Chapters:

Stasis

STASIS LOCK: disengaging

COMS: Active- 3 connectedness

A deep baritone voice rolls like distant thunder across the linked connection, "Check in."

A female voice says, "Big Bird."

Another voice, this one smooth and calm, says, "Shard...is that you Fist?"

The baritone says, "Affirmative."

There is only silence for what seems like an eternity in the blackness. The female voice breaks the quiet, "Well, that’s Seven unaccounted for."

The deep voice is filled with sadness, " I’m hopin’ we’re just the first three online. We are the top dogs after all."

The HID updates to read:

STASIS LOCK: disengaging

COMS: Active- 3 connected

MISSION: Undefined

The cool voice of Shard is the first to comment on the update, "I feel this is not a good sign."

Fist says, "I don’t feel, numb. I..I feel like I’m completely awake but simply can’t move."

"Interesting," Bird begins, "I can’t feel anything at all...is that normal?"

Fist says, "Im not sure. This is the first time I’ve been in this configuration. All the other times I just woke up all drugged out of my little peanut head in some exotic location."

Bird says, "Your head isn’t that small."

The baritone is a little more chipper, "Compared to the rest of me, it looks tiny."

Bird teases, "Compared to the rest of you, what doesn’t look tiny?"

"Nothing." The smooth voice of Shard answers."Bird, you should have some more information than we do in your personal HID, like an exact time count. What does yours say?"

Bird sounds confused, "Wait. What?"

Fist asks, "You don’t see any text at all?"

"Should I? This is my first stasis since the change."

Shard answers, "I’m not sure bird. I assumed you would, but I have never used the stasis option on the standard armor either."

"Well.." Fist’s voice takes on an air of officiousness, "Since we have some time, want to debrief?"

Bird laughs, "Oh You! I guess so, but be quick the hatchlings could be up any second, and we wouldn’t want them walking in!"

"Ha!" Fist appreciates the joke but forges on, "Shard, do you think the raid went well?"

The smooth voice is slow to respond, "I cannot say well. No. We had to survive a planetary collapse."

Bird is defensive, "Shard...You make it sound like we caused it."

"Ah, I am sorry, Hesperous." Shards voice becomes less accusatory, "I can’t say well because our timetable was off due to miscalculations on our part. We should have been gone well before the collapse. So I can call it a success, but can’t say it went well.

Fist has a deflated and resigned tone, "This isn’t a grammar debate, Shard. A success, it was a success."

Bird adds pridefully, "And I flew a medium cruiser through a collapsing planet! I think that part deserves some recognition."

"Hah," the laugh sounds ill fitting from Shard, "I agree. That took skill beyond anything I’ve witnessed. Well done."

Fist laughs, "So it did go....well!"

Before shard can respond, the HID updates again.

STASIS LOCK: 50% disengaged

COMS: Active- 3 Connected

MISSION: Undefined

SHIP: Bad Mack

COMMAND: Hal

CREW: Wyte

STATUS: Drydock

Reading the info Fist declares,"None of this makes sense."

Shards voice is cold, "If that is accurate we are not on our ship, or with our crew."

Bird is exasperated, "If WHAT is correct!"

Fist asks, "Still nothing Bird?"

Shard anticipates Bird’s further irritation and staves it off, "According to the HID Fist and I can see, we are on a ship named Bad Mack, commanded by a person named Hal, and the crew is listed as simply Witt."

Fist says absentmindedly, "Huh..thought that was a misspelling of white..." He clears his thoughts and continues, "Either way we aren’t on the Correolus, and someone else has us."

Bird’s voice is tinged with fear, "That shouldn’t be possible, should it Shard?"

Shard’s voice is firm and confident, "I may not know what the stasis feature is like, but I know the StarCorps armor, and it is absolutely not probable."

"Well, I don’t know who has us, or why," Fist’s voice isn’t angry, "But it’s not like they’re gonna keep us for long."

Bird is surprised by the bravado, "Well..you sound sure of yourself."

Shard says, "Fist is a mountain of indestructible muscle. He has my permission to be a little cocky now and again."

Bird half laughs, "True. True. And you, Shard, are a one man shapeshifting arsenal, and I am a winged raptor. Even if they dump us out nude we are highly dangerous."

"Yep." Fist puts all the fears to rest. "We bust out of whatever it is, and then make a break for Mars. Simple. My marigolds must be screamin’ for me by now!"

Shard teases, " I still find  your green thumb a bit ironic."

Fist’s voice is wistful, "Bein’ on the ground, grass in my toes....I don’t mind havin’ ta cram myself through the occasional space mission, but they don’t build ships for someone my size. I belong planet side."

"I agree," Bird continues the train of thought, "I too am better suited planet side. One thing I hadn’t considered when joining was how much modification it would take to drag a tail and wings through a starship. I envy Shards ability to self modify."

"Yes, of us three I am the most at home in space," his voice seems to trail off, "But what I truly enjoy is studying my companions. Emotions are fascinating, and watching interactions and how emotions affect them. When we return to Mars I may finally step away from the Corps and devote myself full time to that end."

"Really?" Fist sounds dubious, "I’ll believe that when it happens. You and I been in the corps since before it was the corps, though, I would like to maybe spend more than a few weeks in my garden. Maybe an extended hiatus is in my future."

Bird says matter of factly, "This Alpha thing has been interesting, but I miss my flesh and bone."

Fists voice sounds excited, "Hey...you guys starting to get a visual?"

Shard responds, "Yes."

Bird is once again annoyed, "Still nothing. Blackness."

