Episode 1 -
New Mules for Sister Clara
It was the Mid-Morning Coffee Break of the New Era.
Huge ships, filled with the treasures of an Empire, tore through space and time to exchange their precious, irreplaceable treasures with civilizations that had finally found a resolution to their pesky garbage problem.
A time when young, misty-eyed beings lay awake in their beds staring out the night sky. They would clutch their calculators and balance sheets to their hearts and dream of one day becoming a xeno-economist. Other beings whose eyes didn't quite spray as much also dreamt of becoming xeno-economists, but they were generally laughed at and stuffed into their lockers by jocks.
It was a time when free markets ruled, and not just in the minds of long haired metal freaks. It also ruled with the long haired wooden freaks and a few of the freaks made of various other substances. Wait, I'm getting distracted, sorry.
Right, where was I?
Soon, the wanton prosperity and growth beaconed for a new class of heroes. Heroes who could rein in the unbridled commercialism of the day. Heroes who would ensure that new markets actually managed to survive their first introduction to advanced technologies, and likewise, advanced technologies could survive being introduced to said new market.
Legend tells of a race of primitive, short, furry creatures that had no concept of advanced technology until they suddenly found themselves part of a rebellion against an evil empire. These creatures used their simple tools and hunting skills to overcome the far superior imperial technology. They helped win the decisive victory for the rebellion. Suddenly these creatures became advisors to the leading weapon systems manufacturers across most of the galaxy and darlings of all the big strategies tour circuits.
Weaponry manufacturers raced to be the first to offer the new systems in bids to out perform their competition. Armadas of warrior craft were outfitted with RockChuckers® and immense wooden clubs. Things were going well, until the first conflict of these new, thoroughly modern war-craft. Unfortunately, that was about the time a number of warring civilizations received a suddenly violent reminder of Newton's Laws.
The battle was won when a lone, surviving pilot managed to use his pocket laser pointer to blind his opponent.
The weapons industry crashed (although the laser pointer market did exceptionally well that year) and didn't manage to rebuild itself for nearly ten months.
From that turmoil a cry went out, and the guardians of the new trade were born. Forged from the tenuous agreement of the various civilizations, these agents were entrusted with ensuring that commerce amongst the stars was fair. These unthanked heroes were..
Bellinger, Ontario, (population 200,000, give or take a few) liked to believe itself to be the gateway to Toronto. While they may not have had the tourism revenue of other locales, they did have the largest Royal Order of Elk society in Southern Ontario. The hall decorations were the talk of the sixty-and-older set for miles around. However, to most people it was just famous for being one of the prime places for bad traffic on the way to the Mega-City.
Nestled away in the quiet "Bellinger Oaks" strip mall is a little shop that doesn't have much in the way of decoration, just a sign proclaiming it as "eFlounder! Get on-line, for the Halibut!" It's curtains are usually drawn, and not many people go in or out. Yet, if you ask Marco at "Tastee Donuts and Chinese Food", he'll tell you that the folks there are nice and preferred the chocolate old fashioneds.
Several hundred feet below the shop, all hell was breaking loose.
ALERT! ALERT! CONDITION MAGENTA! ALERT! ALERT!
The level three klaxon blared through the Galactic Customs off-branch office. Well, perhaps "off-branch" office is a misnomer. To say that this office was officially associated with the clandestine bureau of galactic trade enforcement centered at the infamous Area 51, or even the unofficial headquarters located near the thriving metropolis of Maple Ridge, would be like saying that the Hilo, Hawaii Players are a bit "off-Broadway".
Still, every single one of the hardened, trained mission specialists employed here were professionals to the utmost, dedicated to keeping their assigned planet safe from illegal and dangerous technology. At least most of the time, anyway.
The shattered remains of a siren slammed into a bulk head just inches from the head of Jack Fournier, denting the hardened alloy wall. Jack lowered an eyebrow in disapproval. His once-chiseled features were now softened by age and early retirement; still, he cut an impressive figure.
"That's coming out of your salary, Phil," he said as he glanced at the sparking remains of the siren that mixed with the slowly leaking fire retardant at his feet.
Inside the doorway, the source of the projectile, stood Philoxia Unpronouncable.
Neither "Philoxia" nor "Unpronounceable" were her real names, but without years of study in linguistics, contortionism, and a zen mastery, and the possible use of a Dutch duck call, attempting to pronounce her true name would probably result in a painfully personal explanation of where you went wrong. At least she hasn't complained about the substitutions yet.
She put a hand up to her throbbing head. "Coffee or Death..."
