Beneath a towering canopy of gray and red foliage, pushed into the irregular vermilion face of a sheer cliff, a weathered, prefab lab sits quiet and empty at the edge of a fungus and grass plain.
"There it is, almost where the creepy scientist said it would be." The Captain of the Unreliable scampers up a steep hill, standing at the top as she shades her eyes against the setting sun. "And it only took six hours to find."
"A personal record, I'm sure," the winded Vicar complains, taking a seat on a man-sized boulder for a quick rest.
"Tired already, Vic, we're just getting started." Felix joins their fearless leader at the top of the hill, squinting through the dense trees.
"I am not tired," the indignant, older man shouts up the hill. "I'm…staying out of sight of the wildlife."
"We should keep going, it's almost sundown." The Captain checks the map on her bulky data pad, then hurries down toward the ramshackle building.
As the trio zigzags between the clusters of dense plants, a marauder stalks toward the them on his hands and knees, growling as he squares his shoulders.
Curious, the trio stops to watch a man on all fours try to threaten three upright adults with snarls and barking noises under a mud-encrusted helmet.
"This reminds me of one of your comic books, Felix," the young woman whispers as the marauder stalks closer.
"Hey, maybe he was bit by a radioactive Canid." Felix draws his toss ball stick, gripping it tighter as the crazed man sniffs the air. "Behold, The Incredible Canid Man."
"Or, The Canid Marauder," the Captain adds, taking careful aim with her pistol. "And his smelly sidekick…uuh…Red Hide."
The Vicar sighs, bringing out his shot gun. "Do you two ever take anything seriously?"
"Not if I can help it," the young woman retorts.
The instant the crazed Marauder leaps awkwardly toward the group, a bat to the helmet and two separate sets of bullets send him flying backwards to an untimely death.
"Well that was strange, even for a Marauder," the Vicar comments, looking down dispassionately at the dead body.
The Captain rifles through his pockets and pouches finding a few shots of Adreno and a crumpled piece of paper. She tilts her head and squints, holding the paper closer to her nose. "Left…right…up…down…thunder…noses? I wonder what that means."
"Nothing, obviously," Vicar Max tells her. "It's the manic scribbles of a brain-dead deserter."
The woman shrugs, pocketing the note as she heads onward to the lab.
The front double doors lay broken off their hinges in the reddish dirt. The absolute dark of the lab interior is interrupted by the weak light of dying fluorescent bulbs lining the ceiling.
"Spooky." Felix is taken aback by the echo of his own voice. He cups his hands around his mouth and shouts the word louder, grinning from ear to ear.
The Captain leads the way into the lonely, dimly lit facility, trying every door at either side. Five of the eight doors open up into small offices or forgotten storage rooms, while the others have been permanently disabled.
At the end of the hall, the group finds a cargo elevator with no roof stuck between the second and third floors. Stacked neatly at the center of the large square conveyor is two large metal boxes with the logos haphazardly scraped off.
"I'll jump first." The young lady holsters her weapon and aims for the boxes. She botches her landing, knocking the crates over as she slams face first onto the grated metal floor. The elevator creaks and squeals as the Captain gets to her feet and dusts her armor off. She tells them its safe before exiting to the second level.
"That's not a good sound." Vicar DeSoto can feel his shoulders tense at the thought of the elevator giving way under his feet. He hops down onto the nearest of the crates, nearly jumping out of his own skin as the platform inches down. He quickly makes as exit, goading Felix to hurry.
Without an iota of hesitation, the young man jumps down confidently, his feet planting firmly on the elevator floor. The loud creaking turns to strained bending as the conveyor starts to slip down toward the dark lower levels beyond. Felix barely manages to hop over the metal box in his way and get a sturdy footing before the whole apparatus is swallowed up by the darkness.
A ways down, a dull, thud is followed by a loud splash as metal meets liquid in a spectacularly loud fashion.
The concerned questions of his boss are put to rest by his usual bravado as he asks the obvious of his shipmates. "What's this writing on wall?" Felix points at the poorly scrawled words at about eye level.
"I'm not sure." The young woman squints and tilts her head, trying to make out more than vague chicken scratch with arrows beside each alleged word. "Could be directions."
