Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE III
*Atlas JL-419, you are cleared on approach for Triblis colony. Follow our beacon, and ease down on Pad 2.*
Diaz keyed the radio to reply. “Triblis colony, Atlas JL-419 acknowledges. Following your beacon to Pad 2.” She took her thumb off the button and inhaled sharply. “Okay… here we go.”
“You got this, Diz.” Stiles offered in encouragement.
Johan glanced up from his console. “W… wait… this isn’t her first landing, is it?” Stiles merely glanced at Johan before returning his attention to Diaz at the pilot’s station. The boy blanched. “Oh man, I’m gonna die.”
“Shields are green,” Diaz announced, ignoring him, “starting rotation.” Gently, she eased the yoke toward her, pitching the nose of the Cassiopeia away from the planet. “Okay…I think the gravity well’s got us now. Just a matter of-” She yelped in surprise as the ship shuddered. “Yep, yep. Gravity’s definitely got us.”
“Little bit of kick on that stick?” Stiles joked.
“Atmo’ is denser than Horizon. Nothing I can’t handle, Cap.”
“Your approach vector is textbook, Diz,” Stiles encouraged, “told you all that practice would pay off.” Johan dabbed at the clammy, dewy film forming on his brow; trying desperately to keep his focus on his console. He could not help but observe, however, that the crew he had been assigned to appeared to be functioning oddly. The young man was not experienced enough to know what was amiss, exactly, but everyone seemed off-kilter. From what he could tell, everyone was experienced with space travel; yet it was evident that something was missing.
As the Cassiopeia was slowed by the planet’s atmosphere, the ships trembling subsided and Johan was able to breathe easier. However, he did not fully relax until he felt the landing struts kiss the ground.
“And she sticks the landing!” Diaz announced, elated.
*Is it over? Are we dead?* the ship’s engineer joked over the intercom.
*Good job, Diz.* Mujarez remarked.
“Up top, Skip!” Diaz declared, extending her hand. Stiles rose from his seat and slapped his palm to hers. “You too, Fungi. Don’t leave me cold.” Johan groaned. He knew not how he had earned such a degrading moniker, but he was already weary of hearing it. Despite himself, he rose and gave Diaz the ‘high five’ she craved.
“Alright, alright,” Stiles chided, “we’re on the clock now and they don’t pay us by the hour. Fungi, grab your kit and meet Ozawa at the bottom of the ramp.”
“Yes, sir.” Johan mumbled, already beginning to realize that Stiles had not been mistaken when he predicted that the young man would hate every second ‘out here’. Johan paused outside his assigned quarters, pondering the name affixed to the door. It read ‘J. Kousey’, but he had yet to meet anyone aboard who went by that. He turned at the approach of footsteps and spotted the Cassiopeia’s engineer trotting down the corridor.
“Coming through,” he announced, “pick a side, kid.”
Johan obediently pressed himself against a wall to allow for passage in the cramped hallway.
“Hey wait a second!” Johan called after him.
He slowed. “What?”
“Uh, it’s Vic, right?”
“Vac, sorry. Uh… speaking of names, when am I going to get mine on the door?”
The gaunt man’s eyes traced the door’s label, changing slightly in their expression as they did so. “Sure,” Vac sighed, “easy enough.” He fumbled with his pockets and produced a roll of white tape. After apportioning an adequate strip of the stuff, he affixed it over Kousey’s nameplate and wrote ‘Fungi’ in marker over the strip. “See ya,” Vac said cheerfully, before departing.
“That’s not my…” Johan sighed in resigned frustration. Vac was already gone and did not seem overly concerned in making any corrections.
Johan, now dressed in his blue ground duty uniform and burdened with all manner of equipment, found Keiko Ozawa outside the ship. She had been introduced to Johan as the resident xenobiologist, yet he seriously questioned how anyone with an advanced degree could find themselves working as a contractor. Her face was somewhat plumper than the rest of the crew, as was the rest of her. The ‘Double Q’ ration pouch peeking from a breast pocket betrayed a possible culprit. Still, with the possible exception of Diaz, Johan found her to be the friendliest of the crew.
