Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE V
The bridge of the Cassiopeia was cast in an encompassing silence. Captain Stiles paced its length as he pondered his next command. The gathered crew looked on in dread reserve. Even Mujarez’ trademark blend of exhausted dispassion was replaced with quiet concern.
Ozawa had begun tending to the flagging health of their Woowl as it cooed in pain on the bottom of its container. Johan could only observe the proceedings in confusion; the tension was palpable, but he wasn’t quite certain as to what had triggered his Captain’s choler. He turned to Diz to give voice to his confusion but the instant he opened his mouth, he felt Stiles’ eyes on him.
“Do you realize what has happened here, Fungi?” the Captain asked. His words were calm albeit heavy with annoyance.
“N-no, sir. I’m… afraid I don’t.” Johan admitted.
Stiles regarded him for a long moment, his coal black eyes belying a strange mixture of anger and apology. “This planet is supposed to have one colony license: Triblis. That crate we found in the forest bears this world’s registry number with a colony label that is not Triblis.”
“And I take it that’s… bad?”
“Could be an honest clerical mistake,” Stiles intoned, “happens sometimes. Could be that records were falsified. That happens sometimes too. If the records were falsified, it means that there was another colony here before. One that -for whatever reason- no longer exists. So, the question is: Do our hosts know that, or are they as in the dark as we are… and how do we know which case is which?”
Johan cast about to his crewmates. An unspoken certainty rested on their brows. “I… uh… I don’t-”
“A working antenna would sort it out right quick,” Stiles continued, his frustration growing with every syllable. He paused as he glared at wounded creature in Ozawa’s lap, “but given that… our friends seem pretty set against us having one; we have absolutely no way of knowing… unless we ask.”
Johan blinked in surprise. “I don’t understand. If the colony authorities knew about another colony and covered it up… wouldn’t they… just… lie?”
“We ask the source that won’t lie.” Stiles elaborated.
“Ugh, was I ever this thick?” Vac retorted. “The computer, Fungi, we ask the central information system.”
“That… doesn’t seem so hard.” Johan uttered in bafflement.
Stiles closed his eyes and inhaled, a gesture Johan took as an expression of deliberate self-soothing lest an unrestrained torrent of profanity be loosed upon him. “It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to be available at one of the random information terminals.” He said, his deep husky voice nearing a strained whisper. “If -and let us remember that it’s only an ‘if’ at this point- if the magistrate knows what happened to the other colony, it means he brought us here under false pretenses. That’s rarely healthy for the crew in question, and that’s not the sort of information he would want us to have ready access to.”
“Okay, I get it.” Johan replied, chafing under Stiles’ didactic tone. “The best chance of accessing the information would be at his private terminal. I’m also guessing we have no good reason to ask for a look at it.”
“How about that!” Diz interjected. “There’s hope for him yet.”
“Let me make this clear,” Stiles rejoined, “we get caught snooping and -guilty or not- there is absolutely nothing stopping the magistrate from kicking our sorry rears out into the wilderness. A wilderness that, as you’ll recall, is filled with hostile aliens and pirates.”
“Let us also remember that, collective guilt or not, there is at least one saboteur in play.” Mujarez interjected.
“So how do we do it without getting caught?” Johan asked.
All eyes fell on Vac. He cast about as if the question was ridiculous on its face. “Can’t be done!” He exclaimed.
“I’ve heard you say that before.” Stiles pressed.
“No, no!” Vac persisted. “The problem is time. Yes, I can break whatever commercial grade encryption that terminal has --that’s not the problem. I can get whatever information you want tonight, if that’s what we’re doing! The problem is that I’d need to study the system infrastructure for at least a week in order to do anything more sophisticated than a virtual smash-and-grab. The thing is: they’re going to notice the… the… the virtual ‘busted window’ so to speak.”
Stiles clasped his hands behind his back, turning to regard the screens alighting the activity beyond the ship as if he were gazing out a window. From Johan’s perspective, the colonists seemed so… normal. They went about their tasks with the urgency he’d expect given the circumstances; shoring up the walls, inspecting the hab bubbles for signs of weathering and damage and so forth. Yet there was a certain disorganization to them. They seemed every bit as put out by the situation as the crew was.
Johan glanced at Diz who did her best to flash a reassuring smile when she caught his gaze. He took a moment to regard her comportment. She wore a rugged, utilitarian company uniform just like everyone else, but she bore it in a way that was inescapably… ‘Diz’. Her sleeves were completely absent, laying bare the tightly knotted muscles in her arms. Plastine tokens and mementos dangled from her belt and the slide-pulls of her uniform’s zippers. While he had never asked, Johan imagined each of the fetishes represented a completed mission. He knew that, apart from himself, Diz was the most junior member of the crew. It was hard to believe that, given even her easy familiarity with all the goings-on, that this was a situation that had such a veteran team so deeply troubled.
