Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE VI
She struck him again; hard across the face. “Who do you work for!?” The woman demanded. Johan grunted, blinking the stars out of his eyes. “The Colonial Assistance Company,” he breathed. It technically wasn’t a lie, but he knew he was playing a part nonetheless. That knowledge was enough to trip the mnemotron; just enough of an untruth to register a lie.
His interrogator, a Triblis colonist with artificially pressed hair and ebony skin, slammed an object on the austere titanium table. Her hand lifted to reveal a small electronic device cased in lead and magnesium. It was a weighty thing. Mean looking. Expensive looking.
In truth, it was little more than a medium-grade infodrive outfitted with a short-range transmitter and a snooping virus. The lead/magnesium casing was Vac’s own custom work; something meant to suggest stealth, secrecy, and funding. The lead in the casing suggested an attempt to mask detection, the magnesium: an easy and fiery disposal if caught. Whether the casing’s design would be effective at either was really just theoretical, but it looked like it might be effective -which was the point.
Johan had gotten into the magistrate’s office as planned; a plan that surprisingly required little from him in fact. Stiles had called the magistrate into a discussion under the pretext of ‘reporting on findings’. At that point, it was merely a matter of disabling the office locks, and looping the camera feeds. Both of these tasks were ably handled by Vac’s loaned gadgets. From that point on, nothing more was required of him than inserting the drive into the magistrate’s computer and being caught instantaneously.
Now was the hard part.
“Do you have any idea how much a rig like this costs?” His interrogator demanded, pointing to the drive.
Altogether, probably about eighty denars, Johan thought. “No.” He answered.
“Lie.” The man monitoring the mnemotron reported. That earned Johan another slap.
“You think we’re stupid, little boy?” She continued.
“Yes.” Johan snorted.
He braced for another hit, but it didn’t come. Instead, his captor stepped to a mobile shelving unit and produced a larger device, again with a casing chased in lead and magnesium. “You want to talk about stupid? We found this thing in your quarters, nimrod. Backup device… coded to receive any transmission from this little bug here.” She nodded, self-satisfied. “Your plan included having a backup copy in case you got caught… smart thing to do, stupid to put it where we’d so obviously look.”
Johan offered nothing. Yes, he knew the plan required the data to be copied to a backup drive. What the colonists didn’t know, was that the data had been copied again before they had even thought to back-trace the transmission to the Cassiopeia. Even now, Vac would be desperately pouring over this copy-of-a-copy in an attempt to determine what role -if any- the magistrate had in concealing the existence of the phantom colony.
His interrogator clasped her hands behind her back. She was of slender build and narrow features; albeit her face was presently creased with lines of irritation and disgust. The name on her lapel read V. CHAMPION. After a few moments of quiet, her expression softened. For Johan, this change was more disquieting than her previous umbrage. There was a glint, a knowing glint, in her eye. She was up to something.
“Stupidity borne of inexperience, I bet,” she ventured, “inexperience, desperation… and bravery.” Johan quirked an eyebrow. He had not been expecting that. “That’s right,” she continued, “I think you’re very brave. You’re far too young to be doing this, but… after all… you have a sick mother to think about don’t you?”
He took a sharp breath, just barely biting back demands to know how she determined that.
“Whoa!” The monitor exclaimed, shaking his head in bemusement. “Can’t fake a reaction like that.”
“Hmm. So, it’s true. I was fifty-fifty on whether that was a cover story… but it makes sense.” Champion intoned. A cruel smile drew across her colored lips, “oh yes, your captain was more than cooperative when we found you out. Gave us your recruitment file, access to your mailers… nothing tying you directly to your paymasters, of course, but enough to piece things together.” She drew herself to eye-level, searching his expression despite the device strapped to his head and chest detailing his every autonomic response.
“Failed Pre-Specialty School despite above average cognition scores. Mother with a treatable but expensive disease. Perfect candidate for ColAid… which makes you the perfect piggyback for a corporate espionage initiative. A solid drive placed here… a sabotaged prototype there… not a whole lot of extra work for double the denars, is it?”
“You really think I settled for double?” Johan returned. “ColAid pays squat.”
“He’s screwing with you.” The monitor announced.
“I know,” she rose to full height, “all I want to know is which of these scumbag corps is exploiting a child with a sick mother to get at our intelligence.” Champion waited expectantly. When she saw that Johan was disinclined to volunteer the information, she signed and produced a syringe from the shelf.
“Oh, now what’s that supposed to be?” Johan asked with what he hoped sounded like petulant contempt. “You really expect me to believe this backwater colony has access to some sort of truth serum?”
“He’s scared.” The monitor reported.
“Oh, shut up!” Johan returned.
