Part One – A Universe Of Hurt

A quick foreword:

Pseudofunk is a long, satirical, and violent story. Although it may not seem like it as first, controversial topics will be explored, horrendous words will be used, and I will try my damnedest to render blood ‘n guts in text as accurately as possible. None of the opinions of any characters reflect my own unless stated otherwise.

A quick shout out to:

Will Taylor

Michael Cheatham  (not anymore, bitch)

Gordon Baumeister

Cierra Kinard

For being wonderful friends

Another quick shout-out to:

Steve Gallacci

Dev Madan

Terry Pratchett (R.I.P)

B.V. Larson

Harry Turtledove

For inspiring me

Now, without further ado…

 

 

 

 

 

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.”   –John W. Gardner

The year was 2075.

The month was September.

The place, a laboratory, on some unnamed planet.

The person, Kolt Saudwell.

Things are about to get really funked up.

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Arc One of Three, Episode One of Five:

A Universe Of Hurt

By Red McCloud

When you live on a day-to-day basis, you do anything for money. Including getting possibly disintegrated in exchange for money. Granted, he WAS told he had only a, quote, ‘two-point-five percent chance of complete cellular obliteration’, but Kolt Saudwell still felt a little uneasy as he was strapped into the ‘cart’ that was to be his vessel in this experiment, lifted off of a decommissioned rollercoaster and given a new slick gray paint job and filled with electronics, save for a single seat for Kolt to set his butt in. The scientists hid nearby behind their eight inch-thick metal blast shield, and one gave Kolt a thumbs up as the button that was supposed send Kolt off on his way was smashed by a palm. the scientists all flinched. The mercenary felt a little uneasy.

This wasn’t as dangerous as what Kolt Saudwell usually did for money however; his specialty was targeted assassinations of anyone from politicians, merchants, cheating partners, suspected spies, or the neighbor’s annoying cat. He also did birthday parties. He hated doing birthday parties. But today he wasn’t going to a birthday, thank god, he was instead, as previously mentioned, getting possibly disintegrated in exchange for money. Without the theatrics, he was testing a prototype long-range teleporter, ‘volunteering’ to be a guinea pig in exchange for a few thousand forands. The pay was high enough, and with him recently considering setting up a retirement plan, why not give it a head start even if he had a, as previously mentioned, ‘mere two-point-five percent chance of complete cellular obliteration’?

Or was it ‘twenty-point-five’?

Well, that doesn’t matter now!

The seat shuddered and shook as everything around Kolt seemed to sharpen. Blue light started to ooze out of every crevice and crack he could see, and his gloved hands locked tight around the metal bar in front of him. He grit his teeth as his joints were being shook out of their sockets, and tried to breathe slowly, but he sputtered and spat as his body experienced terrible tremors. This was only his second time teleporting. The technology wasn’t new, but the way it’s being used, extreme long-distance teleportation, is. He took the long way here, hopping taxi and shuttle after taxi and shuttle, and hey, if a couple scientists wanna find out how to fling him back home, why not?

kolt saudwell sans helmet

Kolt Saudwell sans helmet and utility belt, circa late 2075

Kolt had accepted the job of his own accord, but now he was starting to have minor doubts. Being a mercenary was taxing, but it gave him a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and guns to play with. As everything seemed to melt and sag around him, he only had one thought go through his head before he was slingshotted, particle by particle, across the universe.

“What will happen when I stop?”

Also “Well crap.”

And he was gone. Even he didn’t comprehend what happened, only that a flash of light and some blue ‘fizzle’ filled his vision as his whole body lurched forwards, the pressure causing him to instinctively close his eyes. It was like a roller coaster but way, way more painful. So a really bad roller coaster. But, when he opened them less than a moment afterwards, he felt pressure on his chest instead, not his whole body. And then he heard the horrible whistling of wind going past the ear holes in his helmet. His visor reactivated, having been knocked out by the sudden electrical surge accompanying the teleport, and was greeted with a blinding bright light in his eyes. But when his eyes adjusted, two objects appeared, set onto a blue background. A sun, and a smaller sun.

And then, Kolt began to fall.

“Well this is just danDYYYY!!!” His voice trailed off as the craft started to spin in the air, tumbling toward the planet below him, and he could feel the seat belt snapping to pieces as he held on for dear life. But his hands, sore and aching, slacked just a tiny bit, and Kolt’s gloves slipped from the bar as the last clip on the seat belt snapped. He threw his hands out, attempting to grab onto something, but he was  nonetheless flung into the air. His breathing erratic and unnatural, he tried to stop himself from passing out due to the spin he was in, but he could see the tunnel of vision collapsing around him as he flailed in the air. Before he could fight the urge to faint, he turned towards the ground. Light peach colored sand was only mere feet from his face, but before he could process a single thought he slammed helmet-fir st into the dunes. His face slammed against inside of the helmet, something that should be impossible to do, and his eyes started to close on their own as he felt something wet on his chin.

Kolt laid there unconscious for hours, blood dripping from a gash on his chin and pooling at the bottom of the helmet, his eyes twitching as his body was buried under hundreds of pounds of sand kicked up from the pieces of his craft falling around him. Only his legs and lower torso were visible. Beside him, the smoldering crash of the specialized craft that was supposed to take him back to Home safely, or at least, that’s what he was told would happen. He was pretty fucked.

Until an individual saw him from the horizon, through the lenses of a monoscope that was previously following the crashing ship. This person gasped, collapsed their monoscope, and slid down from the dune they stood upon, trekking to the crash. They perused the remnants, picking out useful pieces of scrap and technology, before a glint in the sand attracted their gaze. In awe, they stood over the buried form of a person clad in pitch black gear, with a belt covered in oversized belt pouches and half of some sort of backpack on them sticking out from the sand. They started to furiously dig through the sand, but stopped once they uncovered the poor saps’ head. It was wearing a angular, matte black helmet, the same that most Privateer mercenaries wore, except it was much smaller  and more aerodynamic, a new model. They heard a pained groan emit from the external speaker, and quickly set to picking up the person. After slinging them on their back, the scavenger looked back at the wreckage, before starting the long walk home.

They laid the wounded stranger on their bed, before fetching themselves a bowl of warm water and a rag. With nimble claws, they unlatched the large helmet, watching as it spread out and hinged upwards, and the pooled blood dripped out from inside. They gasped as they saw the person’s head, but quickly set to washing the gash on their chin. After stopping the bleeding, they took a moment to look them over; Their eyes had been amber-plated, and judging by the fact that they hadn’t moved were still unconscious, their head was like that of a praying mantis, with two long antennae drooping and an overall triangular shape. The skin that adorned their head and assumingly the rest of their thin frame was black and leatherlike, with gray scars wrapping around their head. Underneath their face was a slender jaw, a small red gash on their ching oozing blood down their neckline. The savior took their finger and dragged it across their face, feeling every ridge and bump, and the dips that were the scars. They had never seen one so closely.