She spoke into a handset as she directed the detachment of the Laboratory Pod from the main ship. Titanium claws groaned in protest as the structure was slowly lowered to the ground.
“Keep going… keep going… and… good… and…” inches from the ground, the claws released the pod; causing it to thud against the landing deck. A ripple of anger played across Ozawa’s face.
“Yeah, no, that’s fine! Just drop it! There’s no delicate equipment in there at all!”
*You said ‘good’.* Vac protested.
“I meant ‘good’ as in ‘keep going’.”
*Then just say ‘keep going’.*
“Why don’t you just say ‘hey, Zowie, I know you’ve got some important instruments in here, can you just confirm that you want me to release the claws?’ something like that!?”
*Hmm. Sounds like a mouthful.*
Ozawa angrily raised the handset to her mouth, but thought against it; instead stowing the device on a utility clip. At that point she noticed Johan standing quietly at her side. “Oh! Uh…hey.” She stuttered.
“Hey,” Johan answered, “Ozawa, right? Captain said I was supposed to meet up with you.”
“Right, right. Well, I have to inspect the lab. Look around with me; make sure that moron didn’t bust anything. You can call me Zowie, by the way.”
“Alright, you can call me Johan, by the way.”
Ozawa chuckled as she keyed the pod door opened. “Uh-oh, someone doesn’t like their new nickname.”
Johan followed her inside, and the two began opening insulated crates and inspecting the equipment inside. “It’s not that I don’t ‘like’ it,” Johan remarked as he set about his tasks, “I just don’t get it. Why ‘Fungi’? I mean… I shower.”
His counterpart let out a small laugh. “No, no, no. ‘Fungi’ is just an easier way to say FNG.”
“Okay… what’s FNG?”
She paused, blushing slightly. “Um…it
means… ‘New Guy’.”
Johan knitted his brow incredulously. “There’s no ‘F’ in New G…” finally the conclusion dawned on him, “Oh.”
“Sorry,” Ozawa muttered, flushing, “but if it makes you feel better; everyone was ‘Fungi’ once. In fact, evolutionarily, there’s evidence that the earliest forms of complex life to emerge were slime molds… so, historically speaking, literally everyone was once fungi.”
“Hooray.” Johan replied sardonically. The two worked in silence for a moment until Johan itched to broach a new subject. “So Captain Stiles said this mission was a ‘Snoop & Scoop’, ever do that kind of mission before?”
Ozawa shrugged “It’s basically what I was hired for. Observe animal behavior, collect sample, analyze; flash-freeze and ship to C-TAQ. Of course, I had to learn how to do other stuff… not much use for a biologist when we’re installing equipment or spying on pirates.”
“Technically, I’m also the ship’s medical assistant under Ava. I am also the safety supervisor which, trust me, is not as much of a do-nothing job as it sounds. Particularly with Vac and Jake around. I swear, they…” Ozawa trailed off, her brow furrowed and she bit her lip. “I…uh…I talk too much sometimes. Nervous habit. Nevermind.” Silence fell over the lab. The two continued to work, but each was wrapped in their own thoughts.
Shortly, the door to the lab pod hissed open and Stiles stepped within. “Zowie, you set up?”
“Uh, still working on it, Skip.”
“Magistrate wants a survey as soon as possible. Says the animals around here are quiet for now, but getting more aggressive. I’ll get Vac to finish getting you set.”
“Have Ava do it. Vac hasn’t got a clue as to what he’s doing.”
Stiles hesitated for the briefest of moments. Johan saw the man’s face twitch imperceptibly when Ozawa mentioned Mujarez’ name. “Fine,” Stiles replied, quickly regaining his composure,
“you, Fungi, and Diz: no more than a hundred meters past the fence.”
“Got it.” Ozawa acknowledged as she collected a backpack. “Let’s go, Fungi.”
