Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE IV
The damage had been done by the time Diaz, Ozawa, and Johan had made it back to the colony. There were no human bodies, and not much in the way of injuries, but the damage to the facility itself had been extensive.
Johan observed the snapped antennae and ruined vehicles in wonderment as he limped at Ozawa’s shoulder. Corpses of wooly bird creatures littered the grounds. Many had obviously perished in the suicide dives against the colony’s equipment.
As the group rounded a corner, they discovered that the Cassiopeia had fared no better. Stiles and Vac were already surveying the damage as the group approached. “I don’t think I like this job, Skipper.” Diz declared, announcing their presence.
“How’s the kid?” Stiles replied, ignoring her quip.
“Not as bad as it could’ve been. How’s the ship?”
“Exactly as bad as it could have been.” Vac proclaimed, descending from one of the engine nacelles. “There’s a whole mess of them nesting deep in the engine.”
“Can’t you… y’know… blast them out?” Johan asked.
“There’s an awful racket in there. They disconnect the wrong hose and I try to start those engines; we’ll all be in orbit all right… just in several pieces.”
“So what do we do?” Johan asked. “Call for help?”
Stiles expression twisted in a manner that quickly doused Johan’s hope for that option. “They went for the antennae first. On the ship and the colony.”
Johan’s face fell. “We can’t leave… we can’t call for help…” He glanced at the rent equipment of the surrounding colony. “…oh, don’t tell me.” He muttered.
“Ozawa,” Stiles began, quick to quash Johan’s quickly growing panic, “what do you make of it?”
The woman, however, was just as flummoxed as Johan. Her almond eyes were wide as they scanned the carnage. “What do I make of it?” She whispered. “This isn’t animal behavior, sir. Coordination on this scale… it’s impossible.”
“I’ve seen plenty of animals that launch coordinated attacks on their prey.” Stiles pressed.
“All due respect, skip, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Johan quirked an eyebrow, expecting a swift verbal reprisal from Stiles. None came. “Pack hunting behavior or… or swarming behavior,” Ozawa continued, “requires a pretty basic order of intelligence. They’ll go after your legs, your lungs, your eyes –obvious biological attributes. They would never go after your radio… not on purpose. Not unless there was something attracting them to it.”
“Vac, is that possible?” The engineer paused as he wiped grease from his hands; offering only a blank stare and a baffled shrug in reply.
“I need something better than that.” Stiles insisted, annoyed.
“Look, I don’t know. With the antennae, I’d guess some sort of infrasound. But the engines are off. They’re not making any sort of sound.”
“Where does that leave us, people?” Stiles tone was stern, but the tiniest oscillation in his voice betrayed a burgeoning dread. His query, however, was met with silence and downcast eyes. “Alright…” Stiles muttered. “Alright, we… just all need some time to think. Fungi, have Ava check you out. The rest of you, have a few goes on the punching bag to get the jitters out. Meet up on the bridge in twenty.”
Johan observed his crewmates, in an attempt to gauge just how worried he should be. Their expressions betrayed little, but it was more than obvious that none of them were happy about the circumstances. Whatever their thoughts, however, they maintained their composure. He fell in with them as they boarded the ship. As ordered, they made for the dual-purpose galley/gymnasium while Johan limped in the opposite direction for sick bay.
He reached the door in short order. Upon keying it open, however, a fluttering blue object impacted directly on his face. He cried out and fell backwards; the thing squawking, flapping, and clawing all the way. As quickly as it had come, the chattering nuisance flew down the corridor toward the galley.
Mujarez burst through the threshold of sickbay, harried and wild-eyed, wielding an improvised contraption obviously meant to interdict the errant creature. She spared a moment to regard Johan; scratched, battered, and soiled as he was before she rolled her eyes and grumbled something in Latínium, proceeding to chase the alien as she did so.
