The interior of the cave was jagged and dark like a scene from a nightmare. This was the lair of deadly things, of evil things, who held a beautiful young woman captive. She was gagged and bound to a chair surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites which form a sinister cell. The green skinned monsters circle the columns guarding their lovely prisoner with bizarre ray weapons coiled in moist, quivering tentacles. They spoke to one another in a gurgled language that sounded like laughter.
The woman feared there was no hope for escape and began to cry.
Unbeknownst to her and the green skinned fiends that held her, a single
brave young hero, Chip Daniels, was sneaking into the corner of the dark
maw. The cliff wall may have been unscalable by an ordinary man, but Chip
was no ordinary man. He was a Skyraco, and all Skyracos were issued zero-g
He reached a locked door and spied the prisoner through a small window in the alien dungeon. He quickly assessed the situation and acted. The door burst into splinters as he crashed through. He fought his way through the alien hoard to the damsel in distress. Electric ray beams bounced off his armored chest as he shielded the helpless beauty.
Chip quickly vanquished the vile villains, then untied the maiden. He
pulled off his helmet to reveal the dashing smile of this young man of
Centrus. The helpless maiden fell lovingly into his arms.
Chip was daydreaming, again.
In actuality those events only took place in his mind. Visions of glory were what sustained Chip as he struggles to stay attuned to the mundane responsibilities assigned to him in reality. He really is a Skyraco, and he is encased in his winged armor hovering high above an alien world. But he is using his astonishing equipment to polish a red light at the tip of a radio relay tower that stood in the middle of nowhere. From his vantage point he could view all 360 degrees of the dark orange horizon of the planet Claous. There is nothing but barren clay plains.
He is beginning to realize how much downtime there is when you were a Skyraco. Not every aspect of the job was adventure, but those are the moments he longs for. Others had called Claous, “The most boring place in the entire Zoland System.”
He is beginning to think it is true.
“Great use of a flight-pack,” thought Chip.
He is covered from head to toe in a metal flight-suit. Though the brass and bronze armor is bulky, the design was functional. It has a streamlined grace with strategically placed rivets and bolts.
The helmet is divided in half by a single round fin that starts below the nose and ends at the base of the cranium. In front it split a horizontal viewing port into two rectangle lenses that protect the pilots eyes sealed inside.
The wearers are built into their flight-suits by specialized mechanics. Their flesh shares cramped armor space with a complex system of wires, switches and gears. The assembly process is so meticulous it's conducted like a ritual before each extended mission. Chip has been wearing his flight-suit for nearly three weeks. The fit was uncomfortable and sticky, and most of the time he got pressure sores, but like all Skyracos he got used to it after a while. To most it is a small price to pay to be able to fly.
Although Chip is stuck doing busy work, he did a thorough job. He mutters to himself as he cleans. “I got into this racket for action, to save the day, and get the glory. I’m supposed to be a hero, not the janitor.”
Suddenly, Chip’s maintenance duties are interrupted by a transmission received over his helmet radio. Static takes form and becomes the voice of his commander.
“Everyone get down here, now!” orders the man everyone called the Chief.
Chip rockets away from his task at full speed.
Skyraco flight-packs house a zed-gravity-coil that makes the wearer weightless. Then a compact mono-jet provides propulsion. The flight-suit pilot can steer by using arms as wings, legs as flaps and hands as ailerons against the wind force as they rush through the air. Their maneuvering looks similar to how men move while swimming underwater, but much faster.
All six members of Chip’s Skyraco team, Unit 9901, fly from various locations to a predefined rendezvous point. Chip careens over the horizon to an isolated airstrip, and lands. As his team gathers, the Chief speaks.
“There was an accident at a nearby Eternuim mining colony. Our unit is the closest and can enact a rapid rescue if necessary.”
Chip asks, “Was anyone killed?”
The Chief replies, “We don’t know yet. Let’s go find out.”
At the small airstrip outpost a Light Penetration Bomber is being prepped for the mission when Chip and his crew arrive.
The LPB-29 stands on hydraulic landing gear. The craft is painted two colors of orange, counter shaded for camouflage on this alien world. The body is a long cylinder rounded on both ends. It is 45 feet from tip to tail. At the front, a cockpit sits behind a clear nose cone with a web of metal that blends into a mosaic of square windows. A long, stout dorsal wing runs the length of the fuselage in a line that was interrupted by a powerful jetport in the rear. The main engine is flanked by two, secondary engine nacelles. One either side of the body thick, streamlined wings sweep to the rear. Near the port side front, nose-art features a cartoon skyscraper blasting out of a red circle like a rocket. The tile of the illustration reads, “The High-rise.”
To Chip and Skyraco Unit 9901, this LPB-29 is their home away from home.