"It is directions," the Vicar says narrowing his eyes in the dim light. "Generator, main lab, stairs, ect cetera."
"How can you tell," the Captain wonders, furrowing her brow at the illegible letters.
"It's an old form of shorthand I sometimes use to jot my ideas down quickly. Although, why anyone all the way out here would use such an archaic form of writing is a mystery."
She draws her pistol, keeping that interesting nugget of information for later. "Which way is the Main Lab?"
"The arrow points down the hall." He points to his right where the only doorway sits half ajar in the shadows.
"And the generator?"
"The next floor down I'm assuming, since the arrow is pointing at the floor."
The young woman leads them down the hall, stopping at the half open door with a dead Canid stuck firmly between it and the wall.
The young man chimes in as the Captain takes a knee to examine the creature. "That must be Red Hide. Poor guy never stood a chance, bein' the sidekick and all."
"Will you cease and desist, Mister Millstone?" The Vicar gives him a deeply disapproving scowl, which is promptly ignored.
With her medically trained eye, the young Captain notices something off about the animal's general disposition. Even in it's now deceased state, there's an almost human-like quality to its fearful death stare. "I think it died of shock. Can Canids die from shock?"
Felix shrugs. "Who knows."
"Who cares," Vicar DeSoto snaps. "We're here to find a scientist's machine, not to play amateur zoologist."
Their leader sighs, taking the hint as she brings out her lock picking tools.
The door slams shut on the Canid corpse before sliding open.
The trio give a unified "eww" as they step over the bloody halves of carcass.
The adventures enter a decently sized room, finding two sizable consoles at the northern and southern ends of the room. Next to the northern console is a glitchy computer console with a cracked screen facing a panoramic window pressed up against the red rock outside the wide pane of glass.
"You mentioned stairs, right Vicar?"
"Yes, I did, and they should be somewhere in this room."
She tells her companions to split up as she kicks aside bloody scraps of garbage, surveying the room for any other doors.
After a few minutes of poking around and emptying boxes of their contents, Felix Millstone finds a hatch set into the corner of the floor hidden under a pile of bloody refuse. "It's got more of that weird writing on it."
"Stairs," the old man reads out loud as the young man clears away the garbage. "Which means the generator is down there."
"Think you could find the generator and give it the good ol' Millstone whack?"
"I'm on it." The young man pries open the hatch, climbing down into the clammy darkness.
The Vicar points out the obvious, crossing the room to sit at the half working terminal. "You do understand if he breaks the generator, we'll be up shit creek without a paddle, so to speak."
The Captain bites back the urge to give a snide comment as she heads to the console against the window. "I know, Vicar, I know, just have some faith and patience. Like you're supposed to." Her hand hovers over the buttons and levers as she looks over the instructions on her data pad.
"Funny…" The Vicar curses at the glitchy terminal, giving the side of the monitor a hard slap.
While the old man fiddles with the computer console, the Captain makes hesitant adjustments to the mess of electronics before her. "The blueprint says this console is the power flow regulator, and the other one is 'the Converter'." She stands quietly, reading and re-reading the directions, feeling even more confused after each try. "What would Parvati do?"
"Why don't I go back to the ship and send Miss Holcomb over. I'm sure she'll be happy to grope around in a dark, damp, partially underground facility." He manually reboots the computer, waiting for it to power back up, as his scowl grows deeper.
The Captain takes a few deep, calming breaths before asking the obvious. "What's got your cassock in a twist, Vicar? Because you've been extra…'Max-million-y' since we got here."
He turns to face the distracted woman at his immediate right, staring between the schematics and her adjustments. "Firstly, I hate the way you say my name with that lazy tongue of yours, secondly, there's something not quiet right about this place. How does one build a multi-story facility into the side of a mountain, on a lawless planet, without a lot of the 'right' kind of help?"
"So Max-million Day-Soto's, and not the science-worshipping Vicar's, first though is 'corporate conspiracy', rather than 'freelance science'? What if some smart guys somewhere got a bright idea and pooled their resources together?"
The older man snorts, a condescending smirk pulling at the corner of his lip. "Oh please, the day someone smart has a bright idea is the day I'll eat my shoe. And I don't worship science, I advocate for it," he adds as an aside turning back to the now working computer.
