Entry 13: Where Cor and Mari'anna talk late into the night.
Nights on Ryyn were quiet, especially out on the lakeside. Away from the noise and lights of Lauxroo, there was nothing to cut through the darkness except the silver-green light of the moon, half obscured by wispy clouds. The sound of the harp crickets were muted in the nighttime silence, punctuated occasionally by the sound of jaws snapping and water being displaced as one of the numerous nocturnal hunters made a successful catch.
Cor found Mari'anna sitting on the small porch outside the front door. She was watching the ripples in the lake as unseen creatures moved aside moss just enough that a handful of stars could be seen reflected on the water's surface. She had kept the porch light off, but by the moon's shimmering light Cor could just make out her silhouette.
"Sorry 'bout the kid." He murmured as he joined her, careful not to shatter the almost physical force of the quiet. "He makes a better first impression when he remembers not t'talk so much, but he's not a bad sort."
Mari'anna looked up at him, the amber in her brown eyes flashing in the pearly light. Without a word, she reached over and took the chilled bottle of red beer he offered her and snapped the top off on the arm of her rusting metal lawn chair. She nodded at the empty one next to Cor. "Well, make up your mind." She told him before taking a sip.
Cor chuckled as he sat, the chair creaking as it accepted his weight. "Nice to see some things about ya haven't changed."
The ghost of a smile made the corner of Mari'anna's mouth twitch upward, but then that may have been a trick of the light. Cor couldn't tell for sure. He was inclined to believe it was only him seeing what he wanted to see since if anyone had a reason not to smile, it was her.
"So," he finally said into the awkwardness, "how've ya been?"
It was a deceptively simple question.
Mari'anna looked down at the beer in her hands and rolled the cool glass between her palms. "Getting by." She whispered. "You?"
Cor nodded. "Gettin' by." He echoed. "Been workin' ship to ship for a couple years now." He shrugged one shoulder and leaned back in his chair, making it squeak. "It ain't so bad. Meet some interestin' people that way."
"Like that kid?"
Cor nodded as he surveyed the lake. "Yup. He's definitely one'a the more interestin' ones." He told her with a quiet chuckle.
Mari'anna huffed a dry laugh. "That seems to be putting it lightly." She muttered before taking another drink.
Cor chuckled but didn't say anything. Felix had had another lapse in his social etiquette when he had misplaced it his workbook and had written everything in his head on the wall of Mari'anna's spare room instead. Their host had not been pleased and had made it abundantly clear that either he scrubbed all of the ink off her walls or there would be no dinner for him.
Felix had scrubbed until his fingers turned pink, and after supper had crashed on the room's only bed. Even now Cor and Mari could hear his snores coming through the screen door.
Out on the lake, one of the snub-nose gators jumped out of the water and took a snap at a low flying waterfowl out for a night flyby. It was fully three feet long with tapered fins instead of legs and long whip-like whiskers snaking away from its short, but powerful, open jaws. It snagged the bird with squat, sharp teeth and pulled it under before it had time to even squawk in surprise.
The gator fell and slunk back into the water with barely a sound and almost immediately disappeared beneath the murky surface.
"I can see why you like him." Mari'anna said some time after the gator had vanished. "The kid I mean. He's very smart." She said, shaking her head as if she almost couldn't believe how smart Felix was. Over dinner they had fallen to talking about the inner workings of Mari'anna's amphibious hover vehicle and the duel engine needed to let it operate on land, water, and the various states in between that riddled Ryyn's surface. Felix had never seen one first hand, but he'd still rattled off specs like they were the only thing he looked at day in and day out. And while Mari'anna had preferred to let Felix do most of the talking, Cor could tell she'd been impressed with the kid's know-how.
"He reminds me a lot of Iander," she told him gently, "when he was that age."
Cor looked down at the wood of the porch beneath his feet. Like the rest of the house it was unpainted and the slits between the boards had grown wide enough to see through after so many years in the wet climate. It had been a long time since he'd let himself think of his brother, and even longer since he'd seen him in person.
Their relationship had always been complicated. Cor'iander, Ian, was older than Cor by almost ten standard years and after their father had gone missing during the war and their mother had been killed, Ian had practically raised him.
Cor closed his eyes, remembering how they'd scraped through the rubble and debris of dead towns looking for food and anything else they could use. Ian had been clever as well as smart, and Cor knew he would never know just how much Ian had done for him. But he had an idea, and Cor knew if he was anywhere close, there was no possible way he could ever pay him back. Not that Ian had ever thought his brother owed him anything.
Cor stretched his legs out, the bottoms of his boots kicking up splinters as they slid against the grain. "Yeah," he mumbled, "me too."
Mari breathed a muted laugh into the dark. "He was always so determined." She remembered. "Never prepared but always ready for anything." Her chair squeaked as she rocked it slightly. "And you always following him around like his starry-eyed sidekick." She laughed again, the sound a little truer.