Johan followed as asked, but sputtered a complaint. “W-wait! What are we doing!?”
“You heard the Skip,” Ozawa replied as she jogged along, “we’re doing a survey.” Diaz was already waiting for them at the perimeter gate; a massive net gun strapped to her back.
“I don’t understand. Wh-what am I doing? I haven’t been…uh…trained to do survey work.”
“That’s okay,” Ozawa remarked brightly, “consider this on-the-job training.” Johan began to protest again, but the machined gates before him groaned open. In moments, he was confronted the amaranthine canopy of the alien jungle. Unseen creatures called and whooped within the impenetrable vegetation. Back on Atlas, Johan might have thrilled to see so much unspoiled nature, however, he could not help but ruminate upon the fact that none of the animals on the Atlasian nature preserves were liable to eat him.
“Fungi!” A slap on his shoulder broke him from his reverie. Johan turned to discover that both Diaz and Ozawa were wearing goggles, respirators, and headsets. “Get your game face on, dummy!” Diaz insisted. “Never leave the hazard bubble on a new planet without a filter.”
Johan fumbled for his protective gear; affixing it hastily. He took a few breaths into the respirator, quickly finding his breathing muffled. “I-I don’t think it’s working.” Johan reported.
“Probably wanna turn it on.” Ozawa advised.
Johan suppressed a groan of embarrassment and keyed the activation stud on the side of his respirator. He was greeted by the slight whine of an electric motor and suddenly found breathing much easier.
“Come on,” Diaz chided, a digitized version of her voice echoing in Johan’s headset, “I know company training isn’t exactly extensive, but I know they teach you how to wear EXA gear.”
“Cut him a break, Diz, it’s his first hop.” Ozawa countered.
“Fine. He’s kinda cute when he gets all frustrated anyway,” before Johan could object to the patronization, Diaz keyed her headset, “Diaz to Cass, anybody got ears on up there?”
*Y’ello?* Vac answered.
“Aw, fantastic.” Ozawa muttered.
*Hi Zooowie!* Vac responded cloyingly.
“Three leaving perimeter,” Diaz continued, unperturbed, “Diaz, Ozawa and…uh…”
“Asdourian.” Johan concluded, irritated.
*Okay… and logged. Have fun, kiddos.*
“Vac, you’d better have food up there!” Ozawa chastised. “I don’t want to be talking to dead air just because you decided you needed a snack… again.” There was silence on the line for a
*Back in five.* He finally replied. Diaz suppressed a giggle, but a far less amused Ozawa muttered “Unbelievable.”
“Let’s just get going.” Diaz offered. “Sooner we get this done, the sooner you love birds can get back to the old nest.”
“Wait!” Johan interjected as they began to depart. “You and Vac-”
“No!” Ozawa objected “Diz just likes to irritate me with the insinuation.”
“You sure you’re not feeling irritation for another reason? I hear they have a shampoo for that.”
“For the love of...” Ozawa sputtered, “can we focus on the job for once?”
“Yeah, speaking of which,” Johan remarked, “the captain said something about the animals out here being aggressive, but… I don’t have a weapon on anything.”
“Oh! Thank goodness you said something!” Diaz declared, reaching for one of the many items on her utility straps. She produced a pistol-shaped device and tossed it to Johan.
“Sweet!” Johan exclaimed. “What kind of firepower are we talking?” He asked as he aimed the device at a nearby tree.
“Magnetically accelerated micro trace.” Ozawa answered.
“First trigger emits a laser; shows you where the shot will go. Second trigger fires a nano-transmitter; lets us know all about the animal’s location, blood chemistry, cell structure… basically anything we could want to know about it.”
“And… how will this help me in a fight?” Johan pressed, incredulous.
“Trust me, if this comes to a fight; just stay behind Diz.”
“Bet you don’t have any complaints there, do you Fungi?” Diaz asked, wiggling her ample hips suggestively. Johan opted not to reply, silently blessing the fact that his respirator covered any sign of blush.