They then poked the stranger in the eyeball. The stranger snorted in their sleep in response, and their savior rubbed the closest equivalent they had to a chin as they looked down on the unconscious mercenary.

 

As Kolt woke up, the first thing his eardrums picked up was the sound of water rushing from a tap, and the first thing he saw through the receding darkness was a sandstone roof. He sat up, still aching terribly, and felt the newly-sutured gash on his chin. He looked around the room, noticing that it was circular in shape, like a small hut. Two windows with wooden crosses in the middle flanked him on the other side, and between them stood someone wearing a sand-yellow cloak comprised of rags, the sound of rushing water coming from them. He slowly swung his legs over the edge of the cobbled bed he laid on, and stood up. His antennae brushed against the low ceiling, and he swallowed. He took a step forward.

“I suggest you sit back down. You’re very battered and bruised.” The figure turned, wiping their pitch black hands on their cloak. “Or at least I assume you are, under that coil suit. I am Zerr.” A large grey beak stuck out of the hood of the cloak, and they spoke with a feminine edge to their voice, so Kolt assumed he was talking to a woman.

He blinked, and managed to squeak out a response. “H-Hello.” He whimpered as his parched throat screamed to him for hydration, his dry tongue burning in his mouth. “I’m Kolt Saudwell.” It wasn’t every day that he woke up in a strange woman’s bed; that was only every OTHER day.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind that I used some of the twine in your medical pouch to stitch up your chin, Kolt Saudwell.” Zerr responded, glaring at her guest with her beady little eyes. He felt unsettled.

“Not in the slightest.” Answered Kolt, sitting down on a wooden chair that had been pulled next to the bed for him and running a hand over his face. He stroked his narrow chin; he’s had it pieced back together multiple times now, and he hurt all over. Zerr poured into a tin cup of some sort of liquid from a unmarked glass bottle she hid under her cloak, pulled a small wooden table between them along with another chair, and sat down across from him. She placed the cup down in front of him, and he hastily drank it, and let out a sigh of relief. Whiskey, good whiskey at that. It also did literally nothing to help his dehydration because it was fucking whiskey and not water. “Thanks.” He lied as put the cup down and rubbed his throat with his gloved hand, still just as parched as ever. Zerr pulled her hood down, and produced the bottle from under her coat, placing it on the table.

“Do you need another drink?” The crow asked, and Kolt shook his head.

“No.” He lied again, still extremely thirsty. “I shouldn’t abuse your hospitality.” He began to rub his legs lengthwise with his palms, stimming in an attempt to control how awkward he felt talking to a complete stranger who, he would add, isn’t his type.

“Abuse it.” Zerr commanded, pouring more whiskey into the cup anyways. Kolt drank it, as he was not one to disobey orders. His mouth needed MORE. “Your craft was totally obliterated, I’m afraid. Is it alright if I take some choice pickings from the wreck while you heal here?”

“I’m afraid I’m already healed. Do you have a radio by chance, one that can broadcast a few planets over?”

Zerr scratched the side of her head. “Hmm,” She thought, “That’s a tall order. You can most likely find one in the city near here.” She stood up, and pointed to the wall behind him. “In that direction,” She answered, and Kolt thought for a second. Zerr sat back down, and asked him, “I have an idea; If you help me scrap some of the wreckage, I’ll let you ride with me when I join the trading convoy to the city tomorrow. Deal?”

Kolt adjusted some of the straps on his left glove, and shrugged. “Well, I have nothing else to do…” He stood up, and noticed his helmet across the room, on the counter next to the sink that Zerr was using earlier. He swiftly crossed the room and picked it up, turning to Zerr as he pressed a button on the back of the helmet. Gears whirred, and from an invisible seam down the middle of the helmet came a puff of steam. More buzzing noises were coupled with the helmet slowly opening up sideways, bisecting itself vertically with one halve slowly swinging upwards until it was horizontal, making a perfect 90 degrees angle. Kolt pushed on the whole assembly, making sure it was locked open, and stuck half of his head in place. The other half automatically clamped shut on his face with a deep *KERCHUNK*, and Kolt’s vision had gained a slight orange tint to it. After adjusting the helmet, he put his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and said in a muffled, semi-heroic tone of voice, “…so I guess we better get goi-.”{A}

The helmet let out a discerning beep, halved itself again and fell off Kolt’s head, the twelve-pound construct landing on one of his feet. “GODDAMNIT!” He yelled; SOMEBODY forgot to press the button on the backside of the helmet to lock it in place. Grimacing, he pointed to the whiskey bottle still on the table. “Add that in and, nngh, you have a deal.”

 

Kolt unscrewed the panel on the wrecked dashboard, popping it off and placing it on the sand next to him. He pushed back down the screwdriver part on his multi tool, and folded the wire cutter attachment out. His headlights flickered on, illuminating the square hole and the mass of wires inside. In the back of said mass was a single large circuit board, with thicker wires arcing off of it like contorted tentacles. He stuck his hand in, feeling around for the board, his fingers brushing against the thick trunks of the cables still attached. He slipped the multitool inside, and started to snip the cords. After a few moments, he pulled his hands back out, circuit board in one, multi tool in the other. He clicked the wire cutter back into the metal shell of the multi tool and got to his feet, and as he was standing up he heard someone stepping over the torn metal to his left.

“Hmm, looks like you ARE slightly useful.” Zerr scoffed, her arms full of metal scrap and broken electronics. Behind her, the sand shifted, probably due to a breeze.

Kolt chuckled, “Not my fault that I happen to carry a toolbelt full of useful things with me, like a lighter, condoms, various illegal substances, more condoms, the usual.” He flicked open the wire cutter and snipped the air with it. “I do circumcisions too.” Kolt reached towards Zerr with the circuit board as he put the multitool into a pouch on his belt, but as Zerr reached for it, Kolt saw the sand behind her shift once more. He stepped back, and hissed “Don’t move.” Zerr froze up, her arm still extended to take the circuit board. “Zerr, are there any creatures on this planet that live in the sand?” Kolt asked as he reached down for the large metal rectangle on his hip.

“Yes, a carnivorous worm. But, they don’t live around here.” As she spoke, the sand behind her started to churn and splash outwards, like something was spitting it out. Zerr was still confused, but when she heard the shifting sand behind her, she turned her head slightly. “Oh.” She whimpered, “I guess they do.”

The sand started to swirl, and the horrible chattering of teeth was picked up by Kolt’s eardrums. He squinted through his view port, before frantically whispering to himself, “Equip firearm!”