Jack smiled. "I'll have the coffee please." Then an expression of mock understanding dawned on his face. "Oh, for YOU! There's a pot on in the mess. And please remember to wear your pants. I don't want to see another Radar Incident."
"It will grow back."
"Unfortunately for Radar, not in time for mating season, I'm afraid."
Phil's door closed and Jack continued his leisurely walk toward the mess.
ALERT! ALERT! CONDITION MAGENTA! ALERRRrarrarrrrtttsttzzzzzzz!
Jack dropped the now more heavily dented fire extinguisher and looked back down the hallway to ensure Phil's door was closed. It was. Good thing she never really did keep track of how many of those things she regularly destroyed.
In the relative silence, he keyed in a code on a COMs panel. "Roger, this is Jack, what's the problem now?"
Pause. No response.
"Roger," he barked into the mic. "What's going on up there?"
"Please state the Emergency Situation Clearance Code," Roger said.
"Roger. Just tell me what the situation is."
"I'm sorry, sir," Roger replied. "Not without the clearance code."
"Tabernac'...," Jack mumbled. "Clearance Code is Fournier, J. authorization Alpha-867-5-309."
"Security Officer Rahhahggrraag-pthughltep of the Galactic Customs Bureau, authorization Tau-908-A-560, acknowledging," Roger replied.
"Now do I get a report?" Jack asked.
"We are currently in a Code Magenta Situation, Commander. I believe that your immediate presence on the command deck is required for any Magenta..."
"Roger, you've called Code Magenta more times than you've changed underwear. You've got Phil rather upset right now and I'm pretty sure she's got a headache. I can have her stop by and ask, or you can tell me what the problem is over the comm."
"Phil is upset?" Roger asked in a nervous tone.
"She's already taken out two sirens this morning."
The Klaxon suddenly fell silent throughout the bunker. Jack's ears stopped ringing a second or two later.
"Thank you, Roger. Now do you want to tell me why you've panicked this fine morning?"
Roger was back to his hyper-efficient self. "I've detected an unauthorized presence in this system, sir."
"Roger, this is a pre-admission system. Any ship is an unauthorized presence. They're probably just taking a short cut. Send them the warning and make sure they've got their jammers on."
Jack stood with his forehead against the wall for a few seconds. He keyed the intercom again.
"Uhm, yes Jack?"
"So what did they say?"
"They, uhm, they said that they were sorry. They were on their way to Farrag and got a bit lost. They've left."
"And the Code Magenta Alert?"
Roger mumbled back something.
"Excuse me Roger, I didn't hear that."
"I'm sorry" Roger mumbled a bit louder.
"Roger, do I have to take away the Klaxon button again?"
"Are you going to check to see if we're actually being invaded next time?"
"Do you want to go back to pumping antimatter at the Super 99 again?"
"Thank you Roger. Meet me in the mess hall in half an hour, we've got a mission."
Jack made his way to the mess hall to make damn sure that the coffee was on, and that Phil remembered to lock up her ales before they got confused with the artificial creamers again.
Aside from the buzzing of thyroid-challenged insects, the only sound was the pole cutting through the water of the Florida swamp. Phil, a strikingly tall woman with unusually smooth skin, stood at the fore of the boat. In her hands she held the pole propelling the boat, and strapped to various locations on her person was enough ordnance to supply a small, South American army for a month.
Crouched low behind her, keeping a wary eye on the foliage around them, was Ulysses "Rhino" Cannon, a formerly of the Canadian League of Heroes reserves and the U.S. Marine Corp's Special Forces, in that order. He was dressed in a black T-shirt, cammo pants, and a black beret with a triangular pin on the front. Cradled in his hand was an M-4 Short-barrel assault rifle. Like Phil, his pack and bandolier were well-equipped.
Beside him was Russell Shimo, their sys-admin. His gaze was lost in the screen of the laptop he was working on. It was a jumble of throbbing circles, pulsing charts and scrolling graphs. It looked very much like a mixture of every bad sci-fi psuedo display. Only a few could ever understand it, Shimo was a good guesser.
Seated directly across from him was Commander Jack Fournier. His black-framed glasses were speckled with the sweat that flowed freely through his greying hair and down his forehead. He was holding a remote control of some sort, idly rubbing his thumb across it.
A thin soldier stood at the rear of the boat with a rifle in his hand. His demeanor suggested nervous agitation, and his eyes shifted back and forth, waiting for something unauthorized to happen.
"Shimo," he called out. "Anything on radar?"
"No," Shimo replied, curtly.
"Phil," the soldier called to the gondolier. "Seen anything yet?"