Cor didn't contradict her. Ian had been his superhero, ever since he'd been a kid. Fighting off bad guys, saving people that couldn't save themselves – Cor had wanted to be just like him. And looking back on the last couple of days of pulling Felix out of scrapes and avoiding trouble, Cor supposed he still did.
Mari'anna looked down at the beer in her lap again and Cor could feel the building pressure of her question. When she finally gathered the courage to ask it, her voice cracked around the edges.
"Have-have you seen him recently?"
Cor looked down and shook his head. "Nah," he told her with a sigh, "not since I left Hybridia. You?"
It was more of a mumble than a question, but Mari'anna heard anyway. She shook her head too. "No. Though he does leave messages to check in on me sometimes. Last one I got was a few months ago."
Cor looked up in surprise. "Did he say where he is?"
Mari'anna shook her head again. "He never calls me directly either. Always leaves word with the general post office in town. They call me in the day after."
Cor leaned back in his seat, grumbling in frustration and disappointment. "Scrappit." He muttered. "He was always so paranoid about coverin' his tracks, even when we were kids." Though back then Cor had never thought Ian would ever hide from him. "Did he at least say how he was doin'?" He asked Mari'anna.
Mari sighed through her nose. "About as well as usual." She told him.
Cor blew out a long breath and ran a hand through his short hair, grumbling under his breath. 'Usual' was not the same as 'good'.
They fell silent again, each caught up in one memory or another. Finally, when Cor couldn't make himself dwell on Ian's ongoing disappearing act another minute, he took a drink of his beer and asked, "And what 'bout you and whatshisname? I noticed he wasn't underfoot like he usually is."
Mari shot him a wide-eyed look. Usually Cor would never have asked about her husband. There was too much history between them and it was too easy for him to pry at her sore spots, but all this talk of Ian had opened the door and he wasn't sure he could take the spotlight any longer.
However he did regret how abruptly he'd asked. But then there had never been a good way for ex-fiancés to ask about current husbands anyway.
Mari'anna gathered herself again, but didn't shy away from the question. Cor wasn't surprised. She didn't shy away from much of anything. "He left." She told him. "Divorce went through last month. I got the house," she shot him a scowl and muttered over the mouth of her bottle, "lucky for you."
Cor winced. Make that ex-husband.
"Smooth genius." He thought to himself. "Ya just had to dig, didn't ya?"
But there was no taking it back now, and she would only get mad if he apologized, thinking he was pitying her.
"Ya mind if I asked what did it?" He asked carefully.
Mari'anna shot him another look. "Well since you asked so nicely." She snapped, making him flinch. But then she leaned back in her chair and stared out at the lake and muttered, "But it's not like you don't know anyway."
She fingered her secondary skeleton with her fingers, cringing when she felt the scars scratched into the surface. Cor looked away, ice sinking into his stomach. He didn't think she was even aware of what she was doing.
"Kids?" He asked without looking at her.
"He wanted to try anyway, despite what I told him about-” she looked down as her throat started to close up, "about what that would mean for me."
She looked down, unable to meet his eyes. On instinct, Cor reached out with his static field, a part of him still expecting to brush against hers in the familiar, electrical comfort Hybridians were accustomed to.
But there was nothing there. He might as well be reaching out to touch a ghost.
The world lost color as he looked away, cursing himself and the technovores that had done this to Mari'anna and his brother. It was why Mari couldn't stand being among the rest of their kind, why Ian felt the need to avoid him. Without their static fields, they couldn't interact with their race, their families. Him.
Cor felt the familiar heat of fury rise in his chest at the vivid reminder of what the technovores had taken from all three of them. Ian and Mari had been captured near the end of the war and were missing for almost six months before a couple of scouts had found the underground bunker the technovores had taken them to. Hybridian forces had raided the bunker, taking control and routing out the technovores overnight.
Cor remembered the stink of the place, the mix of salt from the nearby marshes and the stench of metal and blood from Hybridian bodies. At first they had thought the bunker was some kind of slaughterhouse where the technovores took prisoners for interrogation and then either killed the ones they didn't need or hollowed out the bodies of those they did so they could wear the prisoners like a second skin and infiltrate Hybridian lines.
But they'd been wrong. The war had been coming to a close by then, and the Hybridians had undoubtedly had the upper hand. In their desperation, the technovores had started experimenting on their prisoners to try and find a way to use their duel techno-organic nature against them.
When Cor had found the backroom where Ian, Mari, and half a dozen other captives were being held, he had thought they were dead. They had been so still and Mari's eyes had been open but empty. He hadn't felt the familiar currents of their static fields and it was like finding an absent pulse in a human neck.
But then Ian had opened his eyes and looked at him, albeit fuzzily. "Althan?" He'd croaked barely above a whisper.
Cor felt sick at the memory, his own field roiling as he felt the old holes where Ian and Mari had once been, his gut twisting. The technovores hadn't killed them, but in a way they might as well have. They had stripped Mari and Ian and those other soldiers of their static fields, isolating them from the rest of their people and reducing them to something less than living.