“You seem to have omitted some details in your initial request.” Stiles observed, as he reviewed the footage of the colony’s exterior cameras. Instance after instance of animals answering various descriptions probing the colony’s defenses played before him.
“Have we?” le Clerk replied, nonplussed. The magistrate carried a pair of steaming mugs from the fabricator as the two of them conversed in his elaborate office. Le Clerk’s office rested on the upper-most section of the largest colony dome. Windows surrounded the entirety of the grand room. Late afternoon sunlight glinted off many ostentatious models and artifacts; some of which predated the founding of the Homeworlds. Stiles was hunched at the magistrate’s sleek and utterly superfluously sized desk as he browsed the captured footage.
“No same group of species probes your walls twice.” Stiles continued.
“Is that relevant?” le Clerk asked, setting one of the beverages on a fine non-fabricated porcelain coaster.
“Are you kidding!? It’s unheard of!”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m just not the expert you are,” The magistrate assumed a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk, stirring some sort of additive into his vessel, “do enlighten me.” Stiles eyed his counterpart warily but neutrally. At first he was ready to dismiss le Clerk as yet another among a long list of colonial magistrates who were nothing more than pompous self-important windbags playing at pioneer. However, his read on the man had changed over the last few minutes. He found le Clerk strangely disinterested in Stiles discoveries. Further, where most magistrates would demand instant and effective results; le Clerk appeared to be much more accommodating.
Nevertheless, Stiles’ misgivings did not give him an excuse to fail to answer the magistrate’s inquiry. “Territorialism among certain species –particularly predator species- is an almost universal evolutionary trait. It doesn’t matter what planet you go to, or how bizarre the description of life is there; material beings need territory and those with the means of defending it; do so. Always.”
“Fascinant,” Le Clerk remarked in his native tongue, “and so, you are no doubt disturbed that so many species have gathered to defend a single stretch of land?”
“Each species tries exactly once. When they are thwarted, they give up.”
“Seems reasonable to me. If they cannot break through, why bother trying?”
Stiles no longer attempted to mask his incredulity of the magistrate’s demeanor. “Ever owned a tyshound, magistrate?”
“Ugh. Filthy, dirty animals.”
“Mm. Well, I owned two when I was growing up. And whenever someone even came near the dorm, they’d yelp and scramble at the door. They’d never get out of course, but boy would they try.” Stiles tried to read le Clerk’s reaction, but the magistrate betrayed nothing. “They’d try every time.” Stiles elucidated.
“I see,” le Clerk remarked, sipping his beverage, “this situation is very strange, then.”
“It is indeed, sir.” Captain Stiles returned his attention to the monitor, passively observing the accelerated recording as night and day passed within a few moments on the screen. The attacks were far from constant, often leaving a several day lull period between attempts. The recording was replaying such a lull period, which otherwise left very little for an observer to remark upon.
Stiles was just about to lift his gaze to continue the conversation, when a flash came from the top-right corner of the screen. “What the…?” Stiles mumbled. He activated the rewind and slow features in an attempt to get a better view. The area in question was a patch of sky, and there was definitely a small, but distinct interruption to the otherwise unbroken turquoise of this alien atmosphere. “What is that?” Stiles asked. Le Clerk rose to regard what had caught the captain’s attention. “It appears to be a meteor.” The magistrate remarked.
Stiles checked the time index. “You had a meteor impact two hours before we arrived?”
“Apparently.” Stiles glared at him. “Oh, worry not Capitan, we are not due for another impact for several months. Your crew is in no danger.”
“No danger from meteors.” Stiles muttered.
“Nevermind.” Stiles made a show of checking his timepiece, looking for any excuse to end the unavailing exchange. “My survey team should be returning soon. I need to make the final inspections on my laboratory to make sure it is ready to process their findings.”
“Of course. My men are at your disposal should you require any assistance.”