Though the LPBs were designed to be bombers, necessity has expanded their role over time. They are limited to inter-atmospheric flight, but they have multiple duties within that realm. They are used as attack, transport, recon and escape vehicles.
Off-world resources have been stretched thin. Some teams may have access to bases, but many times they don’t. Typically LPBs are staffed with a modest Skyraco crew and sent into the unknown. Unless they are collected into a massive fleet, they are on their own. Inevitably LPB units become independently operating teams. They turn into self-contained units forced to live off alien lands or any resources they can scrounge.
The engines of the bomber roar angrily to life. Within moments team 9901 is loaded and in the air. The alien sky over Claous is orange with a few cirrostratus clouds of a lighter shade. To Chip the view seems like perpetual sunset. As the bomber cruises, the Skyracos take turns peeking through the few windows at the plethora of moons that hang in the sky.
Chip smiles in anticipation of the adventure. “Now, this is more like it.”
As they progress, the landscape begins to look wrinkled, eventually twisting into strange rock formations. Further in the distance the LPB pilot spots the mining colony. The crew gathers at the cockpit door to see the massive smoke plumes rising from burning mine buildings. There are several fires. The colony’s settlement is downwind and engulfed in black clouds.
In clear conditions, from above, colonies from Centrus look like a giant X with a big black dot in the center. The big dot is a dark metal disk four stories tall. This flat drum was a massive cargo container delivered from Centrus via rocket. Upon arrival it was stuffed with equipment and supplies to construct a colony. Once depleted, it became a central part of the colony’s architecture. This structural practicality earned these humanid habitats the popular moniker, “Tin Can Towns.”
Four ten story buildings radiate out from the disk. They are orange and
made of bricks processed out of local materials. So is the large, gated
wall that encircled the colony marking its perimeter. It is supposed to
keep the population of 1,410 colonists safe from alien threats.Destiny
City Population: 1,410
The puzzled Chief strides over to a sentry. “We've been sent here
to support you guys. What can we do?”
“What happened here?” asked the Chief.
“Well, there was an….”The guard’s words are cut off by an approaching representative of the Arkon Mining Company. His name was Mr. Tultee. He has a thick, dark brow and is well dressed in a crisp, clean, dark long-coat suit, and dusty high-boots.
“I’ll handle it from here, thank you,” corrected Mr.
Tultee as he leads the Chief away from the group by the arm. He introduced
himself as the Director of Operations then got right to his main concern.
“There is a pack of agitators inciting trouble in the colony. They
will sabotage our entire operation.”
“They most certainly did. Can you believe that? They are destroying their own homes.”
The rest of Skyraco Unit 9901 watch and listen as the two men speak. While awaiting orders from the Chief, Chip scans the colony crowd at the barred gate. Something doesn’t seem right about the situation. The rioters look and sound more scared than angry.
Mr. Tultee continues, “…property damage, not to mention lost revenue, could creep into millions of credics if we don't put an end to their madness. We need them back under control.”
Then, like an afterthought, he adds, “Oh, and the diggers discovered something in the mine. Ever since, they've been crazy like this. They might have released a germ or something. We're not sure yet. It's hard for us to try and solve a serious problem in the middle of all this nonsense. For now, we need your team to keep the colonist in line. Stop them from wrecking anything else.”
The Chief concludes the briefing with a hardy handshake and says proudly, “We are here to help.”
Mr. Tultee shakes enthusiastically and smiles in relief. “Glad to hear it. Welcome to Destiny City.”
It's such a big name for such a small outpost.
Mr. Tultee starts walking to a flying fan-cart in the background.
He stops again remembering one more thing to add. “Oh, and there will be a meeting in the saucer-blimp in twenty minutes. You should attend.”
The Chief accepts what the mining rep says with a nod and then issues orders to his Skyraco team. “Go hermetic, so you don’t breathe in any smoke or toxins that might be in the air. I can’t imagine you will be in any physical danger in your armor. See if you can keep the colonist from hurting themselves or each other. You’d better split up to cover more space. Got it?”
The armored Skyraco wingmen announce in unison, “Got it!”
They seal their helmets, making them airtight. Their wings pop open. Their flight-packs fire and the team blasts off in a cascade. They fly over the colony wall and above the grounds. The smoke continues drifting from the burning mining buildings in the distance.
Chip flies into the smoke then lands inside the wall. He fumbles through the thick cloud. He can't get his bearings. Panicked people are running wildly around him. He is knocked about by a few as he shuffles. Frustrated, he grabs one of the colonists. He is shocked to see a humanid face distorted by a horrible pox. Reflexively he releases him. The colonist is stunned for a moment then smiles in relief.
Then the deformed man yells out to the rest of the colonists. “Help
is here! There are Skyracos here!”
