Col*Aid*Corp EPISODE II
Johan Asdourian gazed in awe through the porthole. From his vantage aboard the ColAidCorp space station, he could see all of Atlas below. Where night had fallen, huge sections of land glittered like brilliant gemstones embedded into the planet itself. He found himself wondering what was happening in the places where his eyes fell upon. In Capucian City, it was late evening but with a turn of his head he realized it was barely afternoon in Pinnacle City, his home.
He wondered what his parents were doing at this very moment. His father was most likely at work, but his mother… was likely worrying herself even sicker than she already was. Johan felt a twinge of guilt as his thoughts drifted to her. He had not even told his parents that he had joined the company until he was already on the shuttle to the training campus. He had honestly believed it would be easier on all of them that way. In the eight intervening weeks, he had come to realize that this wasn’t the case. In all that time, he had only communicated with them via video and text mail. The thought of interacting with them in real-time, he found, was strangely terrifying.
His PDA beeped, and a new message appeared on his updates. J. Asdourian: New Assignment. Report Collar 14. Johan took a breath, steeling his nerves. Below that message, mixed in with earlier clipped and clinical company mails, were a plethora of more emotional messages. The most recent of which read: We don’t need the money!!! Just please come home!!
Johan sighed and dropped his PDA back into the pocket of his standard issue Space Duty coveralls. He caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the porthole. His head had been shaven, his orange and white coveralls had been tailored and fitted to his figure; a far cry from the too-small clothes which had vested him just a season ago. While at first he had told himself he had taken this job for his parents’ sake, a small part of him had to begrudgingly admit that he might take some measure of enjoyment in the days to come.
The station was shockingly well-kept and clean. Maintenance crews attended a malfunctioning light. Various lounges and stores provided diversions for contractors in-between assignments. These establishments were appointed with fab-leather stools and seats, expensive wares, and a fair amount of customers within. The only thing that seemed out of place were the company contractors themselves. As they bustled from place-to-place, Johan could not help but observe that their coveralls were frayed and faded. The once-white trim of their uniforms had been abused to a dull grey and many of them had seen fit to attach various pieces of equipment to their clothes.
Many of them took note of Johan as they passed, smiling knowingly as the obvious neophyte tried desperately to make sense of the station map on his PDA. After some trying, Johan found the docking ring and stole glances at the ships ensconced in their docking collars. To the boy’s surprise, not a one was alike. Some sported large sensor arrays, others were outfitted with massive cargo containers. Johan lingered to regard a rather impressive ship nestled in collar number twelve. From stem to stern, the vessel was equipped with guns of nearly every size and class.
No longer able to contain himself, Johan excitedly sprinted to collar fourteen and pressed himself against the porthole. His face fell when he observed his ship was nothing like the one docked at collar twelve. In fact, it was clearly a rather aged ship with a narrow, tube-like hull. Two mismatched exterior pods had been attached to the main superstructure; one labeled “Lab” and one labeled “Rover”. Four engine nacelles serviced the ship; two of which matched the style of the rest of the ship with the second pair being a clear after-market purchase. The bridge section was a smooth trapezoid blister that rose from the dorsal amidships. It would have been an unremarkable feature of the craft if not for the fact that much of the hull plating on the starboard side of the bridge appeared to have been recently replaced. Behind the bridge blister was a smaller but nearly identical edifice which Johan surmised must be the crew quarters. Slowly, the boy began to realize that his new home was within spitting distance of a quartette of well abused ion engines and he immediately began to wonder if any of the shops on the station carried noise-cancelling earbuds. The last feature of note was the worn lettering painted on the side of the hull. Though it had been scored and scraped by numerous impacts ranging from small asteroids to high-velocity bolt rounds, Johan could just make out the vessel’s name: Cassiopeia.
