Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE I
Johan Asdourian sat on the steps of his school, gazing at the late afternoon sky. He was a boy of seventeen; lanky –even for a teenager. His hair had grown to a few weeks longer than school regulation, but the administrators had long stopped harassing him about it. In fact, he’d never have to concern himself with the matter again.
Around him, his compatriots with exit exams in hand said their final goodbyes. Each embrace, each excited fit of laughter, and each happy departure only served to sour his mood further. So elated were they with the results of their tests that only a few even noticed the sullen boy on the steps who was very much not happy with the results of his own.
The campus had nearly emptied before anyone bothered to join Johan to cheer him from his glum fugue. “Hey man, so… that was a rough break.” Keiper muttered. Johan did not reply, leaving his counterpart to shift uncomfortably as he searched for a new catalyst for conversation. “Mr. Rana always had it out for you, everyone knew that.”
“Really? Everyone?” Johan scoffed. “Great, I’ll just jot that down on my work applications. ‘My teacher totally had it out for me; ask anyone’.”
Keiper recoiled. “Hey, I’m just trying to help man.”
“Lucky for you ‘just trying to help’ wasn’t on the exams.” Johan sneered.
“Alright, you know what?” Kieper rose from the steps. “I’ve got better parties to attend tonight than your pity party. Better luck next year, huh?”
With that, Keiper left Johan to wallow in his own misery. As he watched his friend descend the stairs, Johan could not help but stare out into the bustling city. Corporate mega-structures stretched high into the air. Contrails from sky shuttles traced to and from their open-air landing bays. Lavish employee dormitories offered their thousands of workers a very comfortable living. Built-in ‘micro malls’ provided all the food, entertainment, and medical care they could ever want.
At the top of each structure, the name and logo of each corporation they housed blazed like beacons; inviting all those with the qualifications to inquire within. Of course, these were qualifications that Johan did not possess.
And so, when he finally rose from his seat, he made instead for the dilapidated prefabs that rested in the shadows of these monuments of avarice.
All was quiet at the Asdourian table, save for the soft mechanical whirring of Rebekah Asdourian’s medical chair. Hers was the only proper chair at the table, whereas Johan and his father, George, rested atop repurposed plasteel crates. Adornments around the apartment were sparse as well. All decorations, save for a few treasured holographs depicting happier days, had been sold long ago. What furniture that existed was strictly utilitarian and often repurposed based on the needs in the moment. The Asdourians did have access to the luxury of a radio, but it was as silent as the rest of the house this evening.
George Asdourian, bald and wrinkled, sat with fingers intertwined as he pensively gazed at Johan’s transcripts. While his outward demeanor was relaxed and introspective, Johan had lived long enough to recognize the muscles tightening across his father’s face. He could also see the color of George’s knuckles change as his fingers clasped together in a quiet, but ever growing fury.
Rebekah’s demeanor did not match her spouse. While she was no more pleased about Johan’s results as George was, she remained more concerned than angry. She did not stare at the transcripts, rather it was her husband whom she watched intently.
Johan, however, could bear the silence no longer. “Look, I can join the SDF and-”
“System Defense doesn’t take morons.” His father interjected harshly.
“George, don’t!” Rebekah warned.
“Don’t what!?” He returned. “Don’t keep letting this kid slack off in class while I bust my hump to pay for this family!?”
“I wasn’t slacking off!” Johan insisted defensively.
In response, George slid the tablet before him. “Are you telling me these numbers reflect you doing what you were supposed to be doing?” Johan broke his father’s gaze, knowing better than to offer further excuses. “I’m waiting, boy!” George insisted.
“Obviously there is no right answer, so why don’t you just get it over with!?” Johan said.
George scoffed. “Oh, is that what you think this is? Is that what you think I want? I’m just here to wag my finger at you? Yell at you? Fetch a belt?” George put a hand on Johan’s shoulder. Anger radiated from his grasp, but it was restrained. The act was not meant to harm, but to seize his son’s attention. “Johan, there is nothing I can do to you. The grades are the grades, and I can yell and scream and holler ‘til I’m blue in the face. It still doesn’t change the fact that I have to go to work tomorrow… and you can’t.”
“George, that’s not fair.” Rebekah replied.
“Oh, I agree.” He affirmed. “A couple hundred years ago, he could go and wait some tables or work a farm; but that’s all automated now. Only people who need human hands to do that are out in the colonies.” George turned to Johan. “Is that what you want, son? To be some colonial drone getting attacked by pirates every five minutes!?”
“Oh please!” Rebekah interjected. “If anything, he should be a pirate.” The two of them stared at her in stunned silence until she raised a hooked finger “Yaaar matey!”
