned low after a tiff with their usual supplier in the area and the closest station sat on the edge of pirate country. And seeing as the choice was either chance the fuel station or end up drifting and hope somebody eventually found them, they'd decided to take the risk.
                Of course with their luck they really shouldn't have been surprised when halfway there a narrow Ballinger-class ship, painted black to blend in with the void it sailed through, stopped them in their tracks with an electro-magnetic pulse that had ruined most of their electronic equipment before they'd even known the marauders were there. The pirates had boarded the Helix 7 swiftly and efficiently and rounded up everyone they could find into the mess hall.
                Felix had been in his workroom when the EMP struck, sending shockwaves through the hull and igniting several small fires as already aging wires caught the energy surge and flared up. It was the shockwaves that woke him up where he'd fallen asleep at his desk, papers sticking to his forehead as he sat bolt upright, unaware of what was happening. All of the machines in his workshop had been turned off so the pulse hadn't affected anything around him. It had felt so quiet after the initial attack that he had even thought of going back to sleep.
                Before he could Cor and the Ruvian they called Big Wri burst through the door and told him that they were being boarded. Felix remembered feeling like he was suddenly trapped in a horror movie; him running and hiding in the bowels of the ship with the other two while people with guns and bad dental hygiene chased them around.
                And somehow Cor had known what to do. He had known when to hide and how to trick the enemy into turning their backs to him before he struck. The Helix 7 had been too badly damaged even for Felix to get running again, so while Cor and Big Wri distracted the pirates and freed the rest of the crew, Felix had snuck aboard their modified Ballinger and locked himself in the command deck, locking the few pirates still onboard in whatever room they happened to be in and opening the main corridor to the vacuum so they wouldn't be inclined to break out and wring his neck.
                It had been a downright crazy plan, but it had worked, and the Helix 7's crew had flown to safety on the pirate vessel with their own little ship in tow and the boarding party sealed up tight in the damaged Helix.
                Felix had only asked Cor once where he'd learned how to fight pirates like that. But the mechanic had just huffed a dry laugh. "Just a few things I picked up in a former life." He told him. And that was all he would say.
                Felix hadn't cared to pry any deeper at the time – he'd been too grateful that they were still alive – but now he couldn't help but wonder; what had Cor done before he'd started working ship to ship as a mechanic?
                Torrik hadn't spoken since Cor had all but accused him of being complicit in Felix's approaching murder. Felix himself felt white and weak-kneed as it hit him that someone out there really was thinking of killing him. Of course the joke was on them now that Cor had fire bombed his work room, but he didn't see how that could save him. If anything Kla would probably be so furious that she would skewer him on the spot.
                A wave of dizziness threatened to swamp him and he tightened his grip on his last surviving notebook, fervently hoping Torrik hadn't noticed it. "All my work..." he thought dismally, "literally up in smoke."
                Felix hiccupped, anxiety and nausea finally taking its toll on his body. He shoved the book into the side of the duffel where it wouldn't stand out as much and covered his mouth to keep from hurling all over the deck. Cor and Torrik looked over at him in mild disgust.
                "I think I'm gonna be sick." He mumbled past his hand and leaned over, other hand braced against his knee as he fought the urge.
                He practically heard Cor roll his eyes. "Way to be brave in the face of death kid."
                Felix squeezed his eyes shut and focused on breathing instead of his roiling stomach. "Shut up." He moaned. "It's your fault I'm in this mess."
                Cor grumbled something about gratitude, but Torrik spoke over him. "No," he hissed, "it is mine, Mr. Cauldwell. Some years ago a deal fell through and I didn't have the credits to maintain the Helix. So I made a deal with a man I thought shared my understanding of honor." He hissed a long, regretful sigh. "I was wrong."
                Cor's temper flared. "That's how this got started?!" He shouted. "You were low on cash so you got into bed with O'Dowell? That's it?!"
                Torrik's tongue flicked out briefly, reading the air. "It was the Helix." He shrugged meaning to add more, but there wasn't anything else he thought needed saying.
                Sparks flashed around Cor's head as he fumed. Felix just watched them, unsure of what he felt. It was like Cor and Torrik were arguing over someone else and he was just an innocent bystander. In some weird way, this had nothing to do with him. He was just...there.
                Torrik went back to watching what he could see of the White Sails space port, although Felix knew it must have looked only like a blob of light colors surrounded by a blob of dark colors to his  limited eyesight. "And now the time has come for me to pay in full."
                "I don't care!" Cor exploded. "He's asking for more than you owe! One ship just ain't worth the life of a person!"
                "I know." Torrik murmured. "That's why I'm going to give Kla Mr. Cauldwell's work when she arrives. And for that I am sorry, but at least then everything will be over."
                Cor was so furious it took him a moment to remember how to speak. "I don' think so!" He shouted. "You know dang well that that won' be the end o'it! O'Dowell's gonna wanna make sure that Felix can't point the finger at 'im for all this. He's gonna take precautions. Now I don' know if he's really so dirty that he'll actually try n'kill the kid-”
                Felix swallowed hard. It was suddenly very hard to breathe.
