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.
*Atlas JL-419, you are cleared on approach for Triblis colony. Follow our beacon, and ease down on Pad 2.*
Diaz keyed the radio to reply. “Triblis colony, Atlas JL-419 acknowledges. Following your beacon to Pad 2.” She took her thumb off the button and inhaled sharply. “Okay… here we go.”
“You got this, Diz.” Stiles offered in encouragement.
Johan glanced up from his console. “W… wait… this isn’t her first landing, is it?” Stiles merely glanced at Johan before returning his attention to Diaz at the pilot’s station. The boy blanched. “Oh man, I’m gonna die.”
“Shields are green,” Diaz announced, ignoring him, “starting rotation.” Gently, she eased the yoke toward her, pitching the nose of the Cassiopeia away from the planet. “Okay…I think the gravity well’s got us now. Just a matter of-” She yelped in surprise as the ship shuddered. “Yep, yep. Gravity’s definitely got us.”
“Little bit of kick on that stick?” Stiles joked.
“Atmo’ is denser than Horizon. Nothing I can’t handle, Cap.”
“Your approach vector is textbook, Diz,” Stiles encouraged, “told you all that practice would pay off.” Johan dabbed at the clammy, dewy film forming on his brow; trying desperately to keep his focus on his console. He could not help but observe, however, that the crew he had been assigned to appeared to be functioning oddly. The young man was not experienced enough to know what was amiss, exactly, but everyone seemed off-kilter. From what he could tell, everyone was experienced with space travel; yet it was evident that something was missing.
As the Cassiopeia was slowed by the planet’s atmosphere, the ships trembling subsided and Johan was able to breathe easier. However, he did not fully relax until he felt the landing struts kiss the ground.
“And she sticks the landing!” Diaz announced, elated.
*Is it over? Are we dead?* the ship’s engineer joked over the intercom.
*Good job, Diz.* Mujarez remarked.
“Up top, Skip!” Diaz declared, extending her hand. Stiles rose from his seat and slapped his palm to hers. “You too, Fungi. Don’t leave me cold.” Johan groaned. He knew not how he had earned such a degrading moniker, but he was already weary of hearing it. Despite himself, he rose and gave Diaz the ‘high five’ she craved.
“Alright, alright,” Stiles chided, “we’re on the clock now and they don’t pay us by the hour. Fungi, grab your kit and meet Ozawa at the bottom of the ramp.”
“Yes, sir.” Johan mumbled, already beginning to realize that Stiles had not been mistaken when he predicted that the young man would hate every second ‘out here’. Johan paused outside his assigned quarters, pondering the name affixed to the door. It read ‘J. Kousey’, but he had yet to meet anyone aboard who went by that. He turned at the approach of footsteps and spotted the Cassiopeia’s engineer trotting down the corridor.
“Coming through,” he announced, “pick a side, kid.”
Johan obediently pressed himself against a wall to allow for passage in the cramped hallway. “Hey wait a second!” Johan called after him.
He slowed. “What?”
“Uh, it’s Vic, right?”
“Vac, sorry. Uh… speaking of names, when am I going to get mine on the door?”
The gaunt man’s eyes traced the door’s label, changing slightly in their expression as they did so. “Sure,” Vac sighed, “easy enough.” He fumbled with his pockets and produced a roll of white tape. After apportioning an adequate strip of the stuff, he affixed it over Kousey’s nameplate and wrote ‘Fungi’ in marker over the strip. “See ya,” Vac said cheerfully, before departing.
“That’s not my…” Johan sighed in resigned frustration. Vac was already gone and did not seem overly concerned in making any corrections.
* * *
Johan, now dressed in his blue ground duty uniform and burdened with all manner of equipment, found Keiko Ozawa outside the ship. She had been introduced to Johan as the resident xenobiologist, yet he seriously questioned how anyone with an advanced degree could find themselves working as a contractor. Her face was somewhat plumper than the rest of the crew, as was the rest of her. The ‘Double Q’ ration pouch peeking from a breast pocket betrayed a possible culprit. Still, with the possible exception of Diaz, Johan found her to be the friendliest of the crew.