A holographic list was projected onto his visor and seemingly appeared in front of him, comprised of what guns he had stored in his inventory, coupled with blue text under them, stating their name, caliber, and action. He currently held a single pistol in its digital inventory: a rare PHP VM-17 pistol, his personal service pistol. Illegal as hell to the average joe, but being a Privateer gave him the necessary licensing to own it by default. “PHP VM-17, Bridgeport Holster!” A beep sounded off in his ears, and he felt the box on his hip start to form into the handgun, just as something red started to emerge from the sand. His hands slipped around the pistol as his thumb pulled down the hammer, and he flicked his wrist upwards, the gun swiveling forwards toward the sand behind Zerr. He pulled the trigger, and the hammer fell. The gun recoiled on his hip and into his wrist, jamming it, and he heard a horrible screech. Zerr scrambled away from the dune, and he saw the sand start to seep red liquid. He pulled back on the gun, sliding it out of its rail as he reached over and simultaneously racked the slide again, straightened his arm, and pulled the trigger once more. Another pop, another screech, and more blood. He heard the sand stop churning, and took his finger off of the trigger. He slipped it back into its holster and commanded, “Pocket firearm.” The gun seemed to melt on his hip, before shaping itself back into the metal rectangle from before.

“I think it’s dead.” Kolt whispered.

It wasn’t.

A whip-like red object darted out of the sand, smashing against Kolt’s helmet. He jerked his head back, his neck popping out of socket for a moment before sliding back into place, and he toppled over. Zerr kneeled next to him, dropping the pieces of metal she had in her arms.

“Kolt!” She screamed, and tried to once more open his helmet. Kolt raised his hand and pushed her arm away, sitting up as he set his hand on the rectangle once more.

“PHP, VM-17, no holster!” With a confirmatory beep, the block formed into the thick semi-automatic handgun. He gripped the gun with both hands, and raised it towards the dune as the creature started to slide down towards them. It was about six meters long, with one end tapering down to a sharp point and the other housing a large circular mouth lined with dozens of glistening teeth. It’s entire body was covered in writhing scarlet flesh, with two oozing holes next to its midsection. “You’re one ugly PoS.” Kolt blurted out as he pulled back the hammer of his pistol; it manifested with the hammer down as a safety precaution. It rose up above him, hissing and chittering, and he fired at it as it lunged down at him, attempting to swallow him whole. Kolt leaned back and brought his curled legs up, before quickly kicking them out. He kicked the mouth of the creature, and a sickening crunch emitted from its face. The worms’ raised body went limp, and collapsed next to Zerr, who quickly kicked its face away with a booted claw. Kolt scrambled to his feet, standing over the corpse of the worm. Just as a precaution, he dumped the rest of the rounds in his magazine into it, deafening Zerr and causing her to cover her eardrums, only stopping when the slide locked back. He ejected the magazine and pulled open one of his pouches, revealing six neatly arranged loaded magazines, sliding one of the double-stacked magazines into the magwell of the handgun and releasing the slide lock with his thumb. He shot it one more time, just to be sure.

He placed the handgun into the empty holster he decided to attach to his belt today, not pocketing it, and reached down to help Zerr up. “Thanks…” She cooed, but Kolt still stared at the steaming carcass next to them. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned and began to stare at Zerr.

He then shot the corpse again without even looking at it, causing Zerr to jump, before twirling the handgun and quipping, “Better safe than sorry.”

“You know you have permanent hearing damage now, right?”

Kolt pointed to his head. “Sound dampeners. Also i’m an Aldearian, our eardrums adapt to sound.”

“Interesting.”

“Yeah.”

They stared at each other.

“Now what?”

 

Kolt watched as the wind whipped the peaks of the dunes, creating small sandstorms that quickly disappeared, before reappearing moments later. The sun filled the entire sky with it’s red light, blinding whoever accidently looked up. Kolt’s UV ray dampeners kicked in as he looked up into the sky.

“Zerr,” Kolt asked as he stared past the sun, into the whiteness surrounding it, “Does the sun here ever set?”

“Yes, but for only two minutes. During that time, the inhabitants of this planet send out as much radio waves as possible, as the sun’s radiation disrupts them. The majority of radio devices on this planet are woefully obsolete, you see.”

Kolt tapped at the underside of his wrist, and the screen of his PDA flashed on. No signal. It couldn’t reach Home anyways. He sighed and looked out into the distance, at the mound in the distance that they were travelling towards. The only town for miles, according to Zerr. And it had no set name. Zerr referred to it as ‘The Capital’, but Kolt didn’t see how she got that. It appeared to be on some sort of hill, right? Not a crater. Besides, ‘The Capital’ sound extremely generic, and quite boring. But when the speeder skidded to a stop at the top of the hill a few minutes after, Kolt figured out why.

The entire city was sunken down, only the tips of the tallest buildings visible at the edges. All of the buildings were constructed of this ashen brown sandstone, similar to Zerr’s little hut. Kolt slid off of the small craft and looked at the city below him. “I need to go back and get ready for tomorrow. I suggest you look for the only bar in town, the Sand Snake. The bartender there likes to tinker with electronics, and most likely has some sort of transmitter.” Zerr told him all this as she pressed a few buttons on the dash of the simple vehicle, which was more of a sled attached to a floating cart than a speeder.

“And where would I find that?” Kolt asked, turning back towards Zerr and her vehicle.

“In the middle.” And with that final quote, Zerr zoomed away, back down the hill, towards the horizon. He would probably never see her again, but she left so quickly he couldn’t even muster up the will to say ‘Goodbye’. Although it didn’t seem like it due to his snappy and quick answers, Kolt really did not enjoy talking to virtual strangers. He didn’t like talking with anyone in general; it made him feel awkward.

Kolt looked back down the crater, and sat down on the edge. He pushed off, sliding down the sandy slope before landing feet first on stone roads. The roads were nothing more than thin alleys, with just enough clearance for three average-sized denizens to stand shoulder to shoulder in. They were also quite empty, yet over the short thatched roofs, Kolt heard the hustle of a crowd farther down. He hastily made his way through the winding corridors, and sometimes would catch a glimpse of people doing the same. Once, he looked up at one of the taller buildings, and he could see in the darkness of the windows two small beady eyes, along with a few shiny black feathers sometimes. A feather-covered pair of clawed arms reached out for the window panes and closed them as soon as he saw the eyes. An uneasiness seeped down the insides of Kolt’s suit, so to calm his nerves he tapped on his wrist-mounted PDA and turned on the motion scanner, an ability only Privateer-issued PDAs had, not the crappy locally-produced ones. Staring at the dull blue screen, he watched as the radar flashed and sent out turquoise circular waves around it.

A small circular dot pinged back, colored white. Kolt checked the distance of the scanner. Only fifteen meters. The circle appeared again, closer. Kolt continued walking, and entered a sort of crossroad. He frantically looked around him, almost banging the end of his helmet against the corners of the buildings surrounding him.

*PING*

He checked the screen on the underside of his arm. The dot was only a few feet away, to his back, and to top it off, he heard the faint scraping of shoe soles right behind him.

Kolt turned, swinging a right hook at his opponent, a cloaked figure similar to Zerr, except this time the cloak looked much newer, and grabbed its outstretched hand, which held a small silver machine pistol. He grabbed the attacker’s forearm just at the gun started to chatter off to the left of his head and his fist flew into the dark hood, smacking against some sort of snout.{A} They grunted, and Kolt brought up his knee, crushing their groin.{A} The assailant gasped, and Kolt finished him off by driving his right elbow into the hood.{A} They fell backwards, and the hood slipped down to their shoulders.