“Thank you.” Stiles departed, leaving his beverage untouched. When he exited the hab, he did not make for the laboratory pod but for the Cassiopeia. The captain proceeded for his bridge without the slightest hesitation. “Vac!” He shouted, announcing his presence.
The engineer nearly spilled from his seat in surprise. “Jeez, skip! You trying to give me a heart attack!?”
Stiles eyed the steaming ration cup resting on the console. “Keep wolfing down those Double Qs and I won’t have to.” He turned his attention to a vitals monitor. Three subjects were on the display; Diaz, Ozawa, and Johan. “How’s the kid doing?” Stiles inquired.
“No worse than my first day.” Vac observed as he chewed a portion of his meal.
“See, this is why I stay in the engine section. I don’t get this kind of abuse from my grand old ladies.” Stiles made an attempt at a chuckle, but his heart wasn’t in it. Too many oddities scratched at the back of his mind. “Hey Vac, do me a favor and pull up a map of the system.”
“Alright.” Vac tapped a few keys on the console, and a three-dimensional image resolved on one of the spare displays.
“Is this the colonial scan or our own scan?” Stiles asked.
“Ours.” Vac answered. “Do you want the colonial scan?”
“No, don’t bother. That’s a substantial asteroid field out there, isn’t it?”
“I’ve seen bigger.” Vac replied.
“Any way to tell if there’s been an impact recently?”
“Well, I’d have to link up to the colony’s satellites to scan for an ice trail, radiation decay… and they’re probably going to want to know why we’re doing that. Heck, I’d kinda like to know why we’re doing that… and if we’re being paid for it.”
Stiles worked his mouth in consideration. “Never mind… it’s just… I was just curious.”
Vac raised an incredulous eyebrow. “About meteor impacts?”
“What? I can’t have a hobby?”
“Come on, Skip.”
“Forget it, it’s not important.” Stiles turned to leave but paused, unresolved details still plaguing his brain. “Are we receiving any radio signals?” Vac nonchalantly pointed at the vitals display. “Beyond that.” Stiles pressed.
Vac shrugged “Random colonial chatter. I think some guy in B-Hab is cheating on his girlfriend in C-Hab.”
The engineer sighed. “Skip, you wanna clue me in to what’s boiling in your behind?”
“Just… anything. Any transmission that might be out of place.”
Vac cracked the bones in his neck, making a great show of his exasperation. “If you want an accurate answer, you’ll need to give me a couple hours.”
“Oh please. It’ll take you thirty minutes but fine. I’m going to go check on Ava.”
Stiles again made for the exit, making several strides before Vac cried out in alarm “Diz? Diz, say that again! What!?” He suddenly turned to his captain, eyes wide with shock. “Cap, you’d better tell Ava to get the med bay ready.”
“Fungi!” Diaz gasped as she sprinted through the underbrush. “I…thought…Ozawa told you…to stay behind me!” Johan, several yards ahead of her, did not pause to acknowledge her. He was far too frightened about the creature pursuing his group to trade jabs.
Diaz stole a glance behind her as Ozawa struggled to maintain their frantic pace. “Keiko! Keep up!” Diaz shouted. She offered no reply. Instead, a root caught her foot; causing her to pitch forward onto the peaty ground. “Oh, that is the opposite of what I wanted!” Diaz hissed, drawing a punt-gun and firing blindly into the thicket behind them. Foliage rippled and warped as the concussive bursts blasted them aside and something roared in anger within the concealment of the florid curtain of vines and leaves.
It did not stay concealed for long. With a mighty crash, the beast revealed itself. The creature stood ten feet high atop four stout legs and was protected by thick, leathery skin. Long, spear-like tusks jutted from its lower mandible and small, beady eyes regarded the contractors with burning malice.
Pockets of swollen tissue and seeping green blood marked when it had absorbed the punishing bursts from the punt-gun, and the beast did not appear at all pleased about such abuse.