After traversing the docking umbilical, Johan hesitated at the airlock. He understood that it was largely considered poor manners to board a vessel without the captain’s permission, but no one had met him thus far. He inspected a keypad beside the door and hesitantly thumbed the ‘open airlock’ button. A small panel flipped open beneath the main keypad, revealing a thumbprint scanner. Intuiting that his biometrics must have been already uploaded to the ship’s databanks, Johan pressed his thumb to the scanner, however the screen immediately flashed No Access.
Frustrated, Johan regarded the keypad again and spotted a ‘call bridge’ key. No response came when he pressed it, however, nor when he tried again. Frustrated, he tapped the button in rapid succession more to give an outlet to his annoyance than summon anyone.
The young man nearly fell backward in surprise when the console screen lit and snapped a harried Ava Mujarez into view. *What!?* She demanded through the intercom.
“Uh… I’m… I’m here for the… crew assignment.”
She did not reply immediately, instead massaging her temple. Though the image quality of the console was well below standard, it was clear even to Johan that Mujarez was exhausted. *Is Captain Stiles with you?* she asked at length.
*Oh… good…* she mumbled. *I have to…* Mujarez stood and when she did, the piercing sound of shattering glass was broadcast through the console’s speaker. *Oh… fantastic!* Mujarez shouted as she stumbled out of the frame.
“Hello?” Johan asked, utterly at a loss. “Hello? Wh…what am I supposed to do?”
*Hang on.* She bade between grumbled curses. Mujarez returned to the frame with a rag, and knelt to soak up some unseen mess.
“Should I… come back?”
She rose back into frame. The irritation in her eyes was clear even on the low-resolution screen. *Look, I don’t care what you do. Until the captain brings you onboard, you are not my problem and I’ve got enough of those as it is.*
The screen abruptly flicked to black, leaving Johan staring at the console in witless shock.
Bakur Stiles found the docking umbilical occupied when he entered. He tried to mask his outward disappointed when a young man in a brand new utility suit stood to greet him. “Hey there, son,” he said as cheerfully as he could muster, “did you get lost?”
“Uh… I’m here for the work assignment.” The boy fumbled for a PDA to prove his bona fides.
“Just relax, okay?” Stiles soothed. “Put that away.”
The boy froze, neither complying nor continuing. His face was awash in flustered confusion. Stiles tried to keep his composure even, reminding himself that everyone was in this kid’s position once. He coolly reached into one of his pockets and produced a packet of candy. “You like cinnamon?” Stiles asked as he popped one of the morsels into his mouth.
“Uh… I guess.” His counterpart replied.
“Okay,” Stiles tossed the remaining packet to him, “there you go.” He wiped his thumb and pressed it to the biometric sensor. The airlock door hissed open, and Stiles nodded his head inside. “Let’s get in there, kiddo.”
“Are you the captain?”
“Hmm… now that you mention it, that would explain why my shares are bigger than everyone else’s.”
The boy shot his hand forward in formal greeting. “Johan Asdourian.” He announced.
“Uh huh.” Stiles replied, entering his ship without taking Johan’s hand. They proceeded through the cramped and stuffy corridors to the bridge. The apprentice crewman followed just behind Stiles; clearly full of question but at an utter loss as to when to ask them.
“Lights up.” Stiles called as soon as he came onto the command deck. Someone twitched in one of the officer’s chairs as the chemical lights were excited to full illumination. “Hey Ava, didn’t see you there,” he declared in a far louder registered than was required, “it was just so dark up here.”
Mujarez laboriously massaged her eyes between her thumb and forefinger. “Do you really have to do that?” She muttered.
“You tell me.” Stiles answer, flicking consoles and monitors to active.
“It’s just a headache.” She sighed.
“I’m not surprised. Obviously you were scrubbing the bridge all night. I can smell the disinfectant in the air still.” The captain paused, hoping his point was made. “That is what I’m smelling, right Ava?”
Mujarez glared at him. “Are you planning on giving Diz this same treatment when she comes on board?”
“Diz doesn’t get ‘headaches’.” Stiles replied.
“Well Diz didn’t lose…” Mujarez aborted her outburst when she observed Johan observing the proceedings with the uncomfortable befuddlement of one who has stumbled upon an argument he knows nothing about.
