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Cauldwell's Conundrum

By Bethany R. Lindell All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Felix Cauldwell of the Helix 7

The Hybridian Way was the oldest – and now the emptiest – space way in the galaxy. At one point it had cut the straightest path from the mineral rich moons of Centauri Trill straight to Felina Four at the heart of the aging Silver Empire. It had been an astral highway fit for kings and queens (and all variations thereof in the big, wide universe) with the planet Hybridia sitting like a crown jewel at its center.

But no more.

The main sun of the Sigma System had gone super nova several hundred years ago now, igniting a chain reaction in its lesser satellites that blasted the whole system to bits and covered the Way with chunks of space debris too thick and chaotic to navigate. The cut was clean, severing the vital artery that had empowered Felina Four and its vassal systems and leaving them to wither up in their now cut off corner of the Milky Way.

Hybridia did better than its trade partner. True, it was no longer a prosperous Way station between two wealthy parties, but it was still a thriving hub all on its own. And with the Silver Empire no longer controlling the technology market, Hybridia and its unique flora, where metals like iron and copper could literally grow on trees, soon became the biggest creator and exporter of mechanical goods and cutting edge technological designs.

Felix Cauldwell was too young to remember any of this. Heck, his great-great-great-grandfather would have been too young. But in the short months that he'd been working on the transport ship Helix 7, Felix had heard a lot about the Hybridian Way's history. More than he had ever wanted to know if he was being honest...

Not that I really have a choice in the matter, he thought as he rolled his eyes down in the stocky hauler's humming engine room.

“So the Empress Falaa-" Cor was still going on as he hooked his datapad into the secondary systems that made up the walls of the engine room and linked up. "-the strongest, toughest, most gorgeous femme to ever walk the Violet Moons of Scandalor, calls up every able-bodied male in her army and sticks ‘em in the middle of the Hybridian Way as a blockade. Right outside Hybridia’s front door." He held up a finger as the pad gave a trill to signify link up was complete.

Cor went on like he hadn't heard. "The Mavericks met her there a'course. Their two armies filled the sky of Hybridia so that when you looked up, all ya saw were the underbellies of a thousand different ships stretchin’ from one edge of the horizon to the other.”

The twenty-four-year-old Earth-born man snorted, not believing a word of it. “And just where, exactly, did she even find that many men, Cor?”

The older mechanic, a stocky Hybridian male named Cor’althan with short-cut gray-brown hair and a metallic sheen over similar eyes, just smiled at the younger crewer. “Well, if ya believe the tales that she was a raven-haired goddess slummin’ it in the mortal planes, then she just had to walk down the street and let the folks lay eyes on her. But myself personally-” He pressed a falsely modest hand to his broad chest as if his opinion was such a small thing in the grand scheme of things really. “-am a big fan of the fact that she had just conquered the outer edge of the Sumsuma Expanse, not to mention had her late husband’s army at her fingertips.”

Felix nodded, shaking black hair out of his eyes when the motion disturbed them, only half listening as he opened a panel on the protective shell that housed the engine itself. The air temperature controls in the starboard side passenger rooms had started malfunctioning during the last sleep cycle and some of the occupants had complained. The Helix's captain, Skellenisti Torrik – a lizard-like native of Skalorne – had ordered him and Cor to find and fix the problem.

"Right, right," Felix mumbled as he poked around the different connections to make sure they were solid. "Whathisname, the King of Bexuli." He frowned as he finished his little inspection. "Looks like the wiring's fine here, Cor. What about on your end?" he asked over his shoulder.

Cor just sighed in exasperation, completely ignoring Felix's question. "Bexuli don' have kings and they've never even heard of Falaa. Stars kid, it's like ya don't e'en listen," he mumbled before adding in a louder voice, "She married the Silver Prince, that guy that ran the Silver Empire. You may have heard of it; big empire, lasted two and a half million solar cycles before that pesky asteroid field sliced up the Way and we lots all contact. Ringin' any bells there, kid?"