A bewildered Johan wiped away some blood from his brow before following suit, hastening his stumbling gait as a great clatter arose in the galley. He found the mess hall in a state of abject chaos when he arrived. Already, the bird creature had spilled the contents of several boxes in its wild attempts at escape. His crew awkwardly scrambled over obstacles and each other in vain attempts to capture the thing.
The wooly bird settled on the sink briefly, inadvertently keying the spigot. The sudden spout of water startled the alien back into flight and doused Diaz in the face as she dove for it. Vac swung a sauce pan as it sailed overhear, missing the creature entirely and instead striking one of the pressure actuated cabinets. The cabinet door sprung open; offering tempting refuge for the panicked avian. As it attempted to settle on the stacked bowls, they pitched over; showering Vac in synthetic ceramic.
Its strength flagging, the creature made an attempt to depart the galley from the direction it had come; an avenue now blocked by Johan. The boy sprang at the bird as it approached, succeeding in actually grabbing hold of it above his head. As he let out a jubilant whoop, however, the creature excreted a grayish substance into Johan’s open mouth. So foul was it that Johan immediately released the animal, clawing the goop from his tongue.
Now free, the avian fluttered and clattered its way down the corridor, disappearing from sight as it rounded a bend.
“Oh great,” Vac mumbled, “now it could be any-”
“Masks on, people!” Stiles commanded, striding for a control panel.
Johan cast his head about in confusion. Around him, the other members of the crew were snatching air filters from their hips and affixing them to their faces. His eyes widened, and he instantly reached for his hip, but found it empty.
“Wait!” He cried, but Stiles had already input the command on the console. A white burst of gas erupted from overhead ports, and Johan involuntarily gasped. Instantly, he began to feel woozy. Stiles turned as Johan sank to his knees, and gently shook his head in disappointment. “Your filter’s around your stupid neck, Fungi.” He said in chastisement.
Johan inclined his head downward, confirming that his mask was indeed hanging from his neck. “Oh.” he muttered before losing consciousness.
Reality crept into Johan’s brain with all the subtlety of a corkscrew to the temple. He eased an eye open then clamped it shut as the unforgiving fluorescents of the medbay flooded his vision. He groaned with agitation as he rubbed his aching head.
“How are you liking your first day of adventure and excitement in the Col-Aid-Corp?” A weary feminine voice asked.
“Wha?” Johan groaned, still desperately attempting to collect his bearings.
“I said: is this job everything you hoped it’d be? Exploring exotic worlds? Dueling with bizarre creatures?” The boy finally worked his eyes open to narrow slits, barely observing Ava Mujarez watching over him. “Courting death sounds a lot more romantic in the recruitment pamphlets, doesn’t it?”
“You’re just a pocket full of sunshine, aren’t you?” he muttered.
He felt Mujarez glaring daggers at him as he rubbed his eyes, but Johan did not meet her gaze. “So what’s the word, doc,” Johan continued, “am I gonna live?”
“This time.” Mujarez replied bitterly.
“This time, she says.” Johan chuckled, orienting himself to rise from the bed. “Well don’t sound so happy about it.”
“The less time you spend on that bed, the happier I’ll be. I promise you that.”
“Whatever.” Johan gingerly touched his feet to the ground. “Do I need to take pills or something?”
“No.” Mujarez continued to regard him with a stony and remarkably hostile glare.
“Look,” Johan sighed, “I’m still learning how things work on this crew, so if I’ve offended you somehow-”
“Asked anyone who he was?”
Johan blinked in surprise. “Sorry?”
“The name on the door to your quarters isn’t yours, is it? Did it ever cross your mind to ask anyone who he was?”
“Hey, I’m not stupid. I know a sore subject when I see one.”
Mujarez finally gave a thin smile. “Well. How polite.”
“What is your problem, lady!?”
“My problem,” Mujarez shouted with sudden fury, “is in less than an hour, you came up with three bruised ribs, a hairlined tibia, a mouthful of germs that we can only pray modern antibiotics will defeat, and –oh yes- a mild case of halon gas poisoning!”