After a few pregnant moments passed, Stiles broke the silence “Ava, are you up for this hop or do you need some time away?”
She glanced between Stiles and Johan in clear irritation before answering. “Just call me when everyone gets here.” With that, she stormed off the bridge. Stiles sighed and continued switching consoles on.
“You ever been in space before?” He asked.
“Space. Ever seen it?”
“Yeah, sure. Uh… my mom and I took a few trips to Anchor Station when-”
“No, no, no, no,” the captain interjected, “I mean have you even been in space?” He gestured beyond the bulkhead. “Out there.”
Stiles nodded. “You’re going to hate every second of it.”
Johan waited, crossing his arms expectantly. As the seconds elapsed, he grew more anxious. “Isn’t this the part where you tell me the good part like ‘it’s hard, but it’s the greatest thing you’ll never love’…or something?”
Stiles scoffed. “What, you looking for a pep talk? Some mentoring? Advice?”
“If you need a pep talk to do this, then you’d best leave now. The only people on this tin can either do it because they choose it, or because they’re that desperate. No one’s going to bother with convincing you.”
Johan furrowed his brow in consternation. Stiles watched him, reading the boy’s character with each twitch of his face. Several expressions played across his face: confusion, fear, consideration, irritation, and ultimately resolve. “You sticking?” Stiles asked, reaching into one of the overhead compartments.
Johan nodded. Stiles seized upon a manual for one of the bridge consoles. It was a hard coded read-only tablet. “Okay,” Stiles conceded, tossing the device to Johan, “then make yourself useful.”
Whatever name he had been born under had been lost to history. So far as his crew was concerned, he was only ‘Schiz’. The pirate captain sat in his captain’s chair, shirtless, as was often his custom. His was a light frame, but every inch was packed with taut muscles and obscene tattoos. His hair had been shaven close into a maze of spirals, coming as close to resembling the human brain as what passed for a barber on his ship could manage.
Schiz conducted himself with intensity. The simple act of staring at the unspoiled alien world on his viewscreen radiated quiet malice to the rest of the pirates lurching about his bridge. He was neither the biggest nor the strongest aboard, yet he was the most respected.
He took a quiet sip from a mug fashioned from the polished skull of the last recalcitrant colonist whom had sufficiently irritated him. The crew around him, however, was not so calm. They hurried to and fro, checking and re-checking instruments and convincing incompatible machinery to work together through sheer force of will. Schiz’ bridge stank of grease, body odor, and burned ozone as the pirate engineers, through means known only to them, readied the ship for a raid.
“Bossman?” One of Schiz’ lieutenants approached. The captain did not reply, instead tapping gently on the rim of his drinking vessel. “The fall boys are ready to go.”
“Is that right?” The pirate captain asked. Though his tone was calm, the lieutenant behind him
blanched. Whenever Schiz questioned one of his crew, it rarely ended favorably for them.
“Uh… what I mean is… the fall boys are ready for you, cap’n.”
“That’s good.” The captain replied, standing from his chair and resting a hand on his lieutenant’s shoulder. Schiz stared into his counterpart’s eyes; boring into them as if piercing his soul. “Well?” Schiz asked leadingly.
“Where’s my kit?”
“I…I didn’t…” The lieutenant tried his best to keep the panic out of his voice.
“You came on my bridge without my kit?” The tenor of Schiz’ voice never changed, but the other man tensed under every syllable. “Oh bones, ?” Schiz pulled another sip from his skull mug to mark the point.
“I’ll get it right away!” Schiz let him jog off for a few paces as he drained his mug. Once he was finished, he hurled the vessel at the lieutenant; knocking him to the floor and shattering the mug in the process.
“Aw look at that!” Schiz shouted as the entire bridge froze in anxious anticipation. “Curse these butterfingers.” The stricken lieutenant rose from the floor and proceeded about his duties again, albeit bloody and stumbling. “Where’m I going to get another one of those out here?” the captain continued. “Where, where, where?”