She mumbles a few choice words under breath, getting back to her adjusting.
The red lights shut off a moment before the crackle of bright florescent white illuminates the dark space.
To the young lady's surprise, her careful fiddling has the machine humming. The Captain mentally pats herself on the back, crossing the room to the other console.
Once the Vicar is done downloading the notes from the computer, he watches as the woman straps a dome-shaped, wire choked metal lattice to her naked head. "And just what do you think you're doing?"
She buckles the flimsy chin strap, doing her best to untangle the wires screwed into the helmet's framework. "We have to make sure it works, so we get paid, don't we?" The Captain follows the knot of warm wires from helmet, to console, to the second helmet lodged behind said console beneath a pile of scrap metal and garbage.
"By testing prototype technology on ourselves," he scoffs, shaking his head. "You're crazier than I thought."
"We're just gonna make sure it turns off and on and makes noises, Vicar." She waves the second helmet in his direction. "Besides, the directions say the machine won't work unless the helmets register two specimens hooked up to it."
"Anything else I should be aware of," the old man wonders, giving her his usual look of disapproval as he relents to her silent request and helmet waving.
She squints at the minuscule letters at the bottom of the digital blueprint, unable to make out all the words. "DISCLAIMER: do not something something helmet something something machine…um, more words…brain carnage."
"That's not very reassuring."
The young woman grabs Felix's attention as he climbs out of the hatch. "Hit the large, blue button and make sure all the needles in the meters are pointing straight up." She points him in the direction of the power regulator.
"Got it." The young man nods, taking his place at the front of the machine. He smashes his fist down on the large, blue button at the far right. Felix watches intently as said needles jump to life, all four pointing straight up.
A shiver runs down the Vicar's spine as the electricity thrumming through the helmet dances across his scalp. "What an unusual sensation." He shivers, as a smile creeps across his face. "I'm excited for no reason."
The Captain's cheeks flush rosy red and a blanket of nervous calm envelopes her. "My whole body feels like it wants to run and sleep at the same time." She hugs herself, shivering. "It's weird."
The lights above the room flicker momentarily.
The meter second from the left jumps to the three o'clock position.
The two hooked to the machine give a collective groan, cradling the sides of their heads.
"It works, turn it off now, Felix," the Captain implores, trying to ignore the growing pressure running across her forehead.
He smashes the button once more, but the console keeps feeding power to the other machine. "It's not working."
"Turn off the generator," the old man orders through gritting teeth, trying to will away his splitting headache.
"I got a better idea." The young man kneels before the wide console, prying off a loose panel. "Saw Parvati do this once, only with tools." He reaches in, grabs hold of the thickest bunch of wires, and yanks them straight out.
The needles jump haphazardly left to right, as a warning light flashes above each of the meters.
The lights in the lab ceiling blink and flicker in time to the movements of the meters.
The two grimace and groan as the pressure inside their skulls grows unbearable. The two shout something across the room in unison, but it falls on deaf ears.
A surge of energy thunders through the helmets and into the Captain and the Vicar. Their bodies seize and convulse as the overloaded wires begin to spark and smoke. Arcs of blue electric run back and forth between the helmets, fueling the convulsions of their helpless bodies.
Felix reaches up and hits the button once more, hearing the humming of the machine stop dead altogether.
The lights in the ceiling snap from the strain as the Captain and Vicar hit the floor, both out cold, their helmets smoking.
"Oh no…" Is all the young man can say as he looks over his shoulder and sees both his shipmates unconscious, laying on the floor. He scrambles over to where they lay, shaking their shoulders. "Boss? Vicar?" He finally gives up, sitting on his knees between them, defeated. "Shit."
The Captain slowly comes to, groaning and cradling her head. She finds herself tucked into bed, blinking and trying to clear the fog from her brain. The young lady throws the cover back and sits up slowly, getting her bearings on reality back just as sluggishly. "By the Law, my head is splitting." Her heart nearly jumps out of her chest at the voice accompanying the words. "By the Law," she declares louder.