He scoffed. “Who are you, my mother?”
“What if I were?”
Johan’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Wh…what?”
Mujarez narrowed her eyes at him, speaking slowly and precisely. “If your mother could have seen what happened to you; what would you tell her, Johan?”
The boy sputtered for a moment, stunned. Hearing his given name on the Cassiopeia had become such a rarity that he had started to wonder if anyone actually knew what it was. “I…” Slowly, he regained his wits. “I’d tell her I’ll be more carful next time. There. Happy?”
“She’d breathe easier if you told her you’d be smarter next time.” Mujarez returned. “The most deadly element you can encounter out here is: Stupid. You think pirates, aliens, or the vacuum of space are what you have to worry about? No! We have solutions for those. What we don’t have solutions for is a panicked little boy breaking from the group or forgetting where his gas mask is!”
“Oh, you think you’re sorry!? Do you have any idea how lucky you were to get mauled by that alien within spitting distance of the compound? How sorry will you be when it happens a kilometer away or ten kilometers away? What would you tell your poor, sick mother then?”
Johan’s mouth worked in an attempt to produce speech, but his faculties had withered under the barrage of verbal chastisement. Mujarez approached, jabbing a finger into his chest. “The real reason you don’t ask who Jake Kousey was is because deep down you know that if it can happen to him; it can happen to you too. So stop treating this like it’s a game, niñoqueño.”
“I…I… don’t think this is a game.” Johan sputtered, alarmed by Mujarez’ increasingly unhinged demeanor.
“Good! Because there are no prizes for ending up on my medbed, you got it!?”
“Yes mom –uh- I mean ma’am! Yes, ma’am!”
“That’s better.” Mujarez replied, finally stepping away. “Captain wants us on the bridge.”
He followed behind her wordlessly as they wound through the Cassiopeia’s narrow corridors. Johan kept his head downward as his emotions stewed in self-pity and admonishment. When they arrived on the bridge, he saw the rest of the crew had arrived before them and as all eyes fell on him, knowing smiles began to play across their lips. Even Stiles touched his hand to his lips to conceal his mirth. Mujarez approached their to discuss something in private. As they conversed, Diaz nudged Johan.
“How bad was it?” She asked.
“Hurricane Ava? First time I got hurt on the job, Mujarez made me cry.”
The boy’s jaw dropped in shock. “Really!?”
“Yep. Haven’t bawled that bad since breaking one of my dad’s gadgets when I was ten.”
“I put in two days of work on a busted big toe once.” Vac uttered. Johan stared in astonishment. “Rather wait for the company docs than face Ava with an injury.”
“Wow…” Johan remarked, unsure of what else to say.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Diaz prodded, “how bad was it?”
He worked his mouth in uncertainty. Ultimately, he decided that there was no point in concealing the truth on such a small ship. “I called her ‘mom’.” Johan admitted.
Both of his companions were miserably unsuccessful in their attempts to suppress their laughter.
“I’m glad someone found something worth laughing about!” Stiles called above their guffaws, instantly quashing all mirth on the bridge. “Because, I haven’t heard anything that’s made me smile once all day.” He cast his eyes about the bridge and found everyone but Mujarez avoiding his gaze. “Well go on, Vac,” he prodded, “amuse me.”
The engineer cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Diz and I were able to clear the squatters out of the engine. Unfortunately, DiOS is showing half a dozen no-fly error codes.”
“How do we fix it?”
“Partial disassembly of the starboard nacelle. We’d need help from the colonists, but I figure a day to get the housing off. Two days to fix and replace. One more day to get the housing back on… assuming, of course, our fine feathered friends stay out of it.”
“Might not be able to count on that,” Stiles remarked, “colonists tried to erect an emergency antenna; local wildlife wasn’t having it.” A ripple of apprehension played across the faces of the crew. “Which brings me to you, Keiko. Have you learned anything?”