A green gecko laid at Kolt’s feet, unconscious and with a bleeding nose.{A} That was a bit too close for comfort, and only made Kolt want to get off the planet even more. He picked the unconscious assassin up, slinging him over his shoulder before continuing to walk towards the dip in the middle of the city. He finally arrived at what seemed to be the Sand Snake, as it stood out better than any other building did; A featureless building akin to all of the other ones, with a general lack of windows and a single door. A large neon sign, which is required under galactic law, displayed the words ‘BAR’ in bright red neon, and had been hastily secured to the wall next to the door, a cord trailing down to a small gas generator next to it that chugged as it powered the sign. Over the door, carved into the sandstone with what appears to have been a dull knife, were the words ‘Sand Snake’. Yep, this is the place. Kolt laid his prisoner outside next to the generator, and produced a set of unbreakable zip ties from one of his many pockets. He hooked one of the geckos hands to the generator, but before he went in he fished out of one of his pouches a small silver orb. Pressing a tiny button on top of the orb, he slipped it into the pant pocket of the assassin, and gave the slumped form a pat on the back. That small device was a micro static grenade, one of the many explosives developed by the Privateers. If he did any sudden movements, it would detonate and send an intense amount of electricity through his entire body. Just a precaution.

As Kolt walked in, he realized that the hostility that he usually felt inside bars was not present here, just the sense of uncomfortableness and dread, which were also common in most bars. There were only about five patrons, all adorned in similar baggy rag cloaks, sitting on cobbled wooden chairs to his left and drinking out of wooden cups as they laid their elbows on wood tables. They must get the wood offworld, Kolt thought. Wood is an extremely cheap and renewable resource these days, because most people use metal or stone for building now. But any idiot with a pocketknife, couple of pieces of timber, and a hammer and nails can make a basic chair. A counter that was more of a smoothed, raised mound of sandstone was to his right, with a few square looking stools in front of it. The place was lit by a few candles on each of the tables, along with the light streaming in from the cracks in the door. “What a dive.” Kolt mouthed, and awkwardly sat down at the counter.

After removing his helmet, Kolt noticed a strange detail of the bar; There was no bartender. At all. He leaned over the counter, wondering if they had maybe been crouched down, but no one was there. There was a single closed door in the corner, so Kolt decided to wait for a moment. Biting one of his pinky fingers, he watched as a woman of the same species as Zerr, a black crow, knocked the door open with her shoulder, carrying an armful of unmarked bottles of brownish liquid. They were wearing something more akin to a dress, yet still comprised of brown scraps of cloth like most of the clothing the other inhabitants wore. “Oh!” She gasped when she saw Kolt’s easily recognizable mug, “I’ll be with you in a second, sir!” She went around the room, doling out bottles and glasses to the cloaked figures hunched over in the seats, whispering a few words to each of the figures as she did so. Kolt pulled his finger from his mouth and noted the woman’s strange behavior, taking one arm off of the counter and letting it hang by his side. She returned to the counter with only two bottles left, and placed them on the counter. “Ahem, welcome to the Sand Snake, sir,” Kolt wondered why she called him ‘sir’, “We got beer and nothing else.”

“Hmm,” Kolt mused, “The choices, the choices. I will have beer.”

“Wise choice.” The bartender laughed as she uncorked one of the bottles and pulled a clean-ish wooden cup off of the counter behind her. She poured some of the brown liquid inside, and Kolt opened one of his pouches as she crouched down, adjusting something behind the counter.

In reality, she was looking at the bounty slip with Kolt’s face printed onto it and a price underneath it; 25,000 Forands, a good amount.

“Whaddaya take?” He asked, glancing up from his pouch.

“What do you have?” The bartender hissed with sudden hostility.

An ambush, Kolt thought, perfect, just what I needed today. The patrons rose from their chairs, drawing cheap handguns and sabres from under their cloaks. Kolt yanked his PHP out of its holster as he picked back up his helmet, alternating who he pointed his pistol at at every other second.

“We know who you are, Privateer.” One hissed.

“And we know of the bounty on your head.” Spat another.

“There’s another bounty on me? Maybe killing that rich guy’s family last week wasn’t such a smart idea…” Kolt responded in a deadpan tone as the bartender rose from behind the counter with a sawn-off shotgun pointed at Kolt’s side. He sighed and sat back on his stool, taking his cup and downing its contents in one second. “Fine, if you want to play, then let’s play. You wanna know what I wanna play?”

He thumbed down the hammer of his gun, and set his helmet on the counter, hand resting on top of it.

“A little game called ‘quickdraw’.”

Jutting his arm out over his helmet and across the counter, he grabbed the short barrel of the sawn-off, and it discharged into the top of the counter, destroying everyone in the room’s eardrums minus Kolt’s, who used the confusion to toss his helmet into the air and crane his neck to the side. One halve landed on the side of his face, causing minor neck pain, and he jerked his head upwards, the other halve swinging into place. He secured his helmet by tapping the button on the rear of it, and tossed his handgun into the air. Looking back at the five people in front of him, Kolt caught it with his outstretched left hand, frantically squeezing the trigger and blasting each goon twice, the ones with guns wildly spraying bullets of various calibers at him and all missing horribly.

One was getting a little too close for comfort with their bullet hose, so Kolt responded to the chattering of their cheap machine pistol with two bullets in their chest and another in their head, and they fell back onto a table, knocking it over and flinging a glass at Kolt, spilling liquid on the ground as it tumbled through the air. Reaching for it as it flew at him, Kolt grabbed the glass and turned to the bartender, bringing back his arm and smashing them directly on the skullcap with it, shattering the glass on their head and causing them to recoil back and lift up their shotgun in response to the pain. Kolt was blasted point-blank, but the birdshot (ironic) simply bounced off of his metal helmet. He stuck out his gun-holding arm and quickly shot her thrice in the chest, and the bartender crumpled against the wall.

Just like that, the gunfight was over. Kolt sighed, before sitting back down and removing his helmet. He ignored the bloody walls and smoking bullet holes as he poured some more of the cheap, disgusting beer into his glass, and downed it as he stared blankly at the sandy counter.

 

“Home, do you read me?” Kolt droned into the radio for the seventh time, bouncing his knee as he sat in front of the cobbled together radio. “This is Privateer Kolt Saudwell, contractor four-fifty-one. I am currently marooned on an inhabited planet, I repeat, Home, do you read me?”

“This is Home,” The radio finally buzzed back, “Sorry for the delay, we had some issues with the equipment. A clone electrocuted himself trying to fix the radio with a banana. Your identity has been verified, please tell us your coordinates.”

“Smack dab in the middle of fuck-all. I have never seen this planet before, I can’t get a signal on my PDA due to what i’m assuming is the sun, and i’m just barely able to keep this connection secured.”

“Copy that, Privateer, we’re tracing your coordinates now. We’ll send a ship to pick you up. Are you injured?”