"No," she said.
"Dammit, Roger," Jack said, whispering hoarsely and shaking the remote control. "If you don't keep quiet I'm going to use this on you."
"I don't like it, Jack," Roger replied. "Since when is it the job of Galactic Customs to locate the missing pets of Cantovarian ambassadors' wives?"
"It's not native to this planet."
"So what?" Roger asked. "Rhino, do you really care if some space puppy dog wanders off and --"
"Shut up, Roger," Jack hissed.
"I was just saying that --"
"Shut UP, Roger," Phil and Rhino said at the same time. Roger suddenly noticed that the three of them were looking past him. Slowly, making sure to keep his gun raised, he turned around and looked.
Almost thirty meters away, but traveling fast in their direction, was a large V-shaped ripple in the water. Roger watched as it charged the boat and readied a shot. But when it came to within ten meters away, it disappeared.
"Where'd it go?" Roger asked. The others readied their weapons.
Suddenly, the boat pitched forward violently, spilling them all into the water.
"Everybody hold still!" Rhino barked, exploding back up to the surface.
"I can't..." Shimo yelled, flailing his arms. "I can't swim!"
He was kicking and swinging his arms, trying to stay afloat.
Jack turned and started moving toward Shimo, but Rhino waved him off.
"Stay where you are and stay still!" he shouted. Jack reluctantly obeyed.
Suddenly Shimo stopped moving. The waves lapped around him, but he didn't bob with the water's movement. Just as a look of surprise was registering on his face, he shot into the air in a plume of water, screaming. A beast easily ten meters tall, came up underneath him. Its segmented body and dozens of short, thorn-like legs shook loosely in the air. Shimo was stuck between two plates, halfway into what was apparently the beast's mouth.
With a shake of its head, Shimo disappeared up to his armpits. Another shake and all that was left were his hands. Before it had a chance to shake a third time, Jack pointed the remote control at it and pushed the large red button in the center. A spray of greenish slime shot from the front of the remote and clung to the creature. Wherever it stuck, it began to harden. Soon, the creature was completely imbedded in a large chunk of green crystal.
"Like a big piece of rock candy," Roger said.
"Damn," Jack snapped. "He nearly lasted two weeks."
"At least Her Excellency's pet is safe," Roger added.
"I'm sure Shimo appreciates that fact," Phil said.
Carla Scot knocked for the third time, but there still wasn't an answer.
She was about to turn and go back to the agency. "Dammit", she thought, "I need this job! I've got rent to pay and Michelle won't carry me another month."
She knocked again. Still nothing. "Stupid internet startup probably folded this morning anyway." she said as she kicked the door.
"It's effective, but pulling it works better." a voice said behind her.
She turned with a start to see three people dressed for much warmer weather standing behind her. She gasped in surprise, then immediately regretted it. They smelled like they just came back from a swamp. She bent over in a coughing fit.
"It's ok, most folks have that reaction to Roger," said a man in a in a black beret, smiling warmly and extending his hand in greeting. Carla smiled, then looked at the hand a bit uncomfortably. The man noticed that it was covered with black tar like mud and slime, he did his best to wipe off the bulk of it on his damp trousers before offering the somewhat cleaner version again. Carla gently shook the hand. "My name is Rhino, and you would be?.."
"Carla. Carla Scot, I'm here about the position?" Carla asked somewhat tentatively.
"Position?" The obnoxious one said as he turned to the tall model standing next to him. "You didn't tell them anything about Shimo, did you, Phil?"
"Of course not, maybe it was Jack." the woman said.
Rhino shrugged and produced a key. "Well, he'll be along once he's returned Fluffy to the Ambassador. Why don't you come inside and we'll get you situated until Jack comes back."
Roger crinkled up his nose a bit. "You don't suppose that Jack will need to take that that thing walkies first, do you?"
The soldier rolled his eyes a bit and let out an annoyed sigh. "Roger, I told you not to give Shimo your pen."
"Look, that was an heirloom. My parent got that one from the RUS."
"He stole it."
"Ooh, he did not. It was a gift."
"It had a broken chain attached to it."
The two argued their way through the front lobby and into a back room.
Carla turned and looked to the tall woman who was hauling in a heavy looking crate. "Uhm," she meekly asked her, "I suppose I should stay here, then?"
"What? Sure, suit yourself. Jack should be along in a few minutes or so. If you don't mind though, I desperately need a shower and a coffee." And with that, the woman shouldered a crate and walked through the back door as well.