Ozawa stood and placed a large black case atop a nearby console. She keyed one of the button’s on the case’s interface and its opaque sides washed to transparent. Within, the wooly creature, now sheet white, paced about; occasionally testing its gossamer wings in vain.
“I’ll spare everyone the biology lesson and get to the point,” Ozawa announced, “there is no evolutionary reason for this animal to have attacked our equipment. I ran the standard battery of stimulus response tests, holographic vivisection, even put a piece of our damaged antenna in the cage… I had squat.”
“Had?” Stiles pressed, detecting the oddity in her word choice.
“Yessir. As I mentioned before, this level of coordination is unheard of in lower-order lifeforms. I mean we’ve run into more than a few collective consciousness organisms, and I’m sure none of us will forget going up against the hive on Cespid VI…” Johan detected Diz shudder beside him. “…but this creature displays none of the organs or reflexive responses we’d expect to see from something like that.”
“You said you’d spare us the biology lesson,” Stiles remarked.
“Right. Sorry. Long story short, I eliminated natural behavior as a factor. Which leaves us with only one possibility…”
The mood of the crew visibly deflated around Johan as he looked on uncomprehendingly. “Unnatural behavior?” the boy ventured.
“Sabotage.” Stiles illuminated.
“Wait, what!?” Johan cried aghast. “Why? Who would do that?”
“Happens.” Diz grimly elucidated. “Radical anti-colonials, rival corporate operatives…”
Johan sank as the implications began to weigh on his mind.
“Any idea as to who is doing it or how?” Stiles continued.
“Don’t know who, but I do know how.” Ozawa replied, producing a small compressed air canister from a pouch and inserting it into a port on the case. A sharp hiss betrayed the release of the canister’s contents which was immediately followed by the bird creature’s furry curls changing to bright blue and its demeanor changing from passive to violent in mere seconds. It flapped and flopped about the confines of the case; striking the sides with savage disregard for its own welfare. Ozawa quickly inserted another canister which reversed the effects of the first. The creature, now injured and breathless, curled into a ball as it emitted a lonely, despondent cooing noise.
“Hmm…” Stiles muttered in consternation. “You’re saying someone is using some sort of synthetic compound to agitate or pacify the local wildlife?”
“I wish I were saying that,” Ozawa sighed, “according to the analysis of the protein chains, the pheromone compounds appear to be naturally occurring… and specifically targeted.”
“Say that again!?” Vac asked in disbelief.
“Remember; we had two species attack the base today. Once I found the compound was present for our flying friend here, I checked for what was in the colony’s air filters when the other monster attacked… and the chemical formulation and concentration was distinctly different. So, I took a look at the logs from previous attacks… all different.”
“That’s impossible!” Mujarez interjected. “It would take decades and a research team of thousands to synthesize any such compounds for half a dozen species… let alone discover naturally occurring ones.”
Ozawa shrugged. “And yet…” she left it there. After all, her findings spoke for themselves. Oppressive silence hung like a blanket on the Cassiopeia’s bridge. It was clear to all that if Ozawa’s findings were correct; the adversary they faced was far too advanced in their schemes for this paltry crew to hope to counter.
“Sounds like we’re in an AMRaD situation, folks.” Stiles said at last.
“Wait…” Johan remarked, “wait… I remember what that means… Assistance, Rescue, Medical, and… uh…”
“Death.” Diz finished. All color drained from Johan’s face.
“Ava?” Stiles asked.
“Hundred twenty five thousand.” She replied.
She flushed with embarrassment. “Thirty two.”
“Oh come on!” Diz spat.
“What!? It’s not like I’ve got a family to worry about! And the company doesn’t spring for top-tier equipment.”
“Seriously, though!? Thirty two?”
“Well, how much have you got?”
“Eighty nine!” Eyebrows shot up all over the bridge at that. Diz smirked. “What? You think a face this gorgeous pays for anything when we’re in port?”