“Fungi!” Stiles’ sudden declaration made Johan jump. The boy snapped his attention forward to find the Cassiopeia’s captain regarding him with the same unrelenting severity of an annoyed school teacher. Given how often Johan had been caught staring at the girls in his class, it was a familiar look to him. However, he knew he could not escape it by flashing a grin and an insolent shrug.
“You’re a corporate spy.” Stiles continued.
Johan’s heart fluttered in panic. “Wh-what!? No I’m not, why would-”
“Tonight you are.” The captain said with finality.
“I…” Johan looked around for help, but the unspoken certitude that pervaded the crew continued to persevere. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s the only thing that lets us get caught and save face. You’re a first-timer, no history with the company. It’s a real easy sell.”
“Skipper you can’t!” Ozawa objected. “He’s just a kid!”
“This ship is not a day care center, Keiko.” Stiles replied firmly. “We are not a cruise liner, we are not a chauffeur. There is a risk to this job; a risk this ‘kid’ accepted.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Johan rejoined. “You expect me to sneak into the magistrate’s office, work… whatever computer magic Vac has in mind and… get caught?”
“I think you’re right, Diz, there is hope for him.”
“And-and then what? They just… put me in a holding cell until you figure out what’s going on?”
“That’s about the size of it, yes.”
“And then you’ll come get me, right?”
Stiles nodded “If they’re as rotten as I think they are, yes.”
“Then you’ll stay there until the company collects you. At which point, I’ll explain to them what happened.”
“Oh…kay. That’s not so bad,” Johan continued with wary optimism, “but the colonists definitely aren’t going to… y’know… torture me or shoot me on sight or anything like that, right?” The bridge returned to silence with none of its members meeting his desperate gaze. “RIGHT!?”
Schiz sat cross-legged on a rock, a vast expanse of badlands stretched before him. The biome in which he and what remained of his crew had crashed was harsh, arid, and unforgiving. The rocky ground yielded little in the way of plant life save for hardy lichens and maroon colored scrub brush. Behind him, what remained of the Grinning Reaper jutted from the lapidarian plain; an incongruous outcropping of metal against an otherwise oblate vista of wind-carved stone.
The day before, the pirates had taken stock of what remained. Today they had deployed outriders to search for any sign of civilization; any signs of whatever might be responsible for bringing their ship and so many of their brethren to such an ignoble end. There were protests. Arguments. Some claimed that what had brought them down was a random flock of birds and nothing more. Schiz knew better. Rather, he could feel it, and to him that was just as good as knowing. Something… someone had to be responsible. Someone knew those birds were going to fly into his engines… and he was going to make them pay for that.
But whomever that might be eluded him for today. The only curiosity reported with any regularity was the abundance of complex animal life seeming to move in a migratory fashion toward the resting place of the Reaper.
Schiz, of course, had no particular appreciation for biology. He had dismissed these reports with increasing disdain throughout the day. One crew member had borne the full brunt of his frustration and, in the dying golden rays of dusk, the pirate captain pondered the blood stains that still clung to his hands.
The warm dry air calmed him. While he had been long inured to the familiar scent of sweat, oil, and body odor that pervaded the Reaper’s decks, Schiz was still able to the appreciate the aroma of sun baked stone. He cast his gaze toward the setting sun, enjoying the sterile and unbroken vista despite the day’s trials.
His brow worked in annoyance as a single shape came into view. It was one of the much-discussed migrating animals cresting a low crag. There it rested on wiry but powerful haunches. Its amber eyes faintly glittered in the waning daylight as it regarded the Reaper’s captain.
Slowly, carefully, Schiz drew his hand to the straps securing his pistol to its holster. His eyes narrowed as his gaze locked with the creature. Something about its poise unnerved him. It merely perched upon its rock, observing the bustle around the corpse of the Grinning Reaper with an intense, almost intelligent fixation. There was none of the furtiveness one would expect from a wild animal, even a predator, upon being confronted with the sudden upset to its environment.
Schiz fingered the grip of his weapon, rising slowly as not to startle the beast before he had a chance to draw a bead. He had decided that the alien’s easy confidence needed to be punished. By his reckoning, there was only one creature around with any right to walk about like it owned the place. His lips curled into a cruel smile as he took aim; sighting his target along the barrel.
