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Essaim

This is my first attempt at sci-fi/horror. The first chapter is a dream I had and have expanded slightly on the original idea. Here are the first two chapters.

Chapter One: Hydropolium

My name is Commander Ezra Scarsburry. If you are listening to this data file, then I as well as my entire team, most likely have been eliminated.

I was assigned to CJ53-9 after elementary life was discovered on the planet. As is procedure when a Class 4 is redefined as a Class 7, a scientific research team was enlisted to be stationed on the planet for a three-year term of service for the purpose of defining and assessing any life forms that could be found. After generations of space travel and no sign of any other intelligent life, teams like mine have been sent to the farthest regions of the galaxy to look for little more than mold spores. We came here to 53-9 because a discovery team found a fungus while they were looking for consumables. The planet, which our predecessors had named Essaim, was believed to be a rich in hydropolium, and the developers had a keen interest in protecting their investment. The papers were drawn, the shuttles were fueled, and my team and I were on our way.

We found Essaim to be hot, humid, and dreary. There was no plant life to be seen, just a continuous blue storm above our heads. She was a miniature gaseous planet, and the surface was a constantly shifting world of pebbles and rocks and sand. The atmosphere lacked the oxygen content to support human life, but was stable enough we didn’t require full walk suits. Masks and goggles did well as long as the wind wasn’t up. The discovery team had erected three simple stations that served as a utility center, a lab, and a barracks. Building One was the utility center, which was little more than a garage for their excavation equipment. The lab was Two, and the barracks were Three.

Based on the numbering system, you can guess what was most important to the discovery team. These guys had one mission, and that was to locate as much hydropolium as Essaim was able to produce.

My team consisted of seven researchers, three security, a doctor, and myself. The discovery team comprised of four men, who shared the responsibilities of mining and survival. Sixteen people all together.

The day we landed, our bags were dropped in the barracks and we were shown to the lab. They had collected what they called a fungus on a spoon and had placed it in a quarantine cylinder. Dr. Harding, my Head of Research, and I got the first look.

It wasn’t a fungus. It was a bacteria, and it was aggressive. In fact, it was the most aggressive bacteria either Harding or I had ever seen. It dominated everything it touched, and mutated faster than we could record our findings. Daily, the research team watched as our culture grew, modified, and evolved before our eyes.

The discovery team said that they found the substance in one of the mines. They called off any further activity there until we declared it safe to reenter, but I’m afraid I had no good news for our miners.

“It’s not going to be safe to mine anywhere on this rock until we can identify the culture that your boys found,” I told the excavation team super.

“Excuse me?” Troy asked, knitting his brow and letting his disgust flow. “We found your fuzz in one hole. One. We have machines burnin’ through rock in fourteen locations across this hunk’a gas. I ain’t here to watch you lot grow slime in dishes. There’s forty-seven billion zetas of hydra-p under that blue sand, and I’m not stopping because you think we might get a cold. Do you have any idea how much this planet is worth? Forty-seven billion zetas, even sold at a quarter of what it is worth, will set me and my boys for life.”

“Have you ever seen a man disintegrate in front of you?” I replied coolly. “Because the last time I found a bacteria like this one, it infected one of my team, and he imploded. The bacteria ate him from the inside out, at a rate so fast we watched it happen like he was on time-lapse footage. And the substance you delivered to us is three times as aggressive as that. So tell me, Troy, do you think something that violent is limited to one hole?”

Troy stood and looked down upon me. “You tell me, Commander. Why ain’t any of my boys sick then? If it’s as dangerous as you say, and it could be in all the mines, then why aren’t we bein’ turned inside-out? Hmm?”

“It’s only a matter of time,” I told him.

“You have one cycle to prove it,” he threatened, “until I open mine six again.”

As the super left One to head back the barracks, Harding gave a long whistle. “That’s a dead man, Commander.”

“We’ll see,” I replied.

A door burst open and Connolly came rushing in. “Commander! We need you in Two!”

I jumped to my feet and hurried after the young tech. “What happened?” I demanded as we made our way to the lab.

“It’s Evans, sir,” he explained. “You see, she brought a plant…”

“A what?!?” Harding boomed.