“Not with money…” the engineer observed suggestively.
“Whatever, Vac.” Diz returned.
“Back on point,” Stiles interjected, “I’m at a quarter mil’. Fungi, I’m guessing you’re still at the recruit’s standard ten thousand?”
“Wh… why are you asking about money?”
“Col-Aid-Corp is a business, pal. Saving us will cost the company money.”
“But… they can’t just leave us here!”
“If rescuing us costs more than…” Stiles paused as he did some mental calculations, “the half million they’d have to pay our beneficiaries… they might do just that.” Johan glanced around for any sign of incredulity from the rest of the crew, but their expressions made it more than evident that this was not news to them. “Alright,” Stiles continued, “our chase ship is about thirty six hours away. Vac, I want you to work on finding a way to get a message into orbit by the time it gets here.”
“Not if those crazy birds are going to knock down any antenna I put up!” He argued.
“Ozawa, any chance you can whip up enough of that stuff to protect the compound?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, boss. Not a chance. I’m going to need a sample of whatever’s out there that’s producing the agent.”
“A living sample?” Diz asked, her tone belying dread.
“What do you think?”
“Nuts.” She sighed.
“What about the saboteur?” Mujarez asked. “We’ve got someone out there working against us.”
“That’s true and for now they don’t know that we know they’re out there. So we continue to act like we don’t. We get that live sample Keiko’s needs; I bet they’ll reveal themselves.”
“But how in the world are we going to find the specimen!?” Johan demanded.
Ozawa let crack a tight, apologetic smile. “Actually, I’ve got some thoughts on that…”
* * *
Johan did his best to keep the container balanced between his legs as Diz wound the Cassiopeia’s rugged all terrain vehicle through the dense amaranthine jungle. The creature within fluttered and protested with every jolt, but remained generally placid as the team proceeded. The rover that conveyed them was little more than a half-dozen wheels strapped to an over-powered engine. Few comforts were afforded to its passengers. It cabin was little more than a titanium roll cage with a transparent acrylic windscreen.
“What do you think we should call these things?” He asked, his voice augmented above the engine noise by his radio.
“Noisy jerks.” Diz offered.
Stiles, in the front passenger seat, cast a glance over his shoulder. “Well, it doesn’t have feathers so much as wool. Kinda looks like an owl, too.”
“A what?” Johan asked.
“Yeah, what?” Diz joined.
“Sheesh, I’m old.” Stiles muttered. “Anyway, I’m going with a ‘Woowl’.”
“Woah-ll.” Johan repeated, sounding out the awkward syllable. “I kinda like it.”
“Suck up.” Diz quipped.
“Sir,” Johan persisted, “can I ask you a question?”
“I encourage you to ask as many as possible.”
“When can we expect rescue… I mean, assuming its coming?”
“Well, statistically, if something is going to go seriously wrong with a job; it happens within the first fifty hours about eighty percent of the time. So a chase ship was launched about two days after us.”
“So help’s only a day and a half away?” Johan asked hopefully.
“Probably not. See, there’s only so many resources aboard that ship; a few extra engineers, a doctor, maybe a rent-a-gun. If they can’t make contact with us, they’re going to turn right around and go home. That’s a ten day jump. At that point the company will put out a rescue contract based on what information the chase ship was able to gather. A few mercenary organizations will bid for it for the next couple days and if any of those bids come in under half a million –our combined AMRaD accounts- they’ll get sent. So that’s another ten day jump.”
“W-wait!” Johan sputtered in shock. “If help’s coming at all, we’re going to have to hold out for a month!?”
“Seems that way.”
“So… what are the chances that half a million will be the bid?”
“It’s uh… it’s a solid… maybe.”
“Remember how you told me I’d hate every second of this?” Johan growled. Stiles only chuckled in reply.