Chuckles rippled through the bridge. Schiz clapped his hands together. “Lobes!” he cried. The indicated man turned from his station. “Lobes, buddy. Lobes, oh pallie, pallie. What do you have for me?” the pirate captain clasped both hands on the young man’s shoulders.
“The squib on the ground still wants to talk to us, bossman.”
“Oh riiight. I forgot about that. Put him on.” With that, Schiz released his officer, patting him on the pack in a hollow gesture of friendship. The captain returned to his chair; childishly spinning it on its axis before settling. The then thumbed a switch on the armrest; summoning a small monitor.
“Le Clerk! Yoohoo! Are you there?” The screen flickered to life, resolving the irritated visage of a colonial magistrate in the frame. He was a thin man of fair hair and gaunt features. A wispy attempt at a mustache dusted his upper lip, and his beady green eyes were set in a hateful glare. *We’ve been waiting for two hours.* The magistrate complained.
“Aww,” Schiz cooed, “poor little guy. Am I keeping you from something? Do you find me rude?” The captain called out as he scratched his crotch. “Hey fellas, fellas! Do I need to work on my manners?” He was met with a chorus of guffaws.
The magistrate visibly suppressed a retort, instead opting to keep the conversation neutral. *Are you clear on the agreement?*
“Yeah, yeah, noodleneck. We smash up the emergency transponder at the Yandris colony, and you give us two million denos on top of us taking whatever we want from the Yandees.”
*And you leave our colony alone.* the magistrate added irritably.
“Sure, sure. Whatever you say le Clerk.” Schiz replied, butchering the pronunciation of the magistrate’s name as well as affecting a non-committal demeanor. The pirate could not help but be amused by le Clerk’s obvious aggravation, but the magistrate did not rise to take his bait. *Triblis colony out.* He said before abruptly terminating the transmission.
As soon as Schiz dismissed the monitor, his lieutenant arrived with his ‘jump kit’. The kit in question was not much more than a pair of crossed shoulder straps with a battery pack at the back and a personal shield emitter on the front. A crude message was carved into the metal housing 'Nothing to fear when UR too dead to care'.
Schiz fell through the open air. While the ground was still thousands of yards away, it still rose inexorably to greet him. This fact disturbed him not. Instead, he was more interested in selecting a section of ground in particular to meet. His target was a loose collection of prefab domes, surrounded by badly mangled perimeter fence. Even from this height, it was not difficult to surmise that something had gone wrong at the Yandris colony. However, this too did not concern the pirate captain. By his reckoning, whatever had caused the trouble would either be gone; or the bolt gun strapped to his back would make it wish it had.
The alarms on his equipment wailed and blared as it detected him reaching terminal velocity, and Schiz could feel the various mechanisms within the field generator on his chest whir to life. He knew not how, exactly, the field generators worked; all he was certain of was that a ‘terminal jump’ was the ultimate test of the equipment. He cackled, elated and excited as the final seconds arrived. The wind whipped through his fingers, the rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins.
Then there was a great muffling of everything. The outer membrane of his shield bubble connected with the ground well before he did, and although it slowed his descent quickly, it was far slower than if the shield had otherwise failed.
Most of his band who followed saw their equipment function just as favorably. Those few who did not had little time to regret it.
Schiz, of course, spared not even a moment to mark their loss and neither did the survivors. Instead, they whooped in exhilaration and looted the remains of their former comrades without the slightest hesitation. Schiz produced his bolt gun and scanning the remains of the ruined colony. Breaches at the wall had occurred at multiple points. Many of the domed roofs of the prefab structures had been melted inward in places. While the colony exhibited indications of a fight, no bodies littered the ground. There was no scoring on the walls to betray stray bolt rounds. For that matter, there was no evidence of raiding or looting. Plasteel supply crates remained stacked in neat, orderly towers. Rovers sat undisturbed at their charging stations.
All this suited the pirate just fine. He had no interest in investigating the ultimate fate of the colonists. He reckoned that their loss was every bit his gain, and he intended to capitalize upon it. Already, his compatriots were seizing crates and staging them for pickup.