“I know, sir. I should have told you when I found it.”

“Why the hell did she bring a contaminate onto a newly defined Class 7?” I barked.

“It’s from her garden back home, sir, but that’s not all. Last night, when I saw it for the first time, I found an insect.”

“I don’t think I want to hear this,” Harding moaned as the door to the lab snapped open.

The three of us froze as our minds processed the sight.

A shattered pot.

Soil.

Vegetation.

The mess exploded from the center of the room and stretched across the floor for several meters. The team was working hard, trying to contain the foreign agents from an area that was supposed to remain uncontaminated.

“Evans!” Harding bellowed across the lab.

The young researcher’s head appeared from behind a table and answered with a small, “Dr. Harding, I can explain.”

“You have contaminated my entire lab!” he contested.

“Sir, the plant was contained,” she began, only to be interrupted by the Head of Research.

“And now it’s all over the goddamn floor! And Connolly tells me you brought life with it! Do you know what that could do to a place like 53-9? The entire ecosystem could be annihilated before we ever learn a thing about it. This is how people kill planets, Evans! What the hell made you think this was a good idea?”

“Sir, I had it fully contained,” she blubbered.

“I can see that, Evans!” Harding hollered, gesturing at the soil scattered about the floor. “And… Oh for Zion’s sake it’s all over the table. And Knowles, you’ve got it one your shoes. Everyone!” Harding boomed. “Everyone in this room will submit to full decontamination before anyone leaves!”

“But, sir…” Evans began.

“For the moment I care less about who to blame and more about containment. Get my lab clean and so we can get back to work.”

“Sir?!?”

“What, Evans?!?”

“The insect. We think it got away.”

“What?”

“We think it got away after the pot fell, sir,” Evans explained.

“It’s true, Dr. Harding,” Connolly explained. “Last night it bit me.”

“I’m not even going to ask you why you didn’t report this last night, Connolly. I assume it has something to do with all of the free time you and Evans have been spending together. But after you were bitten by an unknown life form on a Class 7, tell me that you were inspected by Dr. Mathers.”

“I… uh…”

“So you can’t find the bug?” I asked, placing a hand on Harding’s shoulder.

“No, sir,” Connolly replied. “But, sir,” he continued, then paused to find the right words. “Sir, the bug… Well… It seemed like it had changed.”

The room fell silent for a moment before Evans told him to knock it off. “You didn’t see it well. It was pretty hectic when you saw it, and that’s if you saw it.”

“What do you mean if?” Stokes pressed from across the table. “We all saw it, sir.”

“Well?” I asked after the tech paused.

“Evans was arguing with Connolly, and then she digs that plant out of an isolation cabinet, which caught the rest of us by surprise. Connolly orders her to dispose of it, she refuses, Connolly tries to take it, and crash. We have the mess you see here. And everybody’s yelling and scrambling to find the clean-up kits when somebody screams. It was the size of a finger, and it kind of skidded across the floor toward the sample oven.”

“But last night it was tiny,” Connolly inserted. “It was the size of a seed, and black.”

“But this was pale, and looked like a larvae,” Stokes added.

Everyone paused and looked about the floor, as though the thing would just pop out at the mention of it.

“And,” Stokes continued, “it had a… uh… I t had a face, sir.”

“A face?” Harding asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Like a human face?” I clarified.

“Yes, sir,” Stokes confirmed, “on a larvae body. Its legs were spindly like twigs, and its body was fat and round, but the face is what you remember. It looked like… Well, sir. It looked like Connolly.”

“Stokes,” Harding snapped, saying his name like a curse.

“It’s true,” Connolly insisted. “I know it seems freakish, but it looked like me. My color. My hair. My nose.”

Harding and I shared a look before replying. “And you let this creature get away?” I asked. “If it’s as big as you say, it must still be in the lab, right?”

“We searched,” Evans confessed, “while Connolly ran to get you. We can’t seem to locate it, sir.”

“Clean the mess,” I ordered. “The door stays secure until I am convinced the insect is either contained or dead. Nothing leaves this room without my consent.”