Suddenly, something sparked against the rover’s hull. “What was that?” Diz wondered. She was answered by a volley of tracer rounds ripping through the violet foliage. “Someone’s shooting at us!” Johan cried as he cast himself to the floor of the cab. “Yeah, thanks!” Diz remarked dryly, weaving defensively through the ancient trunks.
“No one’s supposed to be out here!” Stiles shouted.
“Do either of you have anything useful to say to me or--” Diz suddenly yelped in pain and surprise as a round impacted into her shoulder armor. It failed to penetrate, but its impetus was enough to get her to jerk the wheel; careening the rover side-long into a tree. Fortunately, the trunk rested between them and their yet-unseen opponents.
“Diz!” Stiles cried with concern.
“I’m fine,” she grunted, “let’s get these guys.”
“Is she crazy!?” Johan asked in alarm. His compatriots did not reply; instead they clambered out of the vehicle, seeking cover and concealment from their attackers. Johan followed suit, wincing as rounds snapped and impacted around him. He rolled to the mossy ground between Diz and Stiles with the rover at their backs. His captain glanced at him incredulously. “What’d you bring that for?”
Johan looked down and discovered he had never lost hold of the Woowl’s container. The animal within, of course, was not in the slightest bit pleased with events. “Well it’s not like you guys have given me anything more useful to hang onto… like a weapon.” Johan spat back in recrimination.
“Don’t worry, Fungi,” Diz replied as she pried a device from the rover’s storage compartment and fitted it against her back, “you’ve got better.” She winked, readied her net gun, and suddenly rocketed upward; leaving twin ionizing trails in her wake. Johan stared up in amazement before breaking his fugue to ask “How long has she been waiting for an excuse to use that thing?”
“Long time.” Stiles replied, nonplussed.
The jump pack thrummed on her back. Wind whipped against her face. A clearing in the otherwise impenetrable jungle yawned below and her prey waited. Diz keyed the scope over her eyes, and virtual boxes began to overlay against the heat signatures of the handful of individuals who had dared to attack her friends.
With her targets identified, she cut the jets on her pack and began plummeting for the clearing. Diz’ heart raced as the ground rose to meet her, and she could not help but let crack a wide, toothy grin. She had been craving a distraction from the bone chilling implications of being stranded on an alien world. Knocking a few heads around, she decided, would do nicely.
She performed a half flip, bringing her feet in line with a brigand who had taken a firing position on a large piece of scrap that seemed to be a suspiciously recent addition to the terrain. Diz was not concerned with wayward heaps of metal at the moment, however. She blasted a counter-thrust from her pack just before impacting with the utterly bewildered gunman. It was enough to forestall any injury on her part, but it was more than enough to knock the assailant from his perch and send him sailing head-first into a nearby tree trunk.
Diz did not pause to appreciate the artful dispatch of her opponent. Instead, she turned and shouldered her net gun; casting the meshed fibers at a new target. Grav spheres on the rim of the net hummed to life as it detected an object within the net; pinning the brigand to the ground.
She blasted off again before the foes that remained could bring their weapons to bear. The girl could not suppress her laughter as she flipped into a tight arc. Her opponents were slow, firing in panic, and utterly unprepared for the punishment that awaited them.
Her next victim caught a crushing double-kick to his shoulder-blades. His arms went limp instantly and could provide no cushion as the ground rushed to meet his face. A nearby brigand roared with frustration as he leveled the barrel of his weapon at her. “Die, you-” his snarling epithet was stopped short as a pulse of super-pressurized air carried him into the metallic hull marring the clearing.
Stiles emerged from the thicket, punt gun whining as it recharged for another shot. The brigand, dazed and disoriented, attempted to find his feet but was quickly knocked into obliviousness with a swift kick to the head.
“Two.” Stiles announced.
“Three.” Diz replied. “Shoot,” she gasped, surveying the environment, “we’re missing one.”