He hesitated. Two targets now rested at the far end of his sights. Two creatures, identical in all respects, now perched atop the rock. Schiz shook his head, attempting to clear his vision. He wondered if the stresses of the past days were beginning to weigh on him. When his vision cleared, however, the sight that greeted him was not improved.
There were three now.
Three muscular cat-like creatures all peering at him. Studying him. Judging him.
“Stop it.” He muttered, breath seething between his teeth. “Stop it.” His finger tightened on the trigger.
*Hey, boss?* A voice on his handheld squawked.
He slapped the ‘transmit’ button on the device strapped to his hip, eyes never straying from the trio before him. “What?” He hissed.
*I… I know you said not to bother you about the… the, uh, local critters but… boss, if I didn’t know better, I’d say they were surrounding us.*
Schiz drew a sharp breath, daring only to turn his head by a few degrees. More of the creatures attended upon the rocky plain surrounding the ship. The pirate captain judged their number to easily be in the dozens. Those that had not yet come to rest prowled the outskirts of the pirates’ ad hoc perimeter. No sense of urgency seemed to infect the creatures’ patrol. Instead, they stepped across the hoary plain with an unspoken purpose.
*Boss… what… what do we do?*
Schiz drew a calming breath, then another. His toothy grin slowly returned.
“What do we do?” He repeated as he keyed his handheld. “Well… I suppose you could hunker down in some locker aboard my ship and hope they don’t find you. While you’re at it, though, you better hope I don’t find you either.” Schiz let out a low chuckle. “What do we do, he says. I’ll tell you what we do! Same thing we do to anyone or anything that has the nerve to show their teeth to the Reaper!” With that, Schiz sent an energized bolt downrange; striking one of the creatures square in the bony crest that answered for a face.
It crumpled to the ground like a statue slipping from its foundations; as poised in the moments after its death as it had been in the moments before. Its nearest compatriots observed its collapse in aloof detachment. They treated the sudden demise of one of their own almost as a curiosity rather than an alarming development.
The captain’s grin fell away. He had expected the herd to scatter at the shot. But they gave no ground, instead casually turning back to face him as the last of their number came to their assigned places. Then, in unison, they stepped from their perches.
Backs stretched. Muscles coiled. Claws scrapped the ground. Schiz had time for just one gasp of shock before the predators bolted for him.
He roared, squeezing a half-dozen undisciplined shots into charging pack. Despite the occasional font of gold-colored ichor spraying into the dusty air, his wild fusillade did nothing to deter the onslaught.
Schiz bellowed a challenge and drew his titanium half-sword, readying himself for the shock of the charge’s impact. The shock never came however, as the first panther beast sped past him and then another. He risked turning to watch their progress; observing that they seemed to be more interested in assaulting the makeshift defensive works a few dozen yards behind him. The man scoffed, raising his shoulders in befuddlement.
“What? Do I not look appetizing to y-” His indignant demand was cut short by a massive paw slamming into his back. He wheeled about as he stumbled, his half-sword lashing the air in a mad hope of catching his assailant. The alien was quicker; ramming its plated skull into Schiz’ exposed chest. He toppled over, just barely retaining the presence of mind to maintain his grip of his blade enough to intercept the jaws that threatened to close around his skull.
The honed titanium edge bit the corners of the panther creature’s mouth as dagger-like teeth hovered inches from Schiz’ face. Though its own aurulent blood dripped down the flat of the blade, the alien remained undeterred.
Little by little, the monster’s strength began to show over Schiz’. His muscles trembled under its weight as gnashing jaws edged closer. Its hot and pungent breath threatened to overwhelm the pirate captain’s senses. Schiz snarled in kind, seizing upon a desperate resort. He gave in to the creature’s bulk for half an instant; just enough time to turn his sword and plunge it deep into its gullet.
The sudden release of pressure had allowed the beast to completely enclose Schiz’ head within its jaws and, for a moment, he believed that this last effort would not be enough. Instead, the pirate captain was rewarded with a torrent of vitae erupting from the alien’s depths and onto his face.
He cursed and withdrew the half-sword in a slashing motion. The panther alien scrambled away, hacking and sputtering perfuse golden ropes of gore. Within the instant of its departure, another in the herd snapped its attention toward Schiz; baring teeth in threat.
“Come on!” The pirate roared in return. The alien shrieked and charged but was instantly cut down by a flurry of ARC fire. Schiz spared a glance behind him to find a clutch of his crew advancing with rifles in hand. “How ya goin’, boss?” One asked.