Felix didn't answer as he pulled his own scanner out of the sling attached to the dark green chest plate that protected him from stray currents and heated metal and connected it to the engine housing. He didn't look up as he waited impatiently for it to tell him if the Helix 7's compressor was causing the problem or not, simply glared at it with green eyes that had been dulled by too little sleep in the past few lunar cycles.

He didn't need to look up to know Cor had rolled his eyes at him. "Anyway," he went on without any encouragement, "when Prince Whatshisname went and kicked the bucket, Falaa got the whole shebang. The empire, her own system of Scandalor, an' all those lil planets her late husband had conquered before doin' her the great service of dyin' and all."

"How nice of him," Felix muttered as he scrolled through the scanner's engine report. He didn't see any breaks in the coolant lines...

Cor made a noise in the back of his throat but didn't seem to notice his audience's lack of enthusiasm. "Oh sure, considerin' he was a stiff-necked, hard-hearted, cheating-slime excuse for a man it was the least he could do." He snorted as if he couldn't believe anyone would ever treat a woman like Falaa so callously. "Seriously, I wouldn't blame her if she really did kill the sonuva glitch in the end."

Felix realized he had been staring at the same section of the engine report for the past two minutes as his mind wandered over his own problem, the one that kept him up at night. He shook himself out of it. "You're getting pretty defensive over a woman that wasn't even a Hybridian, Cor." He pointed out, hoping Cor hadn't noticed his absent mindedness as he thumbed down on the report and tried to focus.

Cor leaned his shoulder against one of the pipes next to him as he surveyed the reports his own scanner was giving him. Felix knew from experience that the pipes were steaming hot, but Cor didn't even flinch as his techno-organic body absorbed the intense heat and processed it as extra energy that was funneled into his static field.

"Well her taste in men improved after that," he admitted as he frowned at the small, square screen set into the face of the bulky scanner in front of him and then, seeing nothing useful, disconnected it from the support systems and shoved the scanner back into one of his many mechanic's pockets.

"She marry a Hybridian?" Felix guessed, his mind trying to wander again.

Cor nodded. "Her second husband was one a'those fancy kings from the southern continent or sumthin' like that. Don't remember who he was exactly since he didn't do scrap in the long run. Falaa's the one everyone remembers when it comes down to it." He looked up and grinned crookedly as he remembered something. "Rumor has it she was the great-sumthin' granddame of my late empress. She was one of those peculiar southern folks too ya know, but dang was she sumthin' to see-”

He was cut off as Felix expelled a loud sigh laced with frustration and shoved a hand through his dark hair.

Cor stopped and stared at him. "I've seen that look before," he muttered at his young friend. "What's the matter? Is the regulator busted? Cuz' I don't care what Scales says, we'll have to stop for a new one right quick before the engine housing overheats and slags itself-”

Felix yanked his oversized work gloves off his hands and pinched at the bridge of his nose before waving Cor off with the other. "No," he muttered, suddenly sounding caught between disappointment and exhaustion. "It's not that. I was just-" He hesitated before repeating, "I was just thinking about something else."

He felt Cor eying him, his gray-streaked eyebrows no doubt hanging low over dark gray eyes. "Your formula givin' you problems again?" he asked, quite serious now.

Felix rubbed at his aching eyes and nodded. "But it's fine," he added too quickly to be believable. "I'll work through it," he mumbled. "Eventually."

Cor watched him another moment. That wasn't what he was worried about. Felix was bright, he had no doubts about that. He definitely surpassed his race's standards of intelligence, but Cor had noticed that the human also had the tendency to be a little too...single-minded when it came to his pet project.

"Ya known I'd be happy to look over what ya got." Cor offered, no slouch when it came to mathematics and mechanics himself. Being part of a semi-organic, semi-technological race had advantages like that. "Maybe I can help ya out.”

Felix immediately straightened up where he'd been slouching against one of the system consoles. "No," he said firmly. "I mean thanks," he added, not quite convincing, "but I'll get unjammed on my own. This is just a little bump in the road. I'll get past it. I'm sure it's nothing."