Chip asks the man, “What happened?”
Before the pox victim could answer, security guards wielding clubs crash through the assembly. They are sealed in makeshift protective gear with respirators. They’ve come to round up the key agitators. Their bombastic arrival sends the colonists into another frenzy.
Chip works to try to separate the people from a clash with security. He stops them from fighting by standing between the opposing sides. He tries reasoning with anyone who will listen. “We’re not here to crack skulls. We are here to help. We just need to know what happened.”
The crowd clamors around him. They all talk at once. He can’t understand any of them.
Chip’s tells everyone, “Hold on. Hold on!”
The words go ignored, so Chip activates the voice amplifier with a tongue-toggle-switch inside his helmet. Then he yells at the group, “EVERYONE SHUT UP!”
The crowd recoils. Some cover their ears.
Then he points to one of the colonists. “NOW YOU, TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED HERE?”
The colonist points to himself. “You mean me?”
Chip responds impatiently, “YEAH YOU!”
Chip turns his amplifier off as the colonist begins.
He breaks down in tears as he speaks. “We’re sick… We have been begging for help from the mining company for four days, but they’ve ignored us. So we set fires to get attention. We hoped to send a distress signal to others for help. It looks like it worked.”
The listening crowd cheers at the victory.
Chip just grew more confused. The more information he got the less he could figure out what was going on.
Above the colony a saucer-blimp monitors the situation in the crowd. From a distance saucer-blimps look like inner tubes lying sideways and covered in canvas. These massive white wafers slid gracefully across the sky like manmade clouds. Inside they are filled with lighter-then-air gasses in a ring of gasbags, living spaces, laboratories and offices. The covering of the airships is speckled with windows. Long antennas droop from the circumference and mooring lines sway from the large, open, round loading dock underneath. These airships brought the comforts of civilization to the untamed alien lands.
Saucer-blimps are floating facilities, often used by companies as mobile offices, market places, or research labs. The airship, currently hovering over the mining colony, is owned by Painwell Pharmacare, but the Arkon Mining Company operates it. It’s used primarily for pharmaceutical research. The saucer-blimp is staffed with businessmen, scientists, technicians, and medical personnel. Dr. Glout is one of them.
Currently Dr. Glout stands alone in an air-conditioned meeting room aboard the saucer-blimp. He is a tall man with dark slicked hair wearing a long white lab coat that blends into the clean white room. His thoughts are somber as he gazes through black-rimmed glasses, out the window to the infected crowd below.
He thinks, “I am guilty of murder. I've killed my family, and everyone else in the colony. They just don’t know it yet. My weapon was neglect. Eight days ago, I was alerted to the fact that the miners penetrated a large organic mass. They often make unusual discoveries while digging, but never a find like this before. Never anything quite so big.
“It was made very clear to me by the Director of Operations that I was to investigate this phenomena from a distance, but not to raise alarm. And under no circumstances were Eternium Mining operations to be disrupted.
“There was nothing to be alarmed about, not at first. The illness didn't reveal itself immediately. It took three days to incubate. Then the symptoms presented like an allergic reaction, which would subside after a period of rest. I made this my official position and presented it to my superiors.”
His thoughts are interrupted as the room fills for a scheduled meeting. The attendees, Mr. Tultee, the Skyraco Chief, Dr. Shellout, Dr. Spensor, and Ed take seats around a long white table. Dr. Glout says nothing as he joins them. Mr. Tultee's personal assistant, Ms. Hackenbush, passes out thin booklets. As she rounds the table, she gives her boss a comforting smile then hands him the last document.
Mr. Tultee clears his throat and begins the meeting.
“The situation in Destiny City is much worse than our original assessment. There are only two courses we can take at this point; to cure or to kill. Either path will be blocked by various obstacles. Each will require hard work, on all of our parts.”
Dr. Shellout, a gaunt man with sunken cheeks, cautiously asks, “Helping the victims should be our first priority, right?”
The Mining Rep says, “Oh, it is, but please realize the victims don't start and end here on Claous. No sir. They stretch all the way back to Centrus, to the shareholders, the distributors, sales force, the retailers, not to mention the customers. There are millions of people who will suffer from this accident, if they find out about it.”
Dr. Shellout corrects. “I was referring to the victims of the disease.”
Mr. Tultee redirects. “The greatest challenge we face is containment, both verbally and virally.”
His assistant Ms. Hackenbush sits at his side writing meeting minutes. She nods and reaffirms his words. “Containment, gotta’ have containment.”