“Not really,” Kolt replied, “I just got a small scratch on the chin from my crash. My ship’s totaled, though… if you could even count that as a ship.”

“Copy. We’ve found your location, the small desert planet of IP-2853, called ‘Centim’. Does that sound right?”

“Does it have some sort of large, visible desert?”

“Yes, only one, the sand is a, give me a moment… bright yellow hue, and two suns should be visible from the surface.”

Kolt looked at some of the sand swept into the corners. Bright, bright yellow. “Yep, yah found me. I’ll be waiting in a city in the middle of a large crater, can’t miss it.”

“Acknowledged, Privateer. Standby for pickup.”

Kolt set the small microphone down and leaned back in his chair. He sighed wearily, his boots swirling the pool of blood beneath him. He would leave this planet soon, hopefully for the rest of his short life. He thought about Zerr. Barely anyone is that nice to Privateers, even if they are on morally good assignments. He shoved her out of his memory. He wouldn’t be back, he swore he’d never see this generic planet again. It’s just a stinkin’ desert.

He began to gnaw on a gloved thumb, tapping the pool of blood with his foot.

This week was off to an odd start.

And Kolt had a feeling that it was only going to get odder from here on out.

 

As the ramp slowly lifted back into the ship, a clone approached Kolt. This clone had a much nicer ensemble than the basic battle dress of the others, wearing a red beret instead of a horned hood and a sleeveless shirt. “Sir,” He addressed Kolt, “The prisoner will be immediately escorted to the prison block. Is there anything else that you need?” He stared at Kolt, back straightened and feet firmly planted on the metal floor.

{A}

Clones. Series four-hundred to be exact. Cheap replicas of the last great Privateer, a human with an unknown name. Before he disappeared, he donated his genetic material, and now there are carbon copies of him running around doing tasks ranging from basic janitorial work to fighting wars. They looked just like their ‘father’: Pale white skin with a small tint of a brown tan to it, probably from this clone being in front of a sun, thin overall physiques, a short, wild head of reflective black hair, and two large brown eyes that stared into your soul. Facemasks had been bolted into their faces, replacing their lower jaw. Every time they spoke it would move up or down a little, almost simulating a mouth moving behind it. It also acted as a rebreather, gas mask, and a radio. A faux nose bridge drooped down their face, from right below their large bushy brows to the top of the facemask, disappearing behind it completely. Kolt wondered daily like many people, what was under that mask?

“At ease, soldier. I need to talk with someone.”

“I can call for him right now, sir.”

“No, I know for a fact where he is located. You can go, clone.”

“Thank you, sir.” The clone marched off, clutching the clipboard to his chest as he walked. Kolt left the ship bay, and made his way through the pristine halls, past the clones proudly waltzing past in droves with their rifles to the Crew Quarters. He rounded the corner, and entered the room there.

Inside, there was a beach, with a warm sun overhead, waves crashing against the fine sand. Kolt turned to look at where he came from, and saw a metal door, the same one he had entered through, and some sort of opaque bubble. He had entered a biosphere, nicknamed a ‘grove’, a life-like recreation of some random planet’s surface. Down the beach, Kolt saw a red umbrella, rotated to face the door and the edge of the world, to block their unsightly visages from the view of whoever sat behind.

The sand shifted as Kolt walked through it, much finer than the sand on IP-2853 which was more like rough granules spread over some great expanse of land and much more natural-feeling. Standing in front of the umbrella, he heard the slurp of something sucking up liquid, probably some sort of exotic cocktail. He liked his cocktails.

“Took you long enough to walk across,” An agender, smooth voice whistled behind the umbrella, with a hint of an accent, and Kolt circled around the front. “Oh good, you’re covered in sand. No wonder I seemingly couldn’t see you as you approached me, you were camouflaged!”

“Hello Theo.” Kolt greeted him in his same usual deadpan tone of voice, ignoring his friend’s comments and standing there stiffly with his arms at his sides. “I, was thinking…” Theo sipped on his drink. He stuck one of his blue fingers into the drink, swirling it around as he eyed Kolt over his single-eyed sunglasses. He was wearing his coil suit, the same type of suit that Kolt was currently wearing, but lacked his gloves, boots, and helmet. His puffy hair had been styled into the “blown to the right” style that he was so fond of, and he stared up at Kolt from his lounge chair.

“That’s a rarity. About what?” He asked.

“I have no idea.”

Theo giggled. “Just as cryptic as normal, I see. You were thinking about nothing?”

“Apparently. Just… things seem slower, somehow.” He shook his head. “Just, forget it, Theo.”

“Do you need a drink?” Theo asked, very slightly worried about his old friend.”I can fetch a clone if you need, along with another lounging chair and umbrella.”

“Yeah,” Kolt sighed, “An umbrella would be nice.”

 

Kolt’s boots and gloves laid in a neat pile with Theo’s as their chairs sat together, shaded by their equivalent umbrellas and sipping on their matching drinks. However, even though he asked for the chair to be brought out, Kolt laid stiffly on the sand, staring up at the floral pattern on the underside of the umbrella. Chairs irritated his spine. Theo found this slightly amusing, and glanced over at his limp friend.

Theo had been Kolt’s best friend since he first joined the Privateers, having enlisted at the same time as him. They were two peas in a escape pod. However, the weirdest fact was their disparity in appearance, one being an insect-like Aldearian, the other being a vaguely-human Marbelian, two species known for their polarizing behaviors; some are the paragons of their species’, while others were walking wastes of chitin and skin. Kolt’s body, particularly his face, was covered in scars from small nicks, abrasions, bullet wounds, and gashes. The fleshy chitin covering his hands was nothing more than mounds of scar tissue from years of abuse, and his eyes were a brilliant amber in coloration. Aldearians are born blind, and had to have their eyes removed for replacement immediately after birth. Amorphous sacks are placed into the scooped-out hollows, attached to the freshly-snipped optical nerve, and dyed with a shot of solidifying material. The color of the eye was determined by certain hormones in the Aldearian bloodstream, however, one could purchase colored lenses for cosmetic purposes if they wanted, even though the practice was frowned upon. Kolt, didn’t know why his eyes were amber; no other Aldearian he knew of had that color, usually just blue, green, red, and sometimes purple, maybe orange, but even orange was vastly different to his. But Kolt didn’t know very much Aldearians: Their species officially went ‘critically endangered’ three years ago, and and less than eight hundred remain in civilized space. The last twenty-two hundred live on Earth, in relatively secluded colonies.

theo yanni sans helmet

Theo Yanni sans helmet and utility belt, circa late 2075, feat. some weird fizzy drink

Theo ‘Fionn’ Yanni meanwhile was a prime example of Marbelian beauty, with finely-toned (and quite puny) muscles, a strong jawline, a single large brown-irised eye, and plushy lips. Marbelians have such minor differences between sexes that males are commonly mistaken for females, as both genders are just as beautiful as each other. They’re quite popular porn actors/actresses too! His hair was definitely a marvel, being a big semi-shaped fluff of darker blue hair that only contrasted slightly against his light cyan colored skin. He, like many other members of his species, was beautiful, and many Marbelians, when not growing up to be great military leaders and politicians, become fashion models. Aldearians, in contrast, are considered one of the ugliest species, due to them looking like a black-skinned human wearing the head of a praying mantid with vibrant eyes. That was used as one of the reasons for their most recent genocide, but not the main one.