“Yo, Bigelow,” Schiz called.
“Find the emergency transmitter and wreck it up good, huh?”
“Uh… where should I look?”
Schiz rolled his eyes, sighing exhaustedly. “Where do you think, genius?”
The other man paled, his eyes falling on the largest of the domed habs. This structure had seen the worst of whatever had happened. It would have been the final sanctuary for the doomed colonists and whatever power was responsible for their disappearance spared no effort to get inside.
The pirate captain noticed his subordinate’s hesitation. “What’s the matter, Bigs? Need someone to hold your hand?” Schiz extended his palm. “It’s dark and scary in there, after all.”
Bigelow, a lumpy oaf of a man, looked to his captain and grinned. “What do I do if I find someone who wants to hang on to it, bossman?”
Schiz smiled “Whatever you want, buddy. But don’t be selfish now. Ain’t no fun if the boys get none.” Bigelow laughed and set out without further delay. Further, the rest of the crew had already set to looting.
Schiz, however, hesitated. While he was never opposed to an easy raid, he began to wonder why the pompous magistrate of Triblis colony sent a pirate to do the job a rover team could manage. The question began to set him on edge. He narrowed his eyes, carefully searching the jungle canopy as it swayed beneath a green hued sky. The foliage beyond was eerily still.
Nothing moved beyond what the breeze pushed.
Suspicions mounting, Schiz departed the safety of the group to examine the exterior of the complex. He felt eyes on him as he strode with confidence for the perimeter. While Schiz would never stint at sending his boys into danger for even the most paltry of gains, he knew that he would have to display some reckless bravado himself on occasion.
He stepped beyond the perimeter wall and paused, surveying the jungle cautiously but not fearfully. Regardless, there was nothing to see. The purplish foliage remained undisturbed and there was no evidence of traffic by humans or vehicles. This struck the pirate as curious, but he paid no further mind to that matter. By day’s end, he intended to be too inebriated to even remember the Yandris colony or its troubles. For now there was no challenge to be faced.
Confident that nothing was amiss, Schiz began to relieve himself upon a nearby tree. A tittering came from his left side, and when he glanced at the disturbance he observed a small owlish avian creature pecking at the ground. It was an unremarkable specimen; no bigger than the pirate’s hand. Its body was settled between a pair of gossamer wings and was covered in translucent fibrous curls.
The thing was far too cuddly for Schiz’ tastes, so he adjusted the aim of his stream to spray the diminutive bird analog which provoked a flurry of alarmed chirps. While the animal was clearly agitated by the unwelcome shower, shifting colors from cream to bright blue, it made no attempt to retaliate.
Schiz chuckled to himself and returned to the complex, finding his vessel now hovering above the structure with cargo lines extended to receive the abandoned supplies and vehicles. Bigelow was waiting as the rest of the crew secured crates to the lines, a mangled titanium canister cradled in his hands.
“Hey! Hey! Lookit you!” Schiz proclaimed. “Did you do that all by yourself?”
“Just wanted to make sure you saw I smashed it good.”
“Anyone try to stop you?”
Bigelow shook his head ruefully.
“Aww, sorry buddy.” Schiz put his foot on a ration crate; forcing the porters to stop. He cracked the lid and inspected the contents before reaching inside and producing a cookie. “It ain’t all bad, though. There you go,” he placed the confection in Bigelow’s mouth, “you enjoy that now.”
In short order, Schiz’ holds were filled with salvage and the cargo lines were now drawing the crew itself back into the ship. The pirate captain didn’t bother with a harness to secure himself to the line; instead wrapping a wrist with the cable and nestling his foot within the cargo net.
The winch above did its work, reeling the man skyward as he hung with reckless aplomb from the line. He could not help but smile, as the wind rushed past him. Though he had only been on this world for a short time, he took great satisfaction in the notion that he was the one in control for every moment he was on it.