"Sure, sure," Cor agreed, "but if ya change yer mind-” he tried again.

"I said it's nothing, Cor," Felix snapped.

Cor held up his hands and backed off. 'Single-minded' was putting it mildly, he decided. 'Obsessive' was a better word.

Felix ran grease covered fingers through his hair again, making it stick up in odd directions. "Look, could you just-" He waved a hand at the opposite wall of the small, hot room, "-check the compressor while I make sure we're just not low on coolant?"

Cor bobbed his head. "Sure thing. Here." He reached down and pulled a good sized wrench out of the toolbox at his feet. "You'll need that to get the top open."

Felix caught the wrench clumsily before stalking off to the dim, cramped area on the other side of the engine housing, out of Cor's line of sight.

The mechanic shot Felix's lanky form a worried look before he disappeared entirely. The human was brilliant, that much had been obvious to the old Hybridian the day Felix had come onboard eight months ago, but Cor still worried for him. He was only twenty-four. Too young to be locked up in his quarters all the time pouring over that one, stubborn equation.

Cor shook his head when he was sure Felix wouldn't see. Barely more than a kid, he thought as he started up the maintenance scan and then opened up a control panel where it sat just below its monitor partner. He's still young even by Man's standards. Should be out livin' it up at some fancy university instead'a wanderin' around out here all on his lonesome.

He knew why Felix hadn't though. Fact was, he was too smart for his own people. University, even at the master level, would have bored him out of his mind within a week.

Maybe if he'd tried one of the off world schools, Cor thought as he took off his own protective gloves and crouched down to peer into the unlit recesses of the control box. Squinting slightly, he directed his static field into the wire junction that connected with the compressor that sat farther back in the metal housing. His bioelectric energy jumped eagerly into the conductive metal and raced down the different wires and connections that linked to the Helix's ventilation systems, giving Cor a good look at how the electricity in the ship's internals was flowing.

Maybe if he'd gone somewhere that would'a challenged him mentally - like with those brainiacs on Avicii or even the Royal University back home - maybe then the kid would be off scrawlin' his numbers on a string'a holoboards under a foreign sun instead of fussin' with temperamental wiring out here in the boonies.

But then, with his mother dying and all, Felix hadn't shown much interest in anything but scrap wiring and getting himself as far from home as a propulsion system would take him.

Cor frowned, bushy eyebrows creasing low over his eyes. He knew precious little about Felix's life before the captain had hired him on for the Helix's current run to White Sails, and most of what he'd learned had been repeated by Tori, Felix's only other friend and the only other Earthling onboard. But with his mom dying of cancer and his dad AWOL since Felix was five, Cor could see how the Earthling might not want to stick around the homestead.

Well it's not like he woulda exactly enjoyed himself at the RU. Cor's thoughts were tainted with bitterness. Not with those cybernetic superiorists runnin' their mouths off against any race that doesn't have a secondary skeleton.

"Bucketheads," he grumbled to himself with a severe frown. "We're the freaky ones out n'about in the universe, don't they know that? How many other techno-organic races are out there asides us? Precious few, that's fer sure. And cyborgs don't count. They ain't born with oil in their veins like us."

He thumped his broad chest even though, technically, Hybridians didn't have oil in their veins either, just a naturally occurring metal-based conductor that transmitted the electrical current generated by their secondary skeleton – what they called their static fields – but it was such a close thing that 'oil' was a simpler way to explain it.

Cor snorted and rolled his eyes in a purely human gesture he'd picked up from their young co-pilot, Tori. "Bucketheads," he grumbled again under his breath, but was quickly distracted as his static field began to send him data from his inspection of the ship's circuits. The information streamed through the current that extended around him like an unseen bubble before entering his body via the oil that flowed along his more organic blood. The data arrowed straight for the set of thick, fibrous cords that sat above his spinal cord and the top third of his spine – the trademark secondary skeleton his race was known for.