Mr. Tultee scans the rest of the crowd. No one else is nodding. Some look tired. Some look shocked. Others are lost in thought. His heavy brow furrows and he pounds his fist on the table and growls. “We will all have to keep our mouths shut. We can’t say or do anything to draw attention. We need to keep our profile low and our costs down. This problem is borderline manageable, at best. It could explode into chaos at any minute. Then there will be a mandatory investigation and we all know what a waste of time and money that is. People are hard to manage when they are panicked. Scared is ok, it's even preferable, but panicked won't do.”
Ed, a young scientist with a crew cut, asks. “What about the spread of this plague?”
Mr. Tultee replies. “The colony wall was intended to keep monsters and aliens out but it will work just as well as a pen. I want to be 100% clear. No contaminated words, or witnesses or substances are to leave this compound. We need to keep our arms around this, while you people do your jobs and work to solve our problem. Do whatever it takes, but stay within the budget guidelines in your handouts.”
Dr. Spensor interjects. “We need to get back into the mine and find a sample of the contaminant.”
Mr. Tultee replied, “Then that will be our next action item. Meeting adjourned.”
Mr. Tultee intercepts the Skyraco Chief as the meeting disperses. “Mr. Chief, is it?”
He responds, “Just 'the Chief' is fine.”
Mr. Tultee nods rapidly. “Of course, of course. Let’s you and I and Dr. Spensor break off into a smaller meeting to discuss next steps.”
Dr. Glout exits the room thinking, “It has become increasingly clear that the contamination, whatever it may be, was not limited to those who suffered direct contact.”
He slowly walks alone down a curved, white hallway of the saucer-blimp “It has spread to all the inhabitants of the colony. I believe it's transmitted through touch, through sweat and the natural oils our skin secretes. It's been nine days since the initial contamination. Now it's too late to stop it. It's terminal. Everyone will die.”
He arrives in his office.“I should have pursued a more aggressive course, I should have established a quarantine. It's an alien world for Zod sake! Who knows what else is lurking out there. I never should have taken this job.”
After a quick side-meeting the Chief and Dr. Spensor head to the saucer-blimp radio room. Mr. Tultee enters his private office. Ms. Hackenbush trails behind him.
She closes the door and Mr. Tultee instantly drops the calm veneer he presented during the meeting. He begins pacing as he speaks. “I wanted to solve this before the Painwell Pharmaceutical bigwig showed up. I'm not sure how they found out about the crisis, but they did. He’ll be arriving by fan-cart in a few hours. We need to make sure we all have our stories straight by then.”
Ms. Hackenbush nods.
Mr. Tultee digs a palm full of pills from his desk. He gulps them down with water. Then he looks at himself in the mirror and splashes water from an ice bucket in his face. “I'm not looking forward to that meeting either.”
He turns to his assistant. “You had better have the Skyraco Chief attend as well.”
She asks. “Why would you want a Skyraco in that meeting?”
Mr. Tultee sighs and wipes the access moisture from his face. “Because people know that when Skyracos show up, things get done. It will make us look pro-active. It will look like we are on top of things.”
Alone in a lab office on the saucer-blimp, Dr. Glout stands at a large window and gazes down at the colony below. Through breaks in the smoke he can see Chip and the rest of his Skyraco unit milling about the infected crowd.
The Doctor reflects. “I've made only wrong decisions. The zero operational disruption clause in my contract preserved my own personal allotment of Eternium, which I could never afford on a doctor's meager salary. It seemed like a good deal at the time. It kept my wife young.”
He turns to view a desk photo of his wife. “She was so beautiful.”
“Now her beauty has been blighted by the pox. It's all my fault. I've failed her as a husband, and as a physician.”
He sits down at his desk and begins writing. “My inaction, my abdication of professional responsibility to material comfort and the vanity of youthfulness, has doomed the colony to extinction... and no one who knows the truth, cares. (No one of any authority anyway.)"
“They've tried to convince me that it's not even a crime, but they’ve imprisoned me here none the less. That's why they won't land this Zod forsaken airship. So I can't escape.”
He removes a rope from a storage bin and begins to tie a noose.
“They placed me in an information quarantine to avoid the spread of the truth. Through my work here, I have come to know a great many of the miners and their families, and have come to admire their commitment to their jobs and loved ones, their incredible sense of camaraderie, and their essential love of life, despite their sometimes wretched treatment. They will soon be gone, all of them.”
He opens the window
“They brought the disease to me, and I missed it. They sought my help, and I dismissed them. They trusted me in this position. My job was to keep them free from harm, but I failed.”
He ties the noose around his neck
“I am guilty. I sentence myself to join them in their fate. It's only fair. I am not above them.”
He jumps from the window. The rope goes taught. He convulses as he swings
back and forth under the hovering saucer-blimp then dies. inevitably the
lifeless body dangles, high above the smoldering colony.
“To whom it may concern.”
END OF PART 01
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