They chatted for a while, catching up for the months passed. Friends in Kolt’s life are a rarity, and one as close as Theo are almost impossible to acquire. Kolt enjoyed being around Theo. And Theo enjoyed being around Kolt. During a lull in the conversation, Kolt sat up and checked his PDA, a small tablet-like object he kept in a pouch, and opened his bank account. As he checked his funds, he stuck one of his thumbs into his small mouth, absently chewing it. A couple thousand units of currency had been transferred into his account, and he had a note comprised of only “Sorry!” in his email from the scientists testing the teleportation device. He let out a muffled laugh, and Theo smirked.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, just a email I got.” Kolt giggled, tapping on the underside of his wrist, the screen of his PDA blanking out. They were quite alike, both easily amused and not the sharpest tools in the shed, albeit Theo was smarter by a few tons. Kolt didn’t understand jokes very well. Instinctively, Theo tapped at his right wrist with his pinky, checking his own PDA for messages.

“Hmmmm,” He hummed with a mouth full of drink. He swallowed. “Looks like i’ve got a new job. ‘Lab Assistant in a Space Station, Two Weeks’, huh. Who’re you slaving away for at this time?”

“No one.” Kolt responded, ignoring the straw and just gulping down the tall glass of liquid. It burned his throat something fierce. “I finished my assignment when I sat in the seat of that craft. I’m a couple thousand richer now.”

“Well, it says here that I could bring someone along to help.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, see.” Theo pointed at the text overlaid onto his PDA. He was right; they were asking that if any extra help could be procured they would pay for another pair or two of hands, but not much. The banality of the request tickled him, but in his head, he thought about how clumsy he would be in a lab environment; he had a tendency to elbow vials full of dangerous acid onto the feet of his coworkers at least a handful of times on his more science-orientated assignments. All of them, somehow.

But hell, money helps.

Kolt’s thin lips spread across his mouth, turning into a odd-yet-warming smile, his answer to Theo’s question. That was a lie; it was a horribly forced and unnerving smile. Theo smiled back, the complete opposite, a soft, cheerful smile, dimples pushed inwards and quite obviously happy and not forced. Kolt’s lip twitched.

Friends until the end.

 

Kolt spun the combination lock three times, left, right, left again, and a click. He pulled open the white plastic locker, and after removing the big plates of armor, started to unzip his bodysuit. He felt his muscles atrophy and shrink as the suit painfully separated itself from his chitin, coaxed from his body with his hands as it was being pulled apart,  and his bones became relatively feeble once more. He felt wet, his chitin slick from the drugs in the now-removed suit sliding down his body like snot from a runny nose. He walked to the shower, sliding closed the opaque door. He had to talk with someone. With a flip of a switch and turn of a nozzle, water started to rise up around Kolt, covering his feet, a feature meant for aquatic mercenaries. He stared aimlessly at the tiled wall in front of him, and felt the water pass over his knees and soon his crotch. A few slow seconds later it was up to his chest, and Kolt sucked a deep breath into his lungs.

He closed his eyes as the water overtook him, and made sure to hold onto the air trapped in his lungs. His metal eyes scraped against his oversized eyelids, and his mind opened up. All he saw was darkness, but what he felt was different. A wave of relaxation soaked him as waves of thoughts slapped against his mind. He wasn’t asleep, yet he wasn’t awake either. Whenever one of his hands would drift away and bump against the tile, he would be slightly shaken out of his trance, but soon was still once more. Kolt felt the water choke him, strangle him, throttle his esophagus but, he didn’t let this hurt him. His fingers slid through the liquid, and started to unconsciously orchestrate some sort of invisible orchestra.

The water got warm. False alarm; that was just him urinating. The warmth disappeared, before being quickly replaced by a much more intense ray of heat emanating from his core. He felt his fingers prance around as his feet lifted off of the tile, and his eyes opened. He glanced around at the blue tinged world he was in, and turned towards the door. He pushed it open, and instead of the wall of water crashing down onto the floor of the showers, he was met with a white void. The water in his lungs evaporated, and he let out a steamy breath into the void. His limp, naked body floated out of the stall, and when he slowly turned to look back, it had disappeared. He looked down at his hands, surprised to not see anything there. But he felt them. Same with his legs, his torso, his feet.

The water disappeared. His invisible limbs hit the ground, and he broke off into a sprint. He ran for what seemed like hours, yet he knew were only seconds, and he didn’t even feel his weak muscles quiver once. This was his happy place, his escape from reality, from space, from life. He felt his feet mat down dirt beneath them as he ran, yet his eyes saw nothing. His invisible feet scaled a small set of similarly-invisible stairs, and he felt his chest push against two separate wooden flaps.

“Kolt.” He heard someone say in his voice. “Open your damn eyes. I can’t talk to you like that.”

Kolt was confused at the question. Didn’t he open his eyes already. He felt his face, and to his shock his eyelids were still sealed shut. “Here,” The voice said again, “Let me help.”

BANG!

Kolt’s eyes flew open, and his heart began to flutter. He could see his hands, his chest and the suit he wore, his feet, and what they were planted on; wood floor, stained from decades of dropped drinks. His numb left arm stiffly dropped off of a table next to him, and he looked across the room as he stretched it out. A bar sat at one end, coated in orange light from the blinds, but someone stood behind said bar, cleaning something under the counter. Him.

It was him. Kolt Saudwell. Or at least, someone that looked like him. “Hey, Kolt,” He laughed as he furiously scrubbed whatever was under that counter. “Glad you came to talk.”

“Cut to the chase,” Kolt hissed, clenching his fists. This turd had been harassing his mind for the past few months. Everytime he fell asleep, he heard his own voice, taunting and laughing at him. He had ran out of his medication, and it was getting very, very annoying.

His doppelganger shrugged, “Ehhhhhh,” He whined, “I don’t know, why don’t we… play a game first? Winner gets a priiiize!” He mused as he placed both of his hands on the counter in front of him. In one, he held a silver Colt Python, and in the other a dirty rag. “Have you ever heard of Prussian Roulette?”

“Of course,” Kolt asserted, “I used to play it when I was stupid, and young. Are you suggesting that we play a round?”

“Or two.” His alter ego finished, placing the rag on the counter before plucking it off with two of his fingers. Five bronze-cased bullets had appeared under the rag. “Or five.” He pulled back on the cylinder latch and let the cylinder drop out. “Let’s see,” He began to talk as he loaded the five bullets into the cylinder, “If I win, I want your deepest secrets, and if you win,”

“Then you leave my mind, and go somewhere else. Or at least go away for a little while. Besides, you’re a figment of my imagination, you already have access to my ‘deepest secrets’.”