The room echoed with replies of, “Yes, sir.”

“Connolly!” I bark. “Let’s see the bite.”

Connolly hustled over to Harding and myself, and pulled his sleeve back. A small welt was growing on the back of his wrist. It was purple and green with a yellow center.

“Son of a bitch,” Harding muttered. “Has Mathers seen this?”

Connolly shook his head.

“Commander,” Harding said in an exasperated tone, “Get him out of here.”

“Off to the doc, before you kill us all,” I replied, only half kidding.

We cleared the door way, and sent Connolly off to Dr. Mathers. Not long after, Sheffield found the bug and was able to capture it.

I still hate to picture it.

It really was Connolly’s face. The body was plumb, but textured like the leaves off the plant. It never stopped moving, and attacked everything it came in contact with. At that point, we had no idea if the bug was native to Essaim, or if it had hitchhiked on the plant. Either way, it was unlike anything we had ever seen.

Hours later, Dr. Mathers reported that Connolly had suffered cardiac arrest while under observation. He was dead. When I went to see the remains I took Evans with me. She needed to see what her choice had led to. When we arrived, Dr. Mathers was preparing the body for storage and shipment. We were to return the remains to the family after our tour. The doctor allowed us a short viewing that left Evans in a whimpering heap. Connolly was rigid, and a ghastly shade of green. One whole side was swollen and discolored, apparently from the bite. In a rush of emotion, the tech threw herself upon the body of Connolly. She grasped his arm and wept into his shoulder.

“No!” Dr. Mathers called.

The arm of Connolly split around the site of the bite. Green and yellow pus pushed from the wound, followed by dozens of maggots.

“Contain them!” I ordered, but the creatures disappeared into the corners faster than I would have given them credit for moving. We killed three, and lost ten times that into the shadows of Building One.

“What were those?” I demanded.

“It would appear that the bite was used to lay the bug’s eggs,” the doctor fumbled.

“I can see that,” I snapped. “But what were they?”

“I… I don’t know.”

The base was put on alert. Any creature was to be collected or killed, and contact was to be avoided at all cost. We were going to contain it, but that effort was soon discovered to be beyond our power. The bugs just kept multiplying. We lost three more of my team, including Dr. Mathers before I ordered a retreat. We couldn’t contain them. We couldn’t kill them fast enough. They were multiplying and adapting at a rate I had never witnessed. What was worse, they adopted the faces of the people they killed. They we still bugs, like giant cockroaches when adults, but with human faces that glowed a soft blue color.

We had to leave.

I put the survivors on the shuttle. Two people had to stay behind to secure the lab. The shuttle would return in seventy-two hours. I decided to stay, and asked for a volunteer. I got Evans. I guess she felt like it was her duty, since it was her contraband that started the outbreak.

We watched from our secure room in the lab as the shuttle lifted into the sky. We saw the faces and waves of those aboard.

And then the bugs came. Like a swarm from the sand, a cloud of them devoured the shuttle in its path. I plummeted to the ground and exploded in a violent fire.

No one survived.

Our crew is gone.

The shuttle is destroyed.

We have four days’ worth of supplies.

The swarm is at our door.

Essaim is consuming us.

Chapter Two: Witness

Piracy is an underappreciated enterprise. With all the exploration going on about the system, no one really has time to police those with the time and resources to exploit all that wonderful progress.

Scientists are a pirate’s best friend. Of course, they’re the kind of friend you never meet, because you’d just hear the yackety-yack of how unethical unregulated mining is and how bad it is for the environment of whatever rock happened to be in question. But when the right amount of zetas are placed into the hands of the right people, a person like myself can receive precise coordinates and make exact plans for a little privateering. Science can be useful to a person like myself.

Pirates are a good thing. We feed the economy by feeding ourselves first. And we never ask for a parade or a welcome home party. Matter of fact, we don’t ask for anything. We pretty much just tell or take.

As it happened, I was sitting in front of a nice warm fire, drinking a little fermented nectar and received a message.