The unique double spine downloaded the sensory information from his field and decoded it into understandable information faster than an AI computer brain could unzip a file. Faster than a human could even comprehend.

"All's A-okay over here!" Cor shouted so Felix could hear him over the working noise of the engine room. He pulled his static field back from the ship's circuitry and put his heavy worker's gloves back on. "Nuthin' overly important is broke, so it must be some minor glitch in the secondary systems."

Felix sighed as he came around the other side of the engine casing. “Great,” he grumbled, idly whacking the wrench head against the wall and getting a sharp clang in return. The pipe he'd struck reverberated, the sound bouncing around the small space as Felix dropped the wrench on top of the other tools, snapped the lid closed, and sat down on top of it. The seat was low enough that his knees stuck out slightly, vaguely stork-like. “That'll take twice as long to fix.”

Cor huffed a sour agreement as he came and sat down next to the kid, stretching his shorter legs out in front him when his aging knees refused to bend. “Ol’ Scales won’t want us shuttin’ anything down while there’re passengers on board,” he said in agreement as he leaned against the heated wall. “We’ll probably have to wait until we get ta White Sails afore we can even get a proper look at what’s goin’ on in there.”

Felix nodded, not really listening. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “sure thing.”

Cor waited for the engineer to say something - maybe about the perfectionist nature of their Skalorian captain or how he would wring Cor’s neck with his lengthy tail if he heard the old man calling him 'Scales' again. Or, better yet, maybe the real source of his withdrawn mood; say, just for example, what it was about his equation that was driving him to such distraction.

He looked down at the deck plating beneath his scuffed boots. The Hybridian had little hope for that last one. He was one of the few on the Helix 7 that had actually gotten to know Felix since he’d joined them and he recognized the signs. Felix was starting to enter a bad place. Last time he'd started acting like this, he'd locked himself in his room until he'd sorted out his 'kinks'.

Three days, Cor remembered worriedly. It took him three days to figure it out an' he was so focused on that stupid stretch a'math that he didn't sleep or eat the whole time. Looked like an unshaved ghoul when we finally got him outta there.

The old mechanic rubbed at the back of his neck, static field tingling with unease. Twenty-four obsessive genius, he thought grimly as he watched Felix out of the corner of his eyes. Yep, I'd say he's due for a mental breakdown right about now.

His static field contracted worriedly at the thought as he eyed his young friend. "Ya sure yer doin' all right there, kid?" he dared to ask.

"Fine," Felix mumbled without looking up at him. His fingers were starting to twitch erratically, like he was writing something in his head and his hands were trying to catch up.

Metallic eyes narrowed. "Would ya tell me if ya weren't?" Cor pressed.

Felix didn't even blink. "Probably not."

"Because," Cor went on, wishing the kid would actually hear what he was saying. "You know I'm right here if ya need somethin'-”

Felix abruptly moved, dropping his head and expelling a sigh before straightening back up again. "I'm fine, Cor. I'm just stuck is all. I'll sort it out," he snapped and abruptly headed for the open door.

He stopped when he reached the door and pulled the connection cable still plugged into his datapad up after him, twisting it around the clunky body of the pad before tucking it back in its sling. "Since the captain's not going to let us reboot anything, you mind if I go to my workroom? Might as well try and get something done, right?" He shrugged one lanky shoulder, free hand splayed at his side in a 'well what else have I got to do around here?' gesture.

Cor hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, all right," he caved. Maybe the kid just needed a good stretch of time to work through this knot in the numbers. Every engineer hit snags after all, and it wasn't like Cor had never overreacted before either. Those three days Felix had locked himself away had him spooked, Cor didn't mind admitting.

Felix brightened only slightly as he back-stepped towards the open door. "Great, I'll see you and Tor at dinner then."

He waved once before turning around and hanging a left to his workshop down the hall.

Cor watched him go, tiny sparks appearing in the air around him as anxiety made his static field pop restlessly.

"Right," he mumbled, a large sigh leaving his square nose. "See ya there."

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