She spoke into a handset as she directed the detachment of the Laboratory Pod from the main ship. Titanium claws groaned in protest as the structure was slowly lowered to the ground.
“Keep going… keep going… and… good… and…” inches from the ground, the claws released the pod; causing it to thud against the landing deck. A ripple of anger played across Ozawa’s face. “Yeah, no, that’s fine! Just drop it! There’s no delicate equipment in there at all!”
*You said ‘good’.* Vac protested.
“I meant ‘good’ as in ‘keep going’.”
*Then just say ‘keep going’.*
“Why don’t you just say ‘hey, Zowie, I know you’ve got some important instruments in here, can you just confirm that you want me to release the claws?’ something like that!?”
*Hmm. Sounds like a mouthful.*
Ozawa angrily raised the handset to her mouth, but thought against it; instead stowing the device on a utility clip. At that point she noticed Johan standing quietly at her side. “Oh! Uh…hey.” She stuttered.
“Hey,” Johan answered, “Ozawa, right? Captain said I was supposed to meet up with you.”
“Right, right. Well, I have to inspect the lab. Look around with me; make sure that moron didn’t bust anything. You can call me Zowie, by the way.”
“Alright, you can call me Johan, by the way.”
Ozawa chuckled as she keyed the pod door opened. “Uh-oh, someone doesn’t like their new nickname.”
Johan followed her inside, and the two began opening insulated crates and inspecting the equipment inside. “It’s not that I don’t ‘like’ it,” Johan remarked as he set about his tasks, “I just don’t get it. Why ‘Fungi’? I mean…I shower.”
His counterpart let out a small laugh. “No, no, no. ‘Fungi’ is just an easier way to say FNG.”
“Okay… what’s FNG?”
She paused, blushing slightly. “Um…it means… ‘New Guy’.”
Johan knitted his brow incredulously. “There’s no ‘F’ in New G…” finally the conclusion dawned on him, “Oh.”
“Sorry,” Ozawa muttered, flushing, “but if it makes you feel better; everyone was ‘Fungi’ once. In fact, evolutionarily, there’s evidence that the earliest forms of complex life to emerge were slime molds… so, historically speaking, literally everyone was once fungi.”
“Hooray.” Johan replied sardonically. The two worked in silence for a moment until Johan itched to broach a new subject. “So Captain Stiles said this mission was a ‘Snoop & Scoop’, ever do that kind of mission before?”
Ozawa shrugged “It’s basically what I was hired for. Observe animal behavior, collect sample, analyze; flash-freeze and ship to C-TAQ. Of course, I had to learn how to do other stuff… not much use for a biologist when we’re installing equipment or spying on pirates.”
“Technically, I’m also the ship’s medical assistant under Ava. I am also the safety supervisor which, trust me, is not as much of a do-nothing job as it sounds. Particularly with Vac and Jake around. I swear, they…” Ozawa trailed off, her brow furrowed and she bit her lip. “I…uh…I talk too much sometimes. Nervous habit. Nevermind.” Silence fell over the lab. The two continued to work, but each was wrapped in their own thoughts.
Shortly, the door to the lab pod hissed open and Stiles stepped within. “Zowie, you set up?”
“Uh, still working on it, Skip.”
“Magistrate wants a survey as soon as possible. Says the animals around here are quiet for now, but getting more aggressive. I’ll get Vac to finish getting you set.”
“Have Ava do it. Vac hasn’t got a clue as to what he’s doing.”
Stiles hesitated for the briefest of moments. Johan saw the man’s face twitch imperceptibly when Ozawa mentioned Mujarez’ name. “Fine,” Stiles replied, quickly regaining his composure, “you, Fungi, and Diz: no more than a hundred meters past the fence.”
“Got it.” Ozawa acknowledged as she collected a backpack. “Let’s go, Fungi.”