“CJ53-9. Comps to follow.” This little message might not sound like much, but it told me the name of the rock that the Gassers had identified for a new expedition. The message also told me that coordinates and other computer guidance to find the rock would follow. Navigation isn’t as simple as knowing the destination. You have to know how to avoid gravity wells, raiders and plots for space rocks that might just ruin your day. Those little rocks prevented most people from venturing out of planetary protection, but if someone, like me, had access to big mirrors and some really good forecasting models, well, you could almost get anywhere you wanted. But all that comes with a price.

My best intel guy doesn’t even work for me directly. He works for GAsRS. Gallactic Assayers Regulatory Services. They pronounce it “gayzers,” but most of us call them Gassers. I don’t know why. It just seems funny. They are a government scientific body designed to explore and analyze the systems that show up on their screens. They send out a team of scientists and to fund their science, they always send out a discovery team. Those discovery teams are the real lie of that whole scientific pursuit.

I immediately sent a message to my team.

“Kits.” Not at all fancy, I admit, but my guys knew to report in and they were always on call. We didn’t require a lot per person since after every mission, we always refitted and prepared for an immediate launch. Good planning requires good preparation. And we all brought a little bait, like flatbreads and dried foods. It didn’t add a lot to the shuttle load and we always have extra fuel added into our calculations for emergencies or extra tonnage anyway, so a few pounds per person didn’t really interfere with our projections.

After receiving our follow on guidance from our guy, we performed our flight checklist and checked our weapons while waiting for our mining equipment to run for 15 minutes. That was a key to mission readiness. You always, always, always ran your equipment in dock before going out. My rule was that no equipment would leave dock cold. It had to run and it had to perform. We even had a dedicated room they sat in that simulated zero gravity while they idled. Readiness and preparation can make a person wealthy. That should be a rule of life.

Don’t get the wrong idea; we didn’t take weapons to just rip into indigenous creatures on sight. Mostly, the weapons were to discourage DTs from interfering with us if we ever chanced into one of them. My guys are the best, but even my guys can be taken by surprise. If you stop being apprehensive, then you need to quit. That should be another rule. Be cautious and be prepared. We’ve run across some Gasser DTs before and they are not little people.

DTs, the discovery teams, are usually pretty beefy, ex-military types who are skilled in security, of course, but they also spend a lot of their time mining for the Gasser teams. They are kind of like us. They locate native resources just like us. They extract the native resources, just like us. But unlike us, they do it all in the name of funding the lab rats and the general expedition. It pays for itself, they say. But if piracy is unethical, then what’s the difference? What? The only difference is we make a profit and stimulate the economy. At least we don’t lie about leaching the landscape and using the funds just to repeat the process on some other moon or flying rock. Science!

And while I’m thinking about it, those DTs are usually at odds with the lab geeks. They are what the Regulatory Services get for paying low wages. For quality personnel, you need to pay. And to pay well, you need to turn a high profit.

The Docs on the Gasser teams run their little white labs and think they’re in charge. But the guys out on the rock, in harsh conditions, well, they really run the show. If they don’t produce, the entire team has to pack up and leave, because beneath it all, if the government doesn’t run a profit in the name of science, then even they have to move on. They’re a bunch of hypocritical scavengers.

I run my own team. I pick my own employees. I don’t have high overhead and we don’t apologize for what we do. The Gassers know, deep, deep down, that they are competing with me. I have a better exploration crew by avoiding all the degreed professionals. Don’t get me wrong, my guys are professional; they just didn’t go to the uppity government academies to receive their training. Some of them are just born skilled and learn quickly on the job. Most of them are battle hardened veterans from back when we used to have to fight for our piece of homeland. But when the trigger pullers and the for-profit miners lost work, there was and still is an intense competition for good paying work. I pay the best and I crush the competition. Think of me like a really generous, stubbly-faced benefactor.

And my guys are loyal. And brutally honest. I don’t worry about mutinies during a mission, but there’s not one of those guys who will hesitate to offer a way to do things better, faster or in any other way save a zeta here or there. We run lean. Our equipment is top of the line, much of it built right under the noses of the Gassers, in their own factories or stored in their own warehouses. It’s amazing what people will do for you when you reward them handsomely. Everyone likes a repeat customer and my outfit always comes back to a good deal. Like I say, “I’ll make it worth your while.”