That notion quickly dissolved, however, when something caught his eye. Atop the largest dome was a figure that most certainly hadn’t stood there before. He was wrapped in some form of tattered robe that obscured his face and before Schiz could fully understand what he was looking at; he had been enveloped by the ship’s cargo bay.
Schiz wasted no time storming to the bridge. Without a word to his crew, he flicked on a monitor and repositioned the exterior camera to view the top of the hab. To his irritation, there was no longer anything of note to observe. He absentmindedly drummed his fingers against his scalp; suddenly wondering if he had imagined what he saw. He was no stranger to hallucinations, of course, but he was usually never this sober when they manifested themselves.
Fuming, he threw himself into his captain’s chair. He locked his eyes on the monitors, scanning them intently. He could feel his crew staring at him, sensing their hushed commentary. “What are we still doing here!?” he bellowed.
Wordlessly, the other pirates adjusted their instruments to set the ship into motion. As the thrum of the engines kicked, Schiz found himself beginning to calm. He was the master of his domain once again.
They rose high above the canopy and began accelerating to meet the Triblis colony and collect what they were owed.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa… what’s that!?” Someone shouted. Bridge monitors flickered and resolved an image of a cloud against the alien sky. The cloud in question, however, was far darker than the others and something about it set Schiz on edge.
“It’s just a cloud.” Another answered.
“I don’t like it, switching to thermal. Whoa… that is a hot cloud.” Schiz resisted the urge to demand answers, trusting his crew to figure it out for themselves.
“Storm cloud, you think? Built up static?”
“No way… this is… too uh…too solid, not random electrical buildup.”
“Bossman, we’re heading right for it. What do you want us to do?”
The captain made a show of laboriously and exasperatedly turning his head to the speaker. “Move out of the way.” He said, simply.
“Gotcha. Helm, adjust heading by twelve degrees port… okay that’s… wh…what the?”
“A stupid cloud can’t really be that fascinating, can it!?” Schiz spat.
“Bossman… it’s… it’s following us.”
The pirate captain tried to mask his shock. Realizing that he didn’t want to be caught paralyzed by indecision, he issued the only order he could think of “Then shoot it, stupid!”
“Gotcha,” the crewman lifted a hand-held to his mouth, “all guns, all guns: Bossman wants that cloud in front of us lit.” the bridge shuddered as bolt cannons roared to life; ripping into the object with unremitting fury. Schiz examined the resulting damage, quickly noting several objects falling from the cloud. “Zoom in!” He commanded. “What’s that stuff coming off it?”
The monitor stuttered as the optics adjusted. The debris falling from the cloud had a distinct pattern and the onboard computer returned an analysis almost instantaneously. This time Schiz did not attempt to stifle his surprise. “Birds!?”
Magistrate le Clerk observed the screen silently. Not only were the technicians seated in front of him diligent in giving their updates, but the event on display was fairly obvious in its own right.
“Impact.” The lead tech announced. “Sir, we have confirmed that the main ship has crash landed in the desert biome in grid four-one-tau. Escape pods launched, closest is four kilometers from our complex.”
Le Clerk nodded to indicate that he had heard and understood everything the tech said. Nonetheless, the man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Magistrate… should we… should we send rescue?”
The man did not reply immediately, simply allowing himself a moment to absorb what had just transpired. “Send nothing. This confirms what we have feared. These attacks are not random and they are cross-species. We send anyone outside the complex and I highly doubt we’ll see them again.”
The tech nodded slowly as he came to grips with the implications. “Besides,” the magistrate continued, “they’re just pirates. Their fate is more than they deserve.” He turned to another tech. “Bautiste, confirm that the distress beacon has been deactivated.”
“Oui, magistrate. No detectable signal.”
“Bon,” le Clerk remarked with satisfaction, “now ours is the only claim to this world. We will discover what is behind these attacks and we will harness it. To that end, what is the status of our next batch of guinea pigs?”
“ColAidCorp confirms receipt of our request and has dispatched a ship. Atlas registry number ending: JL-419, the Cassiopeia.”