Diaz paled as she looked upon the creature, their eyes locking to each other as pursuer finally met his quarry. Suddenly, she cast a finger at Ozawa. “She did it!” Diaz declared in the vain hope that the monster might be distracted from its target. The beast was not persuaded, instead taking a single menacing step forward. Its nostrils flared as it prepared for the final charge. But then it hesitated, eyes locking upon something in the distance.
It roared anew and charged in Diaz’ direction, but it did not alter its bearing when she dodged aside. The young woman could only marvel in disbelief as the beast continued forward; effortlessly knocking away trunk and branch as it went.
Johan, of course, was less pleased about this turn of events. For the beast now thundered directly for him. Desperate, Johan ripped off his respirator and cast it at the monster, but the equipment merely bounced off the creature’s hide without effect. Johan cried out as the tusks came well within range of goring him, but the monster turned its head at the last moment and simply opted to knock the boy into a nearby tree before continuing on its way.
The young man moaned in a crumpled heap on the ground. The force of the impact had not seriously injured him, but it still took several moments for that fact to register in his brain. He stared upward at the jungle’s amaranthine canopy as dozens of wooly bird creatures stared back at him; utterly indifferent to his pain. One of their number, in fact, saw fit to evacuate a viscous string of excrement onto Johan’s hair. “Yep,” the young man muttered, “that’s my life in a nutshell.”
Diaz and Ozawa joined him after a few moments, panting and gasping through their respirators. “Johan, are you alright?” Ozawa asked in concern.
“Define ‘alright’.” He replied.
“Yes or no; are you going to die on us in the next five minutes.” Diaz pressed.
“Don’t… ow… think so.”
Diaz touched her headset. “Vac, I’m a man down with possible internals and you’ve got incoming.” She paused as she received a reply. Johan had lost his own headset in the scramble and thus could not hear the reciprocal transmission. “Big, mean monster thing. Trust me; you’ll see it… Huh? Yeah, of course he’s the one who got hurt.” Johan sighed, not needing to guess the subject of conversation. “Yeah, I don’t know if we should move him… We’ll look, but I’d rather have Ava out here… Copy.” Diaz turned her attention back to a supine Johan. “Okay, kid. We’re going to sit tight and see if there’s anything wrong with you besides the obvious.”
Ozawa was already unfastening his fatigues. “Really, Diz, he took a hit for us. You maybe wanna keep the wisecracks to a minimum?”
“He’s got bird poop in his hair, what am I supposed to do?” Ozawa’s reply was interrupted by a distant but thunderous crackle of a large object being interdicted by an energy field.
“Sounds like it hit the colony’s shields.” Diz observed. The sound echoed again.
“Sounds like it’s a glutton for punishment.” Ozawa remarked. Roars and the crackling of energy followed for several minutes thereafter. Johan did his best to ignore Ozawa’s painful examination as he watched the wooly birds above give focused attention to the fracas beyond.
Eventually the sounds of the assault died and Ozawa ceased her probing. “I think you’re okay,” she announced, “might have some hairline fractures, but my instruments didn’t detect any internal bleeding.”
“Are we okay to go back to the ship?” Johan asked.
“Hang on, I’ll check.” Diaz responded. “Vac, what’s the word on the big guy? Uh-huh… alright, sounds good.” She turned toward Johan. “Big bad ran into the shield ‘til it killed him. He even managed to tax the generators a bit, so they’re going to reset the field real quick. It takes a few minutes, so we may as well get moving while the field is down.”
“Works for me,” Johan grunted as he came to his feet, “tired of looking at the birds… anyway…”
“What is it?” Ozawa asked, detecting the hesitation in Johan’s voice.
“Why didn’t they fly away? Something that big and noisy? They ought to have…”
Diaz gasped in alarm, keying her headset in an instant. “Vac! Tell them to cancel the field reset! I say again, tell them to cancel the-” At once, the birds took to their wings. With a great sibilant rush of beating wings, the creatures made for the defenseless colony.
The sounds that followed were not the cracks and sizzles of bodies meeting an interdiction field, but the groaning of compromised metal and the screams of colonists.
To Be Continued