The first thing you need to understand about what we do is that space is huge! Like super duper holy moly BIG! In fact, it’s a little too big. That’s why humanity has only developed about four ‘Homeworlds’; Firma, Atlas, Gaius, and Horizon. Everywhere outside of those four planets are… well…‘wild space’. That’s not to say it’s uninhabited; you’ve got colonies, asteroid mines, space stations – you name it!
The thing is: there’s no permit process or laws or really any regulations whatsoever to establish a facility or colony outside of a Homeworld’s start system. If you’ve got the ship, equipment, crew, and money; you’re free to knock yourself out. That said, there’s not much to pull your butt out of the fire if your equipment breaks or if you get attacked by pirates or if the local wildlife starts thinking you’re tasty. There’s no police, no navy, no nothing!
That’s where we come in. We’re the Colonial Assistance Company or ‘ColAidCorp’ for short. If you’ve got a problem, and the money to pay for a solution, we’ll fix it!
Most of the time.
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, sir, 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 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 bitterly replied.
“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 careful 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, queñoniño.”
“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 suppressing 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 out 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 mind 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 compound 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 costs 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…”