Johan tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a snort of amusement at his mother’s jibe. George, however, was not as tickled. “Well, I’m glad the two of you can see the funny side of this.” He remarked caustically. “Why don’t I try to see if I can pick up a second shift, see if the graveyard boys find it funny?” Fuming, he rose from the table; ignoring his wife’s protestations as he made for the door.
Rebekah sighed despondently as the ill-kept automatic door laboriously creaked shut behind him. Again the abode was plunged into silence. However, a faint beeping interrupted the oppressive hush before it lingered too long. Rebekah glanced at her chair and groaned in annoyance as her eyes fell on a blinking light. “Oh perfect.” She muttered.
“I’ve got it.” Johan announced, hopping from his seat to make for the in-unit fabricator.
“Wait!” Rebekah called. Johan turned and she beckoned him nearer.
“What is it, mom?” He asked with concern.
“You know your father doesn’t mean it, right?”
Johan rolled his eyes. “No, I’m pretty sure he means it.”
“Son, listen to me,” her affable humor dissolved to genuine earnestness, “he’s scared. Our lives have taken a turn since…” she knocked on the metal chest plate of her med chair. “It’s not his fault, it’s not your fault; it’s not anyone’s fault. But he’s not sure what to do and he was just hoping that you’d be able to start work before the dry season begins.”
“Well, I can’t.” Johan retorted, more frustrated with himself than anyone else.
“Johan,” she insisted, patiently, “lots of people repeat the last year; it’s difficult for a reason.”
“And lots people don’t have…” Johan caught himself before he said something truly regrettable. Unfortunately, the hurt look his mother gave him informed him that he had said enough regardless. “…all I’m saying is… maybe dad’s right. Maybe it’s best if I go to some colony farm and work for a while. I mean, the money won’t be great-”
Rebekah rolled the chair toward him with a deadly serious glare in her eyes. “Don’t you dare throw your life away on my account.”
“Shut up.” She held his gaze and while there was water in her eyes, her look did not waver.
“I’m not going to let you blame me for not striking out for yourself.”
“I’m not blaming you-”
“I’m not finished. Your father and I will be fine. We can easily survive another year, and once
you’re out of the house; that’s a fifth of our income freed up. We’ll be fine. But you… you have to decide what you want.” She grasped the discarded tablet. “These… are not the grades of someone who’s going to last long behind a desk. So, next year, when you graduate; you’ll work for a while… and then you go find something you love to do and you go do it. And you do it without an ounce of guilt, you hear me?”
Thoroughly chastised, Johan nodded in contrition. “Okay.”
“Good,” Rebekah’s sunny demeanor instantly returned, “now grab me another dose and fab’ us some dinner while you’re at it.”
Johan smiled and returned to the wall- mounted fabricator. “Asdourian Ten Twenty Eight, requisitioning one forty eight hour supply of Prykosimine and two servings of C-Rations.”
*Processing request.* The synthesized voice replied. *Approved. Dispensing now.* A pulse of
light emanated from the receiving tray. Within seconds, two dull brown bars and a cylinder of white liquid appeared on the tray. Johan collected the items and made to return to the make-shift table when the fabricator opted for a continuance. *Be advised: there are presently insufficient funds in your account to fabricate another forty eight hour supply of Prykosimine.*
Johan paused as he considered the message.
The Atlasian morning did not find Johan’s mood improved. With no school to attend and no real reason to stay home, he quickly found himself in want of diversion but with few means to pursue one. What friends he might have availed upon were too busy writing applications to accompany him as he frittered away his time. So Johan walked the streets of Pinnacle City alone.
His course was aimless, yet his senses were acute and alert. However impossible it may have seemed, he was looking for something –anything- that might deliver his family from the desperate circumstances his failures had brought them to.
Johan had walked the streets of his home city many times, but he stopped at one particular place he had overlooked hundreds of times before. It was a squat, single-story office. The structure was only slightly better-kept than the buildings in the surrounding district and, as they were well beyond the precincts of the decadent corporate mega-structures, this indicated that the operation within was perhaps not the most prestigious. And yet, with garishly dated animation posters, the office promised something that Johan had not dared to consider before.
He stood at the threshold of a recruitment office for ColAidCorp, appraising the edifice with fresh eyes. ‘NO DIPLOMA REQUIRED!’ bold fonts declared. ‘EXPLORE THE GALAXY AND GET PAID TO DO IT!’
For once, the cloying offers that Johan had so readily dismissed a dozen times before seemed utterly tempting now. He approached the door, but paused. He recalled his father’s detest of colonial assistance companies. In a word; he would often describe them as ‘vultures’, little better than grinning pirates preying upon the desperate.
Johan turned, nearly colliding with another pedestrian.
“Hey, watch it!” The man cried, nearly losing hold of his heated beverage.
“Sorry.” Johan muttered as he slipped past.
“Whoa, whoa! Where’re you going, kid?” The man asked after him.
“None of your business.” The boy spat back.