“We’re well aware that the wildlife has been keying in on some sort of chemical or pheromonal signature,” Champion began, “it’s almost like a language, actually. Certain compounds make certain animals go nuts… others may pacify. The thing is, each signature is unique; impossible to synthesize in a clinical setting.” She chuckled. “You know, we’ve had computing technology for… who knows how many hundreds of years, and yet we still can’t produce a truly convincing AI? Organic interactions are just too… complex, too much emphasis on intuition.”
Johan shifted uncomfortably as Champion stared at the fluid suspended in the syringe. “Can… can we go back to interrogating me? This is starting to sound… y-you don’t have a coat of human skins do you?”
“Something on this planet is working against us, Mr. Asdourian. And we are so very close to mastering it anyway. I’m about to give your corporate overlords a taste of how close.” She approached with the syringe, knelt bringing it into full view. “You’re going to die here, Mr. Asdourian. What’s in this syringe is going to kill you.”
His heart pounded in his chest, his mouth dried. Whatever the captain’s plan, it wasn’t worth this. Surely the crew had to know by now. One way or another, surely they had the information they needed. “Okay… okay, you win.” He breathed. “I’ll talk.”
“I no longer care, sweetie. In fact, I never did.” Champion cooed. She then proceeded to inject the fluid into her own arm. Johan raised his eyebrows in surprise, but withheld his sigh of relief for the moment.
“He has no idea.” The monitor declared.
“Good.” Champion replied. “If it’s any consolation, we were going to run this test on all of you eventually, but…when opportunity knocks and all that.” She stood again. “I’m ready. Bring it.”
The monitor stood from his station and disappeared through the doorway of the tiny storeroom-turned-makeshift holding cell. He returned in short order, guiding a hoverlift topped with some sort of box container. He left it near the far wall only to return with a second identical container. Each box was no more than six feet wide or across and at least four feet in height. Their surfaces were black and glossy, suggesting they were made from something other than metal.
“Leave.” Champion commanded. “I don’t want a false positive.”
“But… what if somethings happens?” the monitor protested. She flashed a pistol beneath her tunic. “Nothing will happen that I can’t handle.” she assured. He departed, albeit reluctantly. As soon as the door sealed behind him, Champion stepped to one of the containers and keyed a control interface on the top-most surface. The glossy black material slipped to a transparent quality; revealing the alien beast contained within.
It was a slimy green, six-legged affair. A prehensile tail, tipped with some sort of articulated claw, whipped to and fro in protest of the creature’s captivity. Of course, what concerned Johan was the wide mouth of needle-like teeth.
Champion stepped to the next container, revealing a squat furry animal. It was black in color save for some bronze trimming. Its ears were long, slender things that constantly extended and rotated as it probed its surroundings. The eyes were wide and red with pinprick pupils. Johan could not help but feel the animal was somewhat incongruous if Champion meant this as a threat display.
Were it not for the staring, unblinking red eyes and a tremulous disposition that gave it the vague affect of an addict in withdrawal, he might have described the animal as ‘cute’.
“As I was saying, it’s like a language… the chemical signature, I mean.” Champion rejoined, observing the creature behind their transparent confines. “No, that’s not right… it’s…” she sighed as she searched for the words. “We have sentence structure and vocabulary to convey meaning, and we all understand what someone means if we all speak the same language; but there can be a thousand, thousand different ways to convey one meaning. We can know what someone means when we review their words, but we cannot know what words someone will use to convey a particular meaning -at least not with absolute certainty. Am I making sense?”
Johan was silent, too stunned by what was unfolding to even attempt to guess at what the madwoman before him was trying to convey. “Of course I’m not,” she laughed, “I could write an entire dissertation detailing the complexity involved with what I’m about to do, and yet… from your perspective, it will look so very simple.” She took a breath to steady herself, then turned to the slimy green toothy beast. “Peace.” She muttered. Instantly, the alien’s frustrated thrashing ebbed without quite stopping. “Peace.” Champion repeated, drawing out the word. This time it stopped.
She chuckled, but nodded at the tremulous furry creature. “See how this one is still agitated, but the other one is calm? I gave the same ‘command’ as it were, but my pheromones were attuned to that one’s ‘language’ and not this one. But with just a simple switch of attention…” her gaze lingered on Johan, “Kill.” She commanded. At once, the furry creature’s mouth dropped open. A stream of some unidentifiable, though surely unhealthy, fluid ejected from the thing’s mouth; spattering harmlessly against the front of the container.
When the first ejaculation was expended, the monster tried again and again until whatever sacs that supplied its venom had run dry. It then began to claw and bite at the face of the container; trying in vain to break out and complete its mission.