So much of Hybridian life depended on their fields: when they pair bonded they tangled their fields together like fishing nets, parents tied theirs to their children so they could rely on them like tethers. Fields conveyed emotion and could be used to trace genealogies by tracking specific frequencies within families. To let someone within the sphere of your field was an immense show of trust and to reject another was to make it impossible for their fields to even touch, like two north magnet poles trying to touch. From conception to death, a Hybridian's static field tied them to others. Living without it was like trying to live without lungs.
That's why Mari and Ian had left Hybridia. At least out here they could live without the constant knowledge that they were surrounded by an electric current they could no longer touch.
Sometimes if a Hybridian's field was powerful enough it continued on after the body gave out and ceased to function. They called it ghosting, like the stories of human souls remaining on after the body had died. But this-
They had never needed a word for this before the Long War.
Cor looked over at Mari, heart heavy as he remembered the feel of static running between their fields whenever he'd touched her hand. It had been hard for them to be around each after they'd stripped her of hers and Mari had broken their engagement before she'd even been released from the hospital.
Cor leaned his head against the side of the house and looked up at the thickening cloud cover past the edge of the porch roof. Technically, Mari's body was still capable of carrying children, but without her field she would have no way of connecting with them, just like she had no way of connecting with him. It would be like raising someone else's baby with someone else's husband.
"I told him I wanted to adopt," Mari finally said, "I mean, at least then we would all be in the same boat, and even out here there are more children that need good homes then there should be."
Cor nodded. Adopted children often had a hard time connecting their fields with their surrogate parents and vice versa. And with a purely organic child there would be no pressure to connect fields at all. Most organic races relied more on touch as a way to show affection than fluxes in electric currents. And Mari still had her arms.
"I take it he didn't go for it." Cor said.
Mari raised her beer to her mouth. "Nope." She took a swig and set the bottle down on the circular table between them with more force than necessary. "And then of course he told me he'd found someone else that was willing to 'give him what he wanted'." A bitter sound escaped the back of her throat.
She glared out at the lake and Cor found himself picturing the man with his feet stuck in one of the gator infested swamps with no way out. Disagreeing over adoption was one thing; meeting some hussy in a backwater motel when you had someone like Mari'anna waiting at home was another.
"You deserve better." He finally told her. "Any man that lets ya get away is a fool."
Mari'anna looked down at her hands, unable to say anything. The air between them turned stale as they each remembered their time together, when everything had seemed so...not perfect, but pretty dang good. They were going to live in a nice house with a yard, just the two of them for a couple years before they had their kids. They would go on family vacations and attend parent-teacher conferences and Mari had often prayed to the Machine that none of the boys would have their father's instinct for trouble, but of course she knew that they would.
"So what's your plan?" She finally asked, careful not to look at Cor. "After Carpathia."
Cor released a long, slow sigh. "Still workin' on it." He told her, dragging himself out of his own set of memories. "But I'm hopin' the Commander will be willin' to offer the kid some kind of security. I just," he sighed again and scratched at the back of his head, "gotta figure out a way to make him want to help us."
He could practically hear Mari frown. "And why would he want to help some half-mad human kid in the first place?" She asked. "And for that matter, why do you? I know he reminds you of Ian, but that's not enough. Why stick your neck out for this kid, no matter how smart he is?" She demanded, sounding more than a little annoyed. Cor thought she was still mad about the number sequences on her walls.
"Cuz he don't deserve none of it." Cor told her firmly. "And somethin' about this whole thing stinks to high heaven Anna. I just can't put my finger on what's causin' the stench."
He settled back in his chair, making it creak as he stared out across the water. His field simmered restlessly, a few sparks sizzling here and there with his unease. A stray thought had been tickling at the back of his brainpan for a while now, but try as he might he couldn't pin it down.
Mari just shook her head at him. "You always were the king of lost causes Althan. I was kind of hoping you'd grown out of that."
His face stretched into a wry grin. "And give up ma'crown? Never!"
A small smile accompanied her head shake this time, but quickly vanished. "Just," she hesitated, then kept going cautiously, "just try and look out for yourself, all right? You won't make things better by getting yourself killed, yeah?"
He met her eyes in the near-dark, something in his chest loosening when her amber-brown gaze caught him. An old longing appeared, one Cor had thought he'd discarded decades ago. Things could have been so different...
He looked away. "Don't go makin' things any worse than they already are." He told himself. "Some things just can't be fixed."
He shifted in his seat, feeling Mari'anna's eyes on his neck. "I'll...keep it in mind." He finally grumbled.
Mari'anna knew she couldn't expect anything more. She sat back in her chair, pushing off the deck slightly with her feet to rock it a bit. They sat there for a long time in silence, finishing their beers and making an effort not to think of anything more in particular.
Eventually the moon began to sink beneath the tree line on the opposite side of the lake and Mari'anna stood up with a tired groan.
"C'mon," she murmured, picking up her empty beer bottle and pulling open the screen door before pausing to look at him, "you've got an early flight tomorrow and I have to drive. We should get some sleep."