A boyish scream emanated from beyond the treeline. Diz activated the jump jet “Hang on Fungi, we’re…” her voice fell away as a silhouette crashed through the trunks into the clearing.
“Get it off me! Get it off me!” The final brigand stood before them, towering head and shoulders above Stiles, shrieking and swatting at the air as an angry blue Woowl assailed him. He finally succeeded in interdicting the creature and casting it upon the ground. He brought his booted foot up to finish the job when he happened to glance up to see Stiles and Diz staring at him, weapons ready.
The brigand froze then brought up his hands to offer peace. “I know what you’re thinking-” he was blasted into the trunks before he could finish his appeal. Stiles offered his punt gun to Diz. “Hold this for me, would you.”
She received it hesitantly, “what’re you…” Diz found she need not finish her query as Stile advanced on the moaning brigand, cracking his knuckles in anticipation. “Oh.”
“Is it over?” Johan called from concealment.
“Yeah, you can come out.” Diz replied. The boy approached, the container still betwixt his palm; although it was now unoccupied.
“That looks personal.” Johan remarked as the two observed Stiles at work.
“That looks like a very good reason never to turn pirate, Fungi.” Diz replied, wincing at the view. “The captain is not a fan of pirates.”
“Wait, these are space pirates?”
“Garish tattoos, ridiculous clothes, and over-compensatory weaponry… yep. Pirates. Guess we know who our saboteurs are.”
“What else would they be doing out in the middle of nowhere?” Diz turned to examine the metal object resting in the clearing and determined it was an escape pod. “Hmm.” She uttered, now suddenly unsure. She crouched, regarding one of the many crates that had been strewn about in its wake. “Hey, skipper! Whenever you reach a natural stopping point…”
The noise of pounded flesh ceased and Stiles approached, discarding his saturated gloves onto the ground. “What?”
“What’s this planet’s registry number?”
“How many colony licenses is it supposed to have?”
“I’m only aware of the one; Triblis.”
Diz stood, revealing a printed registry on the crate. It read YARDRIS: EG-82108. Stiles regarded the text for a moment. “Back in the rover.” He commanded in such a way that invited neither question nor argument. Johan followed behind his seniors but hesitated just before the treeline. The Woowl that had assailed the pirate still lay on the ground. Its curls had hued pink as it cooed pathetically with its left wing bent in an unnatural fashion.
He scooped the chirping creature back into the container, and proceeded to continue for the rover; stepping over the battered, supine form of the pirate as he did so.
Bigelow the space pirate stood guard as night fell. He and a handful of his comrades had survived their escape pod’s descent into the stone forest. It was a severe, desolate place. Wind constantly moaned and whistled through the stony spires, occasionally sending a cascade of pebbles tumbling to the ground.
The pirate winced and turned with every such patter, unable to shake the feeling that something inscrutable and malevolent watched their camp. Perhaps, he thought, it could be a great many things as he was unable to see beyond the camp’s perimeter for more than a few dozen meters. His compatriots were engaged in muted conversation. There was none of the usual boisterous revelry that might usually accompany a gathering of even marooned pirates. All there was to be heard was the interminable moaning of the breeze.
These gusts were not constant, however. Every now and then, they would give way to an oppressive quiet. No chirping insects or calling birds interrupted these silent periods. The air was so still in fact, that the subtle movements and mutters of his comrades around the chemical lights were audible even to Bigelow.
Suddenly, he detected something else. There came a slight scraping and scuffing of a presence moving lightly upon the stony ground. Bigelow listened; attempting to determine its distance and direction, but the wind began again and carried with it the haunting whistling moans as it wound between the trunks.
It petered out again, and Bigelow raised his oversized barrel; tracking it along the horizon. He was not aiming at anything in particular, but when it passed one of the rocky outcrops, the rustling returned as something scurried from view.