“Peace.” Champion soothed, but the alien did not relent. “Peace.” She insisted, again to no avail. “Stop!” Instead, the creature began bashing its head against the container, shrieking in fury all the while. At length, it fell dead in a pool of its own blood and venom.
“My… vocabulary is still imperfect.” Champion admitted.
“You’re insane!” Johan cried.
Champion opened the locker containing the slimy green sextapod. “Make friend.” She cooed, eyeing Johan. The thing slipped its confines, dropped to the floor, then scuttled up Johan’s leg. It rested its forelegs on Johan’s chest, staring into the boy’s eyes as if he were the best thing the little monster had ever seen.
“Now,” Champion spoke, her expression darkening into a mask of supreme malice. She took a breath to issue another command, but the creature suddenly leapt off of Johan; skittering to a far corner of the room and leaving a trail of ooze in its wake. It curled in that corner, its beady alien eyes darting across the room as if searching for a threat.
Champion and Johan’s eyes met; their mutual confusion evident to each other. The woman straightened, fixed the creature with a withering glare, and drew breath to command it again. The door behind her whooshed open, and she turned to meet the interloper.
“I told you to wait out… side…” the final syllables lost their impetus as she regarded the barrel of the punt gun pressed to her breast. Her eyes tracked up to find Diz’ cocksure smirk radiating back at her.
“You okay, Fungi?” She called without shifting her gaze.
Diz’ expression darkened. “I don’t like people hurting my friends.” She growled.
Champion tried to speak but the punt gun barked before she could. The woman tumbled over the supply crates in the storeroom and came to rest in a position she would find most uncomfortable when she woke.
Diz drew a knife and cut Johan’s bonds.
“She-she was going to kill me!” Johan’s timbre skewed shriller and more hysterical than he would have liked.
“Not anymore.” Diz assured as she stood him up. “Can you run?”
“Try and stop me!” Johan returned with a crazed laugh.
“Atta boy! Stay right on my rear,” she flashed a lopsided grin, “not a problem, right?”
“Not in the mood, Diz.” Johan sighed.
“That’s a shame.” With that, she trotted for the door. Johan followed close behind, noting the man who had been monitoring the mnemotron sprawled on the floor just outside the room. “So I guess you guys found what you were looking for?” Johan asked.
Diz did not reply, her head swiveling as they traversed the corridors of the hab unit. The snap and blinding flash of an ARC weapon forced both of them down. Johan dove headlong to the floor, covering his head with his hands as sparks showered him. Diz merely took a knee and snapped a shot with her punt gun. The concussive front dislocated several titanium panels from the wall in addition to dislocating the shoulder of an armed colonist who had just poked beyond the corner. His rifle clattered in the opposite direction of his fall.
“Grab that, please.” Diz remarked as she bounded past the moaning man and his discarded weapon. Johan, hyperventilating and wide-eyed, scrambled across the floor on all fours. With trembling hands, he fumbled the rifle into an unsure grip. He spun, sighting in on a terrified and still-supine colonist. Johan’s breaths came fast and heavy but before the boy even had time to think about what he wanted to do in that moment, Diz wrenched the barrel upward toward the ceiling.
“You’re not ready for that kiddo -trust me,” she soothed, “just hold it, okay? Finger off the trigger.” Johan’s eyes flicked back to the man. “Don’t worry about him,” Diz reassured, “he’s not paid to try that hard to stop us.” The man gave a stiff shake of his head to affirm her assessment. “Come on.” She prodded. They proceeded onward. Johan, having lost all sense of time and direction, was forced to trust that the woman in front of him knew what she was doing and where she was going.
*Diz, where are you?* Mujarez’ voice crackled over Diz’ lapel radio.
“I’m with the kid, on our way out.” she replied.
*Is he alright?* Mujarez replied.
*Well, your little stunt hasn’t gone unnoticed. There’s a lot of activity on the ground… and a lot of guns pointed at us. The Cass has her shields up and I don’t think they have anything that will bother us too much, but there is a lot of open ground between the hab and the ship.*
“We’ve got a rover, don’t we?” Diz remarked. Mujarez’ reply went unheard as at that moment, another armed colonist rounded the corner. Luckily, Diz was close enough to force his barrel in a safe direction with one hand and bury her opposite elbow into his temple in one practiced motion. This dazed the man but didn’t quite end the fight.
She slipped behind him, wrapping one well-muscled arm under his chin and placing the opposite palm behind his head. With that, she tightened her hold; causing him to flail about as his lungs and brain were denied precious oxygen.
“Didn’t catch that, Ava,” Diz projected over the struggle, “repeat.”