Once the preflight checks are complete, and my team is convinced the equipment is working perfectly, it’s time to strap in and embrace the ride. It’s a long flight to C Sector planet, and we want to be ready for whatever we find. Some rocks, you land on them and the place is deserted. Nothing but trees and rocks and empty buildings, and the entire planet to ourselves. Other times, you can’t hop a rock without getting all over in a mess of Gassers. That’s when you have to hit hard, move fast, and get out quick with as much as you can carry. Those are the trips where it’s either feast of famine, and rarely ever anything in between. As we lift off the flight tower and climb up out of the city, I can’t help but hope that this trip is going to be real quick, real clean, and with a huge payoff.

“Hey, Cap,” one the boys said, stepping into the cab and taking the co-pilot’s chair.

“Anderson,” I answered with a nod. He’s new. He’s good. He’s eager. But he’s untested. I had my doubts, but Jenks swore that Anderson would come through for me, and I trust Jenks with my life.

“Any chance of a fight on this one?” Anderson asked, resting his forearms on the rifle slung across his chest.

‘Maybe he’s too eager,’ I wonder silently. I take a deep breath and accelerate out of the atmosphere. “Listen, kid,” I began. “We’re not here to pick fights.”

“Oh I know, Cap,” he replied quickly.

“Then stop looking so damn anxious to punch a hole in someone,” I replied. “Didn’t they get that out of your system in the service?”

“No, sir,” he responded with a big, proud smile.

“Well stow it now, huh? We’re not killers. We’re not mercenaries. We’re…” I paused to let the right words come to the surface. “We’re opportunistic businessmen, who work best behind the scenes.”

“Pirates,” Anderson declared.

“Well you sound like a right proper regulator when you talk like that,” I informed him. He smiled, but I didn’t. “We’re not moving in to pick a fight, kid,” I reminded him in a serious tone. “We’re flying out to hit a huge supply of hydropolium, and I don’t need to waste my time worrying that you’ll be stomping off looking for something to shoot up.”

“Did somebody say hydra-p?” asked a deep, growling voice.

“Jenks,” I said, turning back to the controls and bringing up our coordinates, “Tell your boy that he’s going to do this team a lot more good carrying rocks then settin’ off that rifle of his.”

Anderson began to argue but Jenks put a hand on his shoulder. Anderson, who was five-ten and about one hundred seventy pounds, looked up at the creature standing over him. Jenks was six-five, and weighed two-ninety. The man has a neck like most people have a waist and I had watched him more than once take tree stones and break them in his hands.

“Anderson here understands you perfectly, Cap,” Jenks promised. “I will see to it that he remembers his role in this team.”

“Thank you, Jenks,” I answered, dropping the flight path into the navigation system.

Softly, almost too quietly for me to hear, Jenks leaned over and whispered into Anderson’s ear, “Out.” Through the corner of my eye I watch Anderson rise and stalk back into the main hull.

“If he’s smart, he’ll pen himself up in a bunk and get some sleep before we arrive,” I informed Jenks.

“Well he’s an idiot,” Jenks reminded me, “and I’m pretty sure he’s about to spend this whole damn trip totin’ around that gun of his, dreaming of jumpin’ around a strange planet blasting everything that lives, moves, or breathes.”

“Reassuring,” I pointed out.

“Bah,” Jenks answered with a wave and a shake of his head. “He’s new, but he’ll be fine.”

“Do I need to worry about him?” I asked.

“You kiddin’?” Jenks replied with a big grin. “Kid’s an idiot sometimes, but he’s still a good find.”

“I’m trusting you, Jenks,” I remind him. “Don’t let me down.”

“Don’t worry about it, Captain,” Jenks said with a big smile.

“Sure,” I decided as the panel flashed and made a soft “Bong” noise. “Time to go.”

With a flick of a coupe toggles, we’re rushing through space.

“Lady and gentlemen,” I called to my crew over the ship’s com, we are on our way. We are expected to find our destination in just under seven hours. I suggest sitting back and finding a good corner to take it easy. I’ll announce again when we’re close.” The speakers popped as the announcement ended and I looked over at Jenks with a raised eyebrow.