Johan followed as asked, but sputtered a complaint. “W-wait! What are we doing!?”
“You heard the Skip,” Ozawa replied as she jogged along, “we’re doing a survey.” Diaz was already waiting for them at the perimeter gate; a massive net gun strapped to her back.
“I don’t understand. Wh-what am I doing? I haven’t been…uh…trained to do survey work.”
“That’s okay,” Ozawa remarked brightly, “consider this on-the-job training.” Johan began to protest again, but the machined gates before him groaned open. In moments, he was confronted the amaranthine canopy of the alien jungle. Unseen creatures called and whooped within the impenetrable vegetation. Back on Atlas, Johan might have thrilled to see so much unspoiled nature, however, he could not help but ruminate upon the fact that none of the animals on the Atlasian nature preserves were liable to eat him.
“Fungi!” A slap on his shoulder broke him from his reverie. Johan turned to discover that both Diaz and Ozawa were wearing goggles, respirators, and headsets. “Get your game face on, dummy!” Diaz insisted. “Never leave the hazard bubble on a new planet without a filter.”
Johan fumbled for his protective gear; affixing it hastily. He took a few breaths into the respirator, quickly finding his breathing muffled. “I-I don’t think it’s working.” Johan reported.
“Probably wanna turn it on.” Ozawa advised.
Johan suppressed a groan of embarrassment and keyed the activation stud on the side of his respirator. He was greeted by the slight whine of an electric motor and suddenly found breathing much easier.
“Come on,” Diaz chided, a digitized version of her voice echoing in Johan’s headset, “I know company training isn’t exactly extensive, but I know they teach you how to wear EXA gear.”
“Cut him a break, Diz, it’s his first hop.” Ozawa countered.
“Fine. He’s kinda cute when he gets all frustrated anyway,” before Johan could object to the patronization, Diaz keyed her headset, “Diaz to Cass, anybody got ears on up there?”
*Y’ello?* Vac answered.
“Aw, fantastic.” Ozawa muttered.
*Hi Zooowie!* Vac responded cloyingly.
“Three leaving perimeter,” Diaz continued, unperturbed, “Diaz, Ozawa and…uh…”
“Asdourian.” Johan concluded, irritated.
*Okay… and logged. Have fun, kiddos.*
“Vac, you’d better have food up there!” Ozawa chastised. “I don’t want to be talking to dead air just because you decided you needed a snack… again.” There was silence on the line for a moment. “Vac?”
*Back in five.* He finally replied. Diaz suppressed a giggle, but a far less amused Ozawa muttered “Unbelievable.”
“Let’s just get going.” Diaz offered. “Sooner we get this done, the sooner you love birds can get back to the old nest.”
“Wait!” Johan interjected as they began to depart. “You and Vac-”
“No!” Ozawa objected “Diz just likes to irritate me with the insinuation.”
“You sure you’re not feeling irritation for another reason? I hear they have a shampoo for that.”
“For the love of…” Ozawa sputtered, “can we focus on the job for once?”
“Yeah, speaking of which,” Johan remarked, “the captain said something about the animals out here being aggressive, but… I don’t have a weapon on anything.”
“Oh! Thank goodness you said something!” Diaz declared, reaching for one of the many items on her utility straps. She produced a pistol-shaped device and tossed it to Johan.
“Sweet!” Johan exclaimed. “What kind of firepower are we talking?” He asked as he aimed the device at a nearby tree.
“Magnetically accelerated micro trace.” Ozawa answered.
“First trigger emits a laser; shows you where the shot will go. Second trigger fires a nano-transmitter; lets us know all about the animal’s location, blood chemistry, cell structure… basically anything we could want to know about it.”
“And… how will this help me in a fight?” Johan pressed, incredulous.
“Trust me, if this comes to a fight; just stay behind Diz.”
“Bet you don’t have any complaints there, do you Fungi?” Diaz asked, wiggling her ample hips suggestively. Johan opted not to reply, silently blessing the fact that his respirator covered any sign of blush.