Carla looked around the office. It was the first time she was able to see it without squinting through the blinds. The first thing she noticed was that the lights were off and that there was a thin layer of dust over most of the terminals. She could understand the lights, at least. She walked over to the switches. Of the four she tried, only one array of lights blinked and buzzed to life.
About then one of the bulbs blew out.
"I was upset because I thought I wasn't going to work here? This place is terrible!" she thought to herself. Still, she needed the money, even if it meant working in a place where she was afraid to touch anything. Maybe, she thought, with a couple of paper towels and a bottle of squirt cleaner she could make the place a bit less revolting.
She walked into the back room to ask where to find the cleaning supplies. When she walked through the door, she was suddenly very confused. The room was moderately sized, but only had a few crates in it.
"He.. hello?" She asked the void. The crates didn't respond. "Mr. Rhino? Hello?"
"Ok," she thought, "maybe watching the slasher film festival Saturday night wasn't such a hot idea after all."
She crept her way into the room, looking for something, anything that looked like a door. All she could spot were two filing cabinets and the door she had walked in. The rest of the room was filled with dusty shelves lined with all sorts of odd... things. She figured they must be some sort of computer or fishing thing, but she had never seen anything like them before. Slowly, with a shaking finger she reached out to touch one, terrified of what may happen, yet consumed by curiosity.
As her finger made contact, it burst to life. Her hand whipped away as it began to glow and play an odd tinny music. Floating above it were two weird blobby things with far too many eyes. She could see right through them, like they were made out of light. They bounced squirting a blue-green gunk on each other while warbling to the music. As suddenly as it started, the music stopped and the two creatures were replaced by what looked like a floating can with undecipherable writing on it.
She was then sprayed by the liquid.
It smelled like boiled cabbage and raw eggs left in the sun for several days and then blended with a live skunk.
Carla started to whimper.
"You know, there are more than a few places where people pay more than a years salary for that scent. Thankfully, this is not one of those places."
Carla looked at the older man as he leaned against the doorframe.
"Is there anything in this place that's not disgusting?" Carla asked between sobs.
The man smiled a bit and said, "Well, occasionally Roger leaves to get doughnuts. I'm sorry, my name is Jack. Here let me see if I can help you out a bit." He rummaged through one of the shelves.
Carla looked down at her outfit. It was ruined. The gunk was already turning her navy suit a rather distressing shade of tangerine. "Dammit, I just bought this yesterday."
Jack found what he was looking for and brought the device over to Carla. "Here, close your eyes. This may tingle a bit." He said as he held what looked like half of a circle in front of her.
"Are you going to spray me with more gunk?" Carla said as the tears poured down her cheeks.
"Well, I'd rather not. This is far cheaper than a dry cleaner."
"Dry Cleaner? A dry cleaner can't fix my suit! Look at this." she said as she stomped her foot.
"Quite right. That's why I prefer this. Now are you going to close your eyes for a second, or do you want a headache on top of everything else?"
Carla still wasn't quite sure what to expect, but she closed her eyes anyway. Besides, a sexual harassment suit would pay the rent for a few months at least.
Suddenly she felt something tingly and a cool chill race down her body. Her eyes snapped open. Jack was turning to walk back to the shelf. She didn't feel gross, and although she could still smell a bit of the stink, it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was before.
She looked down, and her suit was back to navy blue. Actually, it looked better.
"I took the liberty of doing a bit of tailoring too. The jacket needed to be tucked a bit." he said as he placed the device back on the shelf.
"Ah.. err.. thanks!" Carla stumbled out.
"Don't thank me yet. We still haven't been fully introduced." He said as he walked back.
"I'm.. ah.. Carla, Carla Scot. With one 't'"
"I didn't think Carla had any 't's in it." Jack said as he raised an eyebrow.
Carla looked at him like a dog that just didn't understand.
"It's a joke." Jack said with a smile. "So other than getting yourself sprayed by things you shouldn't be touching, is there another reason that you're here?"
Carla had almost forgotten. "Oh, I'm here from the agency, about the job."
Jack looked at her rather seriously and said carefully, "Which agency?"
"Office Solutions," Carla said, confused yet again. It was shaping up to be one of those days. "They're a staffing service."
Jack looked surprisingly relieved. "Oh! That agency! Well, they took their time, didn't they..."
"Well, the temp agency called me yesterday."
"Oh, well, have you met the team yet?"
"I met a Mr. Rhino, Roger, and.. is it Phil?"
"That's odd. Is it short for Philomina?"
"Oh, is that Italian?"
"No, it's made up."
The doors of the elevator closed and they descended to the main levels.