“What?” he asked.

“Just wonderin’ what you’re plans are for the trip,” I asked. “I need you ready when we arrive.”

“You know me, Cap,” Jenks said easily. The big man intertwined his fingers and slipped his massive hands behind his head.

I smiled and checked the scanners. If I could only take one man with me on any run, it would be Jenks. There was no one I trusted more, and he knew it. We had saved each other’s life more times than we could remember on our own, and we knew that no matter what went down we would have the back of the other.

The hours ticked by as space slipped past us. Planets and moons, debris and storms, they all shipped past at a blinding rate. At long last, the ship whistled and slowed to a safe cruising speed. Out in the distance was CJ-53-9, glowing blue flickering with the lighting storms.

“That it?” Jenks asked.

“Yep. 53-9,” I replied, tapping my nose. That’s the rock that is going to make us rich.”

“You’re the boss,” Jenks replied, then slipped out of his harness. “I’ll get the team ready.”

“Good,” I answered. “Make sure we are all o the same page, too,” I asked. “Quick in. Find the mines. Dig as much up as we can haul, and then let’s get out of here.”

“Sounds like a plan, Cap.”

The door whooshed to the side and Jenks disappeared into the hull. I brought the ship into the atmosphere, running the scanners and looking for the base that was supposed to be there. The ship fell below the cloud line, getting under the storm, and we skimmed along the surface.

An explosion in the distance stole my attention. Not only was it right where the base was supposed to be, but the blast was big enough to be a ship.

“Jenks,” I said into the com. “Get your ass up here.”

A moment later he was back in the co-pilot’s chair, looking over the desolate terrains.

“The hell was that?” he asked, pointing at the trial of smoke clawing up into the blue clouds.

“We’re about to find out,” I told him, moving in closer.

It was a ship. A Regulator cruiser, or at least it was.

“Any life?” I asked.

“None that we’re reading,” Jenks answered, “but’s there’s tons of energy blips.”

“Life?”

“Can’t be,” Jenks explained. “There’s tens of thousands of these things. If there was this much life on a Class 7, we would have known about it.”

I nodded, though I wasn’t convinced.

We circled the building, not finding any indications of life, and decided to drop the ship beside the main hanger. Before we even touched down, I knew we were in trouble.

A wave of bugs. A cloud of creatures came flooding the sky from every dark hole, nook, and gash in the surface. Thousands and thousands of them came rushing for the ship.

“Hang on!” I screamed and put the ship down hard. There was no way I was ending up like that Gasser craft. “Masks!” I ordered, and grabbed my rifle. I marched into the main hull as bugs smashed the windshield of the cabin. “Load up,” I said to the crew. “We need cover, and we are not welcome here.” The team all grabbed their weapons as the glass shattered in the cab. The bugs beat against the doors as Anderson began to shake. “Looks like you got your wish, kid,” I said humorlessly, then to the rest of the crew, “Straight across the yard to the entrance. McNeil, you get the door while the rest of us provide your cover. Kill them all,” I ordered. “Ready?”

The team responded enthusiastically, but I am afraid none of us were ready for the fight that was waiting for us on the other side of the doors.

“Go!” I screamed, and slammed a hand against the hatch release. The door flew open, and bugs started to pour in. We laid a blanket of fire out the hatch, clearing a small path.

“Go!” Jenks bellowed, and we all ran into the thin air. The shooting seemed nonstop, and the air was alive with bolts.

“Door!” I said, pointing to an entrance not far off. Silvers was swarmed and dragged of, screaming and shooting wildly. Harding took a bit in the leg and couldn’t walk. He was consumed on the spot, despite our attempts to shoot the bugs from around him. When we reached the door, my team of seven was down to five, and I was starting to wonder why the hell we had come here.

Then I got a good look at one of the bugs. My rifle came down and I stared in horror.

“Cap!” Jenks cried, and pulled me inside. The door crashed closed in front of me and I just stood there.

“It…” I muttered. “It had a face. Like a man, Jenks. My god, it had a face.”


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