“I actually don’t, at least, not yet, but, deal.” The cylinder was spun and pushed back into place. “And I go first.” He thumbed back the hammer of the gun, and shoved it under his chin. He smiled when the hammer dropped on an empty chamber. The alter ego deftly flipped the gun around, grabbing it by the barrel, offering it to Kolt. Kolt got up from his rough chair, and pulled the gun from the lookalikes hands, and looked at it. He wiped his finger across the barrel, looking at the dust that had been caught on it, before loudly sighing. Pulling the cylinder latch, he spun the cylinder before snapping it closed. He placed it against his forehead, holding it awkwardly with both hands, and pulled back the hammer. His thumb brushed against the trigger. Kolt knew that he couldn’t die in this dream world, in his happy place, but he still was scared of losing.

Click.

He passed the gun back to the doppelganger. As he pressed it under his chin, Kolt heard him mutter, “You win.” A crooked smile suddenly spread across his face like a skin virus. This time he didn’t pull back the hammer, instead using the double-action.

BANG!

Kolt was shaken by the blast, and opened his eyes. He was still floating in the stall, slightly suffocating in the water as he couldn’t collect much oxygen from it. He flailed as he realized he was drowning and smashed the red button on the wall with his fist. He gasped as the water drained from the rectangular tube he was trapped in, and he heard the door’s lock click. He slid down the wall and buried his head in his arms, still gasping.

 

Kolt didn’t speak to Theo while they were riding the train to the terminals. He felt strangely unburdened, like some invisible claw had finally let go of his brain. Too bad the seventy-eight other invisible claws were still there. He stared blankly at the wall of the shuttle, his helmet under his left arm. Theo stood at his side, his helmet under his arm too. In his free hand, he was holding onto one of the loops suspended from the ceiling. It was unusually silent. Most of the time, clones would be talking, or other Privateers would be chatting, but this time no one was even breathing heavily. {A}

A troop of clones sat on one side, quietly shifting and adjusting their legs as they held onto the barrels of their rifles, staring not unlike Kolt at the floor. Two helmeted Privateers sat on the other side, legs crossed and arms spread across the top of the bench. Theo sighed, and gravity tried to push them over as the tram slowed to a stop. The portcullis on each end of the shuttle turned and lifted up at 45 degree angles, and the people inside dispersed out.

Kolt felt sick by the time he had gotten into the small ship with Theo, sitting behind him in the co-pilots seat. He lazily tapped at a few buttons, and his seat suddenly started to rise, elevating him a few feet above Theo in the pilot’s seat. As Theo was making the preflight preparations, Kolt hinged open his helmet. As halves clicked into place, Theo gave Kolt a thumbs-up, having donned his helmet too. They finished pulling levers and twisting knobs together, and felt their buttocks suction to the seat, along with their upper backs.

They were riding in a Aileron Twenty, a simple civilian craft of a large squarish Y-like configuration, modified for Privateer usage. Imagine it as a sleeker, smaller Y-Wing. It had no crew quarters of any kind, just the cockpit, and was almost completely unarmed. {A} However, the Privateer variant had a very special surprise in store for any wandering pirates; A long Coil Gun was installed under the craft’s fuselage, and could be brought into battery in less than five seconds. They fired twelve millimeter rods of titanium at over two thousand feet-per-second, making them one of the slower ship combat weapons, but it made up in the fact that the rods would tear through the hulls of most medium-sized ships. They were created after an incident on a mining colony a few years ago, when a miner was found with a repurposed tool made to fire small spears. Big companies soon took notice, and the rest is history.

“Are you alright Kolt?” Theo piped up, below Kolt’s feet.

“Yeah why?” Kolt hastily responded.

“You’re consuming a larger amount of oxygen than the norm.”

“I had a little drowning incident in the showers less than two hours ago.”

“Ah.” Kolt felt the ship’s engine sputter to life, and started to slowly rocket them to their destination. While waiting, Kolt leaned over Theo’s chair, his large helmet casting a larger shadow on him. Theo’s large helmet head looked up. “Yes, Kolt?”

“How’re you today?”

Theo laughed at the weird response. “Fine, thank you, why are you asking?”

Kolt felt himself shrug in his chair. “Just curious.”

“Kolt,” Theo said, this time in a much sterner tone, “Are you sure you are okay?”

“Absolutely positive, I scanned myself multiple times. No contusions, tumors, internal bleeding, or viral infections. As for STDS…. ehhhhhh I dunno. I’m just a little blue, that’s all.”

“Blue?” Theo gawked, “The only thing blue here is me. Don’t worry, I bet you’ll be feeling better when we get to the station. Actually, now that we’re on the subject, do you want me to tell you about our job?”

“Well, yeah. I don’t want to land and be more lost than a new player in Dwarf Fortress.”

Theo laughed, “Hah! Isn’t that game still in development?”

“It has for the last seventy-plus years.”

“Anyways, we’re going to a station called Cerberus, called that because it has three separate towers. It’s property of The Gilded States of the Stars, too.”

“Ahh, the GSS. Am I glad they’re on our side.”

“Yeah, they may be warmongers, but they have helped the Privateers since the beginning. At least, after that whole mess with the AR. Anyways, a GSS scientist came back from one of her trips with a horrible disease, and I-ahem, we’ve been hired to help them with research. I think you would be most useful compared to me. Aren’t Aldearians impervious to most disease?”

“Correct.”

“Good, then I hope I wasn’t horribly wrong about bringing you,” Theo joked as the ship started to slow down. “Speak of the devil, looks like we’re almost there. You know, I’m sort of glad the system is this small.”

“So am I,” Kolt sighed, “Or else I would have had a hell of a time contacting Home. I’ve never seen that planet before.”

“Me neither. There are a lot of unexplored planets in between systems. Thankfully there isn’t much on them usually, just a few indigenous species and independent settlers from neighboring planets. Or complete hovels supported by the lawlessness of the planet itself. At least this isn’t a space western.”

“Yet.” They both laughed as the fourth wall repaired itself, and quickly got back into character. On the horizon of another planet, they saw the station.

Cerberus. It definitely lived up to it’s name. Three towers, attached to one another by various cables, bridges, and tunnels, covered in blinking lights and tough windows. Ships zipped around it like flies around a light, coming in and out of the many holes in its porous surface.

On one tower was a grove much larger than the one at Home, a misty blue orb that floated next to it, captured by a few metal arms consisting of entrances and exits into it, and through the false atmosphere, Kolt could see the suspended landmass inside, some sort of green mass.

The middle tower had a large beacon of sorts sticking off of it, sprouting many smaller branches of metal truss; a radio station, a very large one; that’s the bridge, Kolt mused to himself.