“Shh.” Bigelow hissed. Instantly, the low conversation of his fellow pirates ceased. “There’s something out there.” He growled. The wind resumed, crushing any hope of deducing the interloper’s location. Bigelow’s lip twisted, and he loosed a volley from his weapon; shattering a few of the stone towers. The dust they emitted as they fell, further reduced the already poorly visibility, but the veteran pirate was certain he saw something withdraw with a stilted loping gait.
“Two with me.” He commanded. “We ain’t going to sit here and wait for it like a bunch of frightened little girls, are we?” This is how one of Schiz’ famed ‘Fall Boys’ was supposed to act. But it was, indeed, an act. For Bigelow knew in a deep place he’d never admit, that there was something wrong with this planet.
His comrades joined him and the wind’s pitch climbed as they sought their quarry. Dust and pebbles rattled through the forest; rendering hopeless any notion of picking out an individual noise. Bigelow mounted the newly form stump of the fallen spire and surveyed their environment. However, it remained as still as ever. Undifferentiated mineral pillars stretched skyward in their thousands. It would take no time at all, Bigelow reckoned, for anyone to become hopelessly lost. “Stay together.” He cautioned as a hedge against such an event. They nodded and cast glances backward; noting that the soft green glow of the chem-lights would be their only landmark.
Bigelow took a moment to consider his options and selected one of the taller outcrops nearby. “Stay here.” He ordered firmly. “Shoot anything you don’t like. ‘Cept me, of course.” They chuckled uncomfortably as he began to climb, his well-used muscles making short work of the meters between the top of the outcrop and the ground.
He waited when his hand found purchase on the meager plateau that marked the terminus of the spire. He waited for the great roaring whistle of the wind to die once again; for his stalker to prepare its next move. As it had before, the gusts abated and Bigelow raised a flare gun; firing a red-hot phosphorous charge into the air. What he had hoped to glimpse was impossible to detect, however. As the charge doused the area with stark light, it cast shadows between each pillar; shadows that danced and turned as the flare spiraled through the air.
Eventually, the charge’s load was spent, and the dark of night reclaimed the forest. Almost simultaneously, the wailing breeze returned. His best ideas exhausted, Bigelow returned to the ground. “Let’s get back to camp, boys.” He grunted.
But no reply came.
He cast a glance to and fro, but his comrades were nowhere to be seen. “If this is your idea of a joke,” Bigelow spat in threat, “I’m about to open a comedy club on your faces right here, right…now…” His voice fell away as he noticed a further inconsistency with his surroundings: the green glow from the chem-lights had gone.
“No.” He whispered. “No, no… This isn’t…” he began sprinting for where he had last seen the glow. Rather, where he last thought he had seen the glow. But it was all stone spires and dust for miles around.
Bigelow began to wonder if he had simply selected the wrong direction when his foot found a metallic object upon the ground. He glanced downward to regard a canteen, then widened his gaze to the pre-arranged bedrolls, the hull of the escape pod, and discarded food packets. The only thing missing was the chem-lights. And his comrades, of course.
The wind died again, plunging the valley into all-encompassing quiet once more. Bigelow stood there, a cold sweat forming upon his brow; a frightful heart hammering in his chest.
At once the wind’s wail returned and at great volume, but Bigelow realized after a moment that no gust accompanied the sound. It was just the noise. In fact, it was no longer a disembodied ghostly howl echoing through the trunks, but a localized source.
A source localized just behind him.
He turned, swinging his weapon. But it was caught and cast aside by powerful hands. His eyes widened as he regarded what stood upright and eye-to-eye before him. The dark afforded little more than a silhouette. But there was light enough to see that it had worked its mouth in such a fashion to imitate the exact pitch of the wind.
“You gotta be kidding me.” Bigelow whispered as he took it all in.
When the sun rose on the following day, no signs of human life remained at the crash site. Discarded containers gently swayed as wind swept the stone forest. Dust blew in fitful eddies wherever the gusts carried them.
All there was to be heard was the soft, ghostly moan of the wind.