“Actually, it is.” The man’s response caused Johan to pause and regard him quizzically. The interloper seemed unremarkable enough in his standard business formal attire. Chrome buttons affixed his black tunic to his torso. A pristine white ascot was tied around his neck. But there was one detail that stuck out; a golden pin depicting a rocket leaving orbit rested on his lapel.
Instantly, Johan reckoned this must be one of the recruiters. “Whatever.” The boy said with full intent to return to his business.
“You’re awfully skinny. Sure I can’t talk you into some Q-Rats?”
Johan halted mid-stride. “You’re authorized for Q-Rations?” He asked in disbelief.
The man smiled. “Don’t let the façade fool you, kid, we’re a serious operation.”
“Yeah, well… good for you. But I don’t want any.” Johan made to continue on his way, but his counterpart was not about to let him get away so easily. “You don’t know how this works, do you, kid?”
He scoffed. “Okay, gramps, tell me how this works.”
The recruiter took a sip from his beverage, sizing his mark as he did so. “Y’know, I’ve got a calendar in that office. And today is marked with a big red circle. It’s the day after the finals are printed, and the fact that you’re loitering in front of my office this early in the morning rather than jetting off to interviews tells me everything I need to know about you.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“It tells me you don’t have the time to spare to commit to school for another year.” Johan knitted his brow, begrudgingly impressed by the recruiter’s accuracy in his assessment. “Hey, you want to go wonder around for a bit; I can’t stop you. But in a few hours, you’ll come back and we’ll do the paper work and get you started --except there’ll be one key difference.”
“We’ll probably be out of Q-Rats.”
Two colonists, Rys and Nolan, idled over a game of cards beneath a green hued sky. Beyond the high walls of their prefab compound, the very tips of a jungle canopy could be observed swaying in the evening breeze.
“Did you see the light show last night?” Rys asked as he studied his hand.
“Heard it more like,” Nolan replied, “Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt. Boy am I glad we did not cheap out on that bug field.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing you’re not in charge of the budget because…” Rys displayed his hand “you’re going to have to cheap out on a lot of things this week.”
“Aw you gotta be kidding me!” Nolan snarled in frustration.
“I ain’t joking, but I’m laughing.” Rys chuckled, snatching up Nolan’s proffered Ration Card.
“I’ll wipe that smile off your face if we play another-” Nolan’s retort was interrupted by a great electric crackle as the ‘bug field’ that formed an invisible bubble where the wall terminated failed to interdict a large object.
Singed and smoking, the thing crashed upon the card table causing the colonists to spill backward in surprise. It was a sleek, black thing which, after some examination, stood revealed as a local predator animal.
With four clawed limbs, a stunted gator-like maw, and a quartet of eyes; it was an imposing creature save for the fact that, to the colonists’ relief, it appeared dead.
“W…Well… that was weird.” Nolan remarked. The two stared at the still-smoking beast, neither quite recalling what the written protocol would dictate in this instance. Rys probed the creature’s condition with a tentative kick to its hindquarters.
“Rys why!?” Nolan cried.
“Whadya mean ‘what’? What could you possibly learn by kicking it?”
“I just… wanted to see if it was dead-”
“And what if it wasn’t dead?”
“I-” Whatever Rys was about to say never left his tongue when the creature twitched at his feet.
“Did it just move?” Nolan asked. For a moment, the creature remained still. Suddenly, it jerked again; a pulse of light emanating from its chest beneath the skin. Just as quickly as it had come, however, the light died and the creature lay quiet again.
“Did you see that?” Rys whispered.
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know… kind of looked like… it’s trying to restart its own h-” The pulse came again only this time, bestial amber eyes slid open. The two colonists screamed and raised their arms over their faces in anticipation of the attack.
When none came, they were lowered as the two stared in confusion. Rather than maul the men, the beast had thundered away for the network of prefab structures at the center of the perimeter. With feline grace, it leapt to one of the lower roofs, and scrambled to ever higher elevations; clawing and jumping across the observation towers with purpose.
“Hey Rys…” Nolan began “this is weird, right?”
“Highlight of my day… and I just won a week’s rations.” The two watched as the beast scaled the command dome until it came to rest at the base of the main antennae. After regarding its surroundings for a moment, it opened its mouth wide and from its depths issued a torrent of alien beetles. The skittering bugs clustered around the base of the antennae and, at once, doused the mechanism with a highly acidic spray.
The two colonists could only watch in awe as their only link to the satellites in orbit wobbled and collapsed with the loss of structural integrity.
“Hey Nolan?” Rys muttered in disbelief.
“Yeah?” The shock-numbed man replied.
“That thing just threw up a belly full of bugs on our antennae.”
“I… I saw.”
The predator creature returned to the ground, eyeing the two men savagely.
“Doesn’t that mean its stomach is empty now?”