The last tower was the brightest, the upper half covered in all-too familiar neon signs advertising bars, stores, and products, while the lower half was considerably dimmer, with a few Caduceus painted on the exterior and multiple red crosses. That’s the medical bay, Kolt thought, and it was also where they were heading. Theo banked the ship downwards as Kolt yanked a floating cord from the wall, plugging it into the band on his wrist and typing in a request to dock on his PDA. After a few moments he got back a confirmation from the control tower, and he patted on the top of Theo’s helm. The ship floated over to one of the holes in the surface of the third tower, and it hovered inwards, into the iron maw of the station.

“Ah, you are the Privateers I hired?” The bespectacled, lab coated female cat asked as they entered the war, furiously shaking first Theo’s hand and then Kolt’s. She was a female lynx, an older one, probably around her mid to late thirties, and of an average height, although her build was quite hard to see under her oversized lab coat. “Well, I’m glad you two are here. I am Doctor Velent, the station’s geneticist and head of the medical staff. I welcome you both to Cerberus.”

“It’s an honour to be here, madam.” Theo responded, rubbing his sore wrist. “I brought my college along to help. This is Kolt Saudwell,” he pointed at Kolt.

“Greetings.” Said Kolt, and he made a small bow towards the doctor.

She squinted at him, and a strange look came over her face. Kolt was unnerved by her stare, but something about her was… was something, that’s for sure. “Well, that’s grand! Are you perhaps an Aldearian, Mister Saudwell?”

Kolt looked at his hands. “Well, I got the hands of one. And the feet. And the head. So, yeah.” And the dick too, he thought.

“That will be extremely useful.” She smiled, but Kolt felt something nip him in the brain when she did. “You see, I sent out a request because we are in dire need of help here; a fellow scientist was taking samples on a planet near here, and ended up catching some sort of disease. Please, follow me as I talk.”

She turned, and Kolt noticed that she lacked a tail. A veteran? Theo elbowed him when he noticed Kolt staring directly at the woman’s butt, glaring at him with a look that meant ‘don’t’. She waltzed through the automatic doors as they slid out of the way, and the pair followed, holding onto their helmets and carefully examining their environment. The medical bay was small, occupying only about a third of the tower, but was very heavily staffed and filled to the brim with the best technology the GSS could get, or at least fit. The walls were painted with a matte grayish-white finish, and so were the doors. Every pair of doors had matching red crosses emblazoned on them, and the lighting was much softer-on-the-eyes light tubes, and more contained than in the landing bay they entered through, where the lights were extremely bright lamps hanging limply from the ceiling at random intervals.

“Ah, here we are. The ICU, which had been turned into a cobbled-together quarantine for my infected colleague. Gentlemen, please don your helmets.” Dr. Velent pushed up her round glasses with a finger as she pulled a dust mask from on of her coat pockets. The two Privateers clamped their helmets onto their heads, and they followed Velent through the sliding doors. The ICU was seemingly abandoned, save for a few doctors wearing blue rubber gloves and facemasks. Velent pulled a box of said gloves off a counter and slid her hands into a pair. “This way.” She motioned, and the two followed her into a back room.

Medical and scientific equipment had been hastily pulled into the room, which seemed to have been some sort of storage at one point, but only occupied one of the corners. The majority of the room was filled with an inflated chamber, like a giant opaque bubble. Inside, an orange-ish white object was moving. On the side of the bubble was a set of long plastic flaps, denoting the entrance to the plastic prison, and as if on command, a green-faced frog hustled out, wearing a full hazmat suit. He gave Velent a silent nod, and she returned it before turning to the Privateers.

“As you can see,” Velent sighed, “We are working with a skeleton crew and barely any materials. We’re barely scraping by, so we needed your help.”

“I am skilled in medical practice and biology.” Theo commented.

“I’m cute.” Replied Kolt.

{A}

Velent ignored what Kolt said and asked Theo, “Can you help the biologists research what this disease is?”

“If you point me in the direction of their lab.”

Velent leaned out the door, pointing down the hall. “Go through that set of doors and take a right, you can’t miss it.” Theo nodded to Velent and then to Kolt, and left the room. “As for you, Mister Saudwell. It is common knowledge that Aldearians have a natural immunity to most viruses. If you could expose yourself to the virus, we could take a tissue sample from you.”

“What if I get infected?”

“Then we have another bubble in storage.”

Kolt turned to the squared mass, and hesitated. He sighed, and turned back to Velent.

“I don’t think a small cold will kill me.” He joked.

The plastic flaps wiped across Kolt’s face, and he brushed them away with his hand. The inside of the bubble seemed a lot larger than the outside. There was small bits of furniture spread around, such as a table and a chair, both white in color like the walls. A bed sat along the wall, and a fox sat on it. Kolt almost reeled back at their appearance, but managed to keep himself under control. Instead he dragged the chair away from the table, and sat on it.

“Hi.” He broke the silence,  a momentous effort on his part, and the fox slowly looked at him with it’s one uncovered eye. It was a female, a banged up one at that. {A} She was wearing a pair of white trousers and a grey t-shirt, both stained with bodily fluids and blood. She had open sores lining both of her arms, weeping a mixture of pus and blood. Her head wasn’t any better; one of her eyes was extremely swollen, and covered with a mess of bandages that it looks like she did herself, and judging by the amount of dried blood on it she had. Her lips were cracked and dry, and she was missing a few nails on her hands. It didn’t make Kolt sick seeing her, just sad. Her fur was matted, the white changing to a dark plum and the orange shifting more towards blood red. On top of her head was a single sprout of brown hair, not fur; probably added there by cosmetic surgery.

“H-Hello,” She wheezed, scratching at a sore on her cheek. “Are you a Privateer?”

“Yes. We were hired to help find you a cure.”

“But, you aren’t wearing a suit?”

“I’m exposing myself to the virus, to test if I can withstand it.” He leaned forward, “I’m Kolt, Kolt Saudwell.”

“Gene,” She breathed as her uncovered eye darted around the room, “my name is Gene. Gene Winter. I’m a zoologist.”

“You study animals? Where you studying animals when you got infected?”

“No, I was travelling. Walking, to b-be exact. To my camp.”

“And what happened next?”

She paused, blinking slowly. “I…” She stuttered, “I… I’ll tell you, if you bring me some painkillers.”

“Alright.” Kolt got up from the chair and slid it back under the desk.

An hour later, he came back into the bubble, and shook a small pill bottle in front of Gene’s face. Gene snatched it from him, twisted off the cap, and dumped a half black, half red pill into her paw. She dry swallowed it, and let out a loud sigh of relief. “Thanks.” She smiled painfully, and Kolt noticed that the chair had already been pulled in front of the bed. Swinging her legs back onto the bed, Kolt sat down in front of her. “It all started when I was born. I’m just kidding, it started, umm, five d-days ago?”

“Where were you?”

“A planet, not far from here, unnamed, recently discovered. I was collecting samples of the local population of indigenous animals. S-Some had these strange sores, and what seemed to be gashes. Their skin was peeling in a few places, and their fur was stained with their own blood. I t-thought it was some sort of natural pathogen, like a virus of some sort, and I was half right.” She turned her head, staring directly at Kolt with her good eye. “But only half.”

Kolt blinked.

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