“Took ya long enough!” Schiz returned, side-stepping a charging alien and seizing it in a headlock. Its snarling protests were quickly silenced by quick thrusts from the pirate captain’s sword. He tossed the corpse aside, cackling.
He glanced again at the clade of men who were loosing bolts at the ravening host with uncertain resolve. Their eyes darted between the creatures and their captain in an unspoken question: aren’t we going to run away? The boys were smart enough not to give voice to the concern, Schiz knew. Their captain had no patience for cowards, and none were foolhardy enough to give him cause to doubt their mettle –nor was he inclined to give them cause to doubt his own.
“Grin at the reaper,” Schiz shouted above the din, “and the reaper will always grin back!” He plunged into the crush of aliens with renewed fury, opening throats and trunks with maniacal abandon.
The beasts did not waver in the face of the opposition. In fact, self-preservation seemed to be the least of their concerns. Yet for all their snarling, snapping, and charging; none landed a killing blow -not on Schiz or any of the boys.
While the captain wanted to take this as a point of pride, a small piece of him was perturbed by this fact. The heat of combat would not allow him to dwell on the notion, however.
Yet another cat-thing ran at him. Schiz held his sword high to guard against a mauling action, but the alien swung low instead. The pirate was swept from his feet in an instant. A soon as he hit the ground, he reflexively swung his sword for his attacker, but his wrist was caught mid-swing between the jaws of the beast. Schiz roared in rage and agony as the creature shook its head back and forth; dislocating the pirate’s shoulder and forcing him to drop his weapon.
As soon as the titanium blade clattered to the ground, the alien released his arm as if that had been the plan all along. The reprieve did not last, however, as the panther creature simply switched from Schiz’ wrist to his ankle and began dragging him away from the fray with haste.
The pirate howled and cursed with protest as pebbles and other debris tore cruelly at his skin and clothes. He desperately clawed for purchase. He kicked with his free leg. But his captor did not relent. With all his unavailing struggles, Schiz scarcely had time to notice that the surviving members of the pack had joined him. They surged away from the shadow of the Grinning Reaper not with the panic of a cowed herd, but with the assurance that their task was complete.
They came to rest with the jutting hull of the Reaper still well within sight. It was no more than a ten-minute’s jog away. But Schiz knew that between his arm, his leg, and the half-dozen or so remaining creatures; sanctuary might as well have been on the moon.
Their journey had halted in the lee of a number of jagged outcroppings. It was a foreboding place, replete with nooks and alcoves that could hide any number of beasts. His leg, rimed with saliva but surprisingly intact, was dropped from the maw of his captor. Schiz scrambled backwards; resolved to die on his feet if this is how he was to end.
However, a furtive pall fell over the pack. They glanced from rock to rock expectantly, testing the air with their snouts and prowling the area as if in search of something. Schiz knew opportunity when he saw it, but before he could take his first step in the opposite direction; a snarling panther creature blocked his way. Its teeth were bared, but its body language betrayed more warning than threat. The fact that the monsters seemed to be saving him for something overshadowed all relief that Schiz might have felt for having gone so long without being torn to shreds.
Suddenly, one of the panther creatures let out a yelp and began tugging at something hidden behind one of the rocky projections. A hand came into view, then an arm, then the rest of him. Schiz ground his teeth together in aggrieved fury. “Bigelow,” he muttered; his comrade’s trademark beard and eye-aug were unmistakable. The aliens nosed and nudged his limp body as if in play; their chatter like mocking laughter.
“Get away.” Schiz demanded, limping for his fallen comrade. “Get away you-” words fell away as an object landed in their midst with a metallic clink. It was a small cylindrical cannister, no bigger than the pirate’s forearm. A thin nozzle protruded from the main body; complemented by a small device with a blinking amber light.
In one instant, the strobing device flicked to a steady red. In the next instant, a harsh rasp and a violent plume of vapors exploded from the tip of the nozzle. Schiz scarcely had time to cry out before the entire area was bathed in a choking white cloud.
The pirate captain sank to his knees, vision blurring as each lungful yielded less oxygen than the last. It came as little comfort that the ‘panthers’ seemed to be faring no better. They thrashed and gagged in wild spasms. Only a few were fortunate enough to scramble away from the gaseous envelope.
Something else could be discerned moving within the cloud. A pair of boots… and the man in them! The last thing Schiz surmised before he was overcome was a pair of glowing red goggles studying him. Judging him.
“Stop it.” He muttered. That was all he could manage before dreamless oblivion took him.