The feminine sounds emanating from her mouth with every syllable unnerve her to the point of nervous hyperventilation. She takes deep, calming breaths, closing her eyes to shut out the foreign surroundings of the Captain's quarters. "Calm yourself Maximilian, it's just another vivid dream. You'll wake up soon enough now that you're aware it's a dream." She lays back down, balling her fists at her sides as she waits for herself to wake up. "Now would be preferable."
A dull ache from inside his skull, rouses the Vicar to the waking world. He drags himself up to sit at the edge of the bunk, bleary-eyed and achy. "Oh…what happened…?" His shock at the sound of his voice overrides the general feeling of mind-fog. "What," he slowly repeats, feeling a growing sense of panic constricting his chest. "Happened?"
He fights down the feeling, trying to process his foreign surroundings. "I sound like the Vicar. Why do I sound like the Vicar?" He feels himself, head to torso, finding a flat chest and shapely muscles. "Am I…?" The Vicar laughs at herself for thinking such a preposterous notion. "No, that's not possible, technology's not that advanced. Is it?" He gets up and walks into the narrow hall, catching the ship's ever distracted engineer entering her quarters. "Parvati!" His shout stops her at the doorway as he runs up to her. "Who am I?" The Vicar points at his old face.
"Uh…" The grimy young lady is unsure how to answer. "I'm pretty sure you're Vicar Max?"
"Are you sure?" The Vicar points harder with both fingers at his face.
"Abso-surely." Her dirty brow furrows with slight confusion. "If you're havin' head problems, maybe Miss Ellie can have another look at you."
He lets slip a sight of relief. "Oh wow…Then that means—"
"You!" He starts at the sound of a familiar voice shouting from the other end of the hall. "What, in the name of the Law, have you done to me?!" The Captain stomps toward a cringing Vicar, edging away.
The old man retreats into the kitchen. "I didn't know this would happen! You can't blame me!"
The two go back and forth as they circle the kitchen table, where Nyoka and Ellie are having a peaceful breakfast.
"Did you not once," the Captain emphasizes the word with a single finger pointed up. "Think it was suspicious that we met a lone scientist in the lower basement of a secret medical clinic at the back of a cave!"
"So." The Vicar shrugs, keeping a chairs length between them as they dance around the table. "We meet people in strange places all the time."
"Do you know what your problem is," the young woman shouts across the table. "You don't think! I'm beginning to suspect you don't have two brain cells to rub together!"
Ellie takes a sip from her mug, leaning over to Nyoka sitting in the chair to her left. "Is it just me, or did the Captain and Vic switch mouths?"
Nyoka takes a long draw from her flask. "I'm not sober enough to try to figure out what those two are playing at."
"You're never sober enough for anything, Miss Ramnarie-Wentworth," the Captain snaps at the huntress.
Her brows disappear under her wild dreadlocks as a look of utter indignation colors her features. "Excuse me?"
"Vicar, shut up," the old man tells her, his voice dropping lower. "Right now."
Despite the warning, the young lady can't help but keep poking the bear. "Flush the Spectrum Red out of your ears for once, you glorified tour guide!"
"Whoa, Vicar!" The two women square up to each other across the wide, plastic table, but the Vicar grabs the Captain by the shoulders and drags her into the hall.
"Tone it down a smidge," he demands in an even tone, still holding fast to her shoulders. "Your beef is with me, not Naioka."
"Oh, indeed it is, Captain." The young lady sucker punches him, her knuckles connecting with his jaw.
A mildly excited "ouch" comes from the ship's pirate physician.
The Vicar holds his jaw, dumbfounded at the retaliation. "Ow! What was that—" His complaint dies on his lips as a small fist rams into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.
"I'm going for a walk!" The Captain leaves her ship in a huff, trying to recoup her thoughts.
The Vicar slumps against the nearest wall, coughing the breath back into his chest as he cradles his midsection.
Felix and Parvati poke their heads out of their quarters, the latter asking the obvious. "Are you okay, Vicar?"
"What in Law's name did you do to the Captain, Vic," Ellie wonders. "She's never so much as raised her voice until now."
"Nothing." He clears his throat, standing up straighter than usual. "Felix, would you care to join me in my quarters?" The Vicar waves a hand at the only closed door along the hall.
"We need to talk."