*I said we’re packing up the rover now,” Mujarez said, “there’s nothing we can accomplish parked in the Cass. Thanks to you, we’re going to have to take our chances in the jungle. The Captain sends his appreciation.* With one last burst of energy, the fumbling colonist made to gouge Diz’ eye. She easily dodged the probing thumb and bit down on it.
The man gave a strangulated cry before slumping in her arms. She released him, gently guiding him to the ground. Once he was completely supine, she relieved him of his loose power packs.
“Uh… I’ve got a couple questions,” Johan said in still-quavering voice.
“Make ‘em quick.” Diz replied, already trotting away.
“Um, it really feels like you’re being… I don’t know… a little too nice to the people who tried to kill me. And… it sounds like… did you break orders to rescue me?”
“First item,” she huffed as she jogged, “assaulting clients is bad for business. Killing them, though? So much worse. Second item…” She paused at the threshold of an airlock, quickly checking all approaches before pressing her back to the wall. “…I asked myself, ‘Daisy Diaz, what bothers you more? Docked pay or a dead friend’?”
“We’re friends?” Johan asked, surprised. “We’ve only known each other for a couple weeks. Most of that I was locked in my cabin studying.”
Diz scoffed, “Well, you’re hard to impress. You don’t wanna be friends after I go and do this for you? Got a long list of people who would do the same, do ya?”
“Uh,” Johan croaked, “this is the part where I shut up.”
“This is the part where you say ‘thank you’,” Diz retorted as she thumbed her radio, “Ava, we’re at the airlock. Waiting on you.”
*Twenty minutes.* Came the reply.
“Twenty minutes!?” Johan repeated in shock. “we can’t hold out that long!”
“Seventeen,” Diz breathed, “sixteen, fifteen, fourteen…”
“Wait,” Johan spoke, the notion dawning on him, “was that a code or something?”
“Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Let’s go!” She slapped the interior door release and bounded into the main airlock chamber.
“Hang on, we can’t go through an airlock cycle. They’ll trap us in!” Diz merely drew and fired her punt gun repeatedly at the exterior doors; blasting them off their tracks with the successive concussive bursts. She turned, “You’re right about that,” she said with a wink.
The breach alarms nearly drowned the noise of the approaching engine until the rover was nearly on top of them. The vehicle, still pitted from the earlier gunfight, screeched to a halt right in front of the blasted doors.
“Get in before we talk the Captain into leaving you here!” Vac shouted from the open midsection.
Johan didn’t need to be told twice.
He burst from the safety of the airlock and sprinted for the cargo bed. He tossed his pilfered rifle ahead of him leapt inside. Instead of being comfortably surrounded by a few inches of titanium, as he had hoped, he found the bed had been lined with supply containers. He was now the most exposed person on the rover.
“Punch it,” Vac called, seemingly unconcerned with the boy’s plight. Johan had an instant to grip the cargo mesh before the rover jolted toward the colony’s perimeter wall. Johan turned his head toward the midsection, observing Diz already securing the tossed rifle, Vac standing overwatch; his head poking over the roll cage, and Ozawa with a transparent container clutched to her abdomen. Upon further inspection, Johan realized that the woowl from before was still encased within.
Just ahead of them was the driver’s compartment where Stilles drove the rover on the right, and Mujarez sat in for the navigator on the left. Ahead of them was the looming edifice of the closed perimeter wall.
“You’re probably wondering why they haven’t started shooting at us yet,” Vac vocalized over the wind, “you’re also probably wondering how we’re going to escape if the gate’s closed. Well,” with a flourish, he produced a device from the slew of contraptions attached to his coveralls, “if those jerks think we can’t leave, they figure they don’t need to shoot us. Which means--” the rover jerked and Vac lost his grip on the device. It bounced off the cargo and sailed over Johan’s head.
Through sheer, adrenaline fueled instinct, he abandoned the cargo mesh and caught the tablet in the air. The surge of victory he felt was immediately replaced by a cold, icy pit of dread as the wind caught him and he tumbled backward.
Johan slammed to the ground hard. The impact was such that it took several moments for him to recover his wits. He staggered to unsteady feet, only dimly aware that the rapidly receding taillights before him represented his only chance of escape. He realized with a start that the perimeter wall was still closed and, with no where to go, they’d all be caught.
He eyed the device in his hand. Luckily, Vac had a penchant for designing his devices to be ridiculously user-friendly. Sure enough, a big red button jutted from the housing; practically begging to be pressed. Johan sighed and thumbed the button down.
With the deep groaning effort of unseen gears, the aperture on the perimeter wall began to retract. The threshold was just a hundred or so yards away, but the roar of pursuing engines told Johan that a break for the opening was pointless.
He dropped the device and laced his fingers behind his head.