                "-or if he'll just blacklist him, but either way he's not gonna have much of a life by the time O'Dowell gets through with him. Now tell me Captain," Cor spat the title, "how does that fit with your high n'mighty honor code?"
                Torrik didn't look away from the boarding ramp. His tail swung sideways behind him with indecision and for a long moment the sound of his scales sliding against the deck was the only one in the room. Even the background noise from the space port outside lulled as Torrik tried to find a way to defend himself.
                Eventually his shoulders fell and he looked down with a quiet hiss. "It doesn't." He admitted. "But what choice do I have?"
                Felix held up a finger like he was asking a question in a classroom. "Pretty much anything else would work for me." He mumbled, his voice a little higher than usual.
                The tense atmosphere didn't break. And it finally dawned on Felix that Torrik was serious. He was going to hand over everything he'd done in the last twelve years – every rough, imperfect design that had cost him weeks of sleepless nights to hammer out – without even a fight.
                Emotion pushed its way back into Felix's chest, making him straighten up with indignation. "Over my dead body!" He promised where no one could hear him.
                But then maybe that was what Kla wanted. If Felix got himself killed by being blindly stubborn, there would be no one left to fight her off. She could just take his equation and leave.
                "'Cept Cor burned all the proofs up."
                Felix's eyes almost popped out of his head as that fact finally struck home. Oh man, he was such an idiot! Without his notebooks documenting the different segments of his theory O'Dowell's people had nothing to work with. If they killed him now, they lost everything.
                A fact, Felix finally noticed, Cor had decided not to share with Torrik.
                "I'm the only one that knows the equation now." He realized. "Without my written work the only way Kla can get my machine is if I give it to her."
                He scowled, thinking about how likely that was. "If she wants anything useful from me then she needs me alive."
                Felix's overwhelming sense of relief was immediately negated by another realization.
                "But without any of my work the only thing Torrik can give me."
                He suddenly felt like he was going to be sick all over again. He felt the blood drain from his face and his knees start to shake. For the first time he was glad that Torrik felt too guilty to look him in the eye. Just because it had taken him too long to figure out the obvious didn't mean Torrik would be as slow to connect the dots.
                Torrik's tail stilled on the deck plating and Felix could practically see the cogs turning in the reptile's head. His forked tongue flicked out and did a slow sweep of the air as he thought.
                Felix felt like his heart was trying to stop. He was coming close to the point where it didn't matter what Torrik said as long as he said something before Felix just keeled over.
                He had to remind himself to breath as Torrik got all he could from the air, but there was a boulder on his chest making things difficult. It didn't help that his heart kept yo-yoing between melting relief and heart attack speeds every few minutes.
                "When I get out of this mess I'm going to crawl into bed and never get up again."
                Finally, before the weight crushed Felix's sternum into bone dust, Torrik's tail started sweeping again. He angled his body towards them slightly without taking his eyes off of the open hatchway and said the last words Felix had thought to hear today.
                "You're fired Cauldwell." Torrik said, his usual even reserve back as if he hadn't just contemplated throwing his honor to the dogs and throwing Felix under the bus. "I want you off my ship and out of my sight in the next thirty seconds or you'll be spending the night in the space port holding cell."
                Felix blinked at him, mouth falling open. Well wasn't that just the icing on the cake? "Excuse me?" He sputtered.
                "You heard me." Torrik told him. "I want you gone." His shiny black eyes narrowed further as he turned them on Cor. "And as for you-” he started, voice taking on a darker tone.
                Cor grinned from ear to ear and held up his hands. "Don't even give me a thought Cap'n. Where the kid goes, I go," he proclaimed proudly as he threw an arm around Felix's shoulders and gave him a shake, "I quit!"
                It was the happiest Felix had heard him sound that day. For his part, Felix just wished Cor would stop shaking him. His stomach hadn't finished settling yet.
                He squirmed out of Cor's one armed display of solidarity and backed away a step. A vague but persistent hope started to wriggle past his thick skull. "So..." he said slowly, "you're letting me go?"
                Torrik shrugged. "Let go, laid off, abruptly underemployed; pick one. They all mean the same thing."
                Afraid to hope, Felix swallowed down his heart again. "And that is?"
                Torrik hissed a much put upon sigh and Cor groaned behind him. "Oh fer the love of-!" Cor thumped his shoulder. "Would ya quit askin' stupid questions and get while the gettin's good?"
                Felix wet dry lips. "Right," he mumbled, "right sorry." But he shot an uncertain look at Torrik as if he thought maybe the Skalorian would tackle him if he really tried to leave.
                He didn't of course and Felix and Cor were halfway down the ramp when the urge to look over his shoulder one more time snuck up on him. Torrik was still standing there, but he'd turned his back to them. As they left the Helix 7 behind, Felix wasn't sure if he did it because Torrik felt he had done his part and no longer needed to bother with them or if he was just ensuring that he wouldn't know which way they had gone.
                Because Kla would undoubtedly ask.
                Felix swallowed hard and jogged a little faster through the afternoon crowds, Cor leading the way. They boarded the first ship off Selenium they could find and never once looked back.

< Entry 8.5                                                                                                                                             Entry 10 >

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