Fist and Shard both begin to see what looks like a massive armor or robot come into focus. Fist can tell quickly that what he is looking at is an older model drop-suit, and that it’s bolted in and ready for a high altitude deployment. The armor he can see is painted in a mismatched dessert camouflage, and though there aren’t any insignias on it it, he recognizes it as older StarCorps drop units.

Shard asks, "Am I the only one seeing an antique armor?"

Fist answers, "Nope. I see one, in desert camo."

Shard says, "I’m looking at one that seems cobbled together. Poorly." The armor Shard sees has multiple colors and seeme mismatched, "It’s possible that what I’m looking at is made of multiple pieces of the same model, patched together."

Fist starts to be able to see more, "The one I’m lookin’ at is complete. Well preserved even. I can see around and I see some empty deployment racks. Looks like a BMAC drop-ship, but the last one I saw was like...."

Fist trails off as he looks to his left. The entire room seeme to have places for a total of eight of these large armors with a walkway down the center. Looking to the far left he sees a large rear hatch and a worktable, but on the worktable is a sight that Fist can’t wrap his brain around.

"Ok," he says in confusion, "That HAS to be a hallucination."

To Fist it appears as if a toddler in a flight suit is standing above a busty naked woman. He blinks. Still there. The child appears to be furiously tapping away at a large datapad while he smokes a cartoonishly large cigar. Fist blinks again. Still there.

"What?" Shard can’t see what Fist does. "Where? Wait. What? Is that a human baby?"

Bird asks angrily, "Why am I the only blind one!"

Without knowing it, Fist is seeing exactly why his wing leader is currently blind. He watches as the toddler steps off of the table and stilts instantly drop from his boots to keep the little person at table height. The tiny possible hallucination walks around revealing that the naked woman is not entirely connected. Fist realizes that what he thought were shadows are actually separations and the woman is acrually a collection of body parts laid out on the table. The toddler, with a cigar firmly in his teeth, reaches out and snaps his fingers. In response to the command, a little flying robot (possibly dragonfly Fist thinks) carries what looks like a StarCorps issue belt buckle to the outstretched hand.

Shard says calmly, "This is only a hypothesis, Bird, but I believe we may be watching you being put together?"

"What!"

As Shard attempts to explain the odd sight, the toddler clearly takes the buckle and inserts it into the torso of what must be a female android body. Stepping sideways so that he stands between the robot’s knees, the little boy holds out the datapad in one hand, grabs the cigar with the other, closes his eyes, and ceremoniously taps the smooth flat screen.

Fist and Shard see a familiar grid of green light cover the disconnected android body. The pair know right away that it’s the StarCorps buckle preparing to instantly fabricate clothing to cover the nude body. They watch as the green grid is slowly replaced by the hideous combination of gold brown and black that is the official StarCorps uniform. Usually the process is done on a flash of light, so it’s clear to the two onlookers that the little technician has done something to the buckle he used.

Bird exclaims "Hey! I can see! I can’t move, but I can see! I’m looking up at a ceiling, so you’re right, I’m on that table!"

At that same moment the HID updates:

STASIS LOCK: 70% disengaged

COMS: Active- 3 Connected -external Comm live

MISSION: Undefined

SHIP: Bad Mack

COMMAND: Hal

CREW: Wyte

STATUS: Drydock

They all hear the toddler say, "Ok, Looks good, reading system reboot" placing the cigar in his mouth he puts the datapad to the side and walks up so that he is standing at the top of the table. He kneels and looks into her face as he says, "You’ll be right as rain soon enough, luv. You should be able to move and...."

"HEY!" Fists deep baritone booms on his external speaker frightening the kid and causing him to fall across bird’s face like a discarded baby doll. "Just where the hell are we!"

An equally booming voice fills the space with the answer, "You’re in my cargo hold, and I’ll be there in a second." After giving the trio a chance to realize his voice was over the ship wide speaker, and giving the toddler a chance to climb off of Bird’s face, the voice ads sarcastically, "Don’t move!"

____________


"So you’re an AI?"

Fist stands in the center of a large room just off the cargo bay he exited. He looks around and sees different levels of what look like metal frames at all different levels. The ceiling is domed and the room reminds him of a barren greenhouse he was once in, but the little teddy bear in front of him has his focus.

Fist is just over ten feet tall, massively muscled, and wearing nothing but his deep blue skin. Standing in front of the oversized action figure is a soft looking three foot tall teddy bear. Together they look like a mismatched pair of children’s toys having a pretend conversation.

"More or less," A man’s voice emanates from the chocolate brown bear, "My Name is Hal, you can call me captain Jordan."

Fist looks down at the tiny bear and his head floods with questions. Most f them are about why he’s talking to a tiny robotic bear, but he decides to stick to the more pressing ones. "So...um...Captain, just where are we, and how did we get here?"

The little bear’s stoic face, incapable of expression, looks up at the massive man and offers "We’re tethered to a port in the Outer Rim called Freeport. You got here because I accidentally scavenged you along with a lot of StarCorps debris, and hauled you back to the port."

"Debris?" Fist shakes his head, he drops to his knees to get closer to the little toy, "And just how did you scrounge us?"

The bear places its fuzzy hands on its hips, "I sir, am stronger than I look!" Seeing the blank face of the massive man, Hal realizes his joke has fallen flat so he continues, "I’ll make the long story short. I ended up on the raw end of a deal and found myself lost in the void. Miraculously, I ended up in this big, well, pile of space debris, so I did some fast and dirty repairs so I could get my pilot back here, and scrounged as much as I could cram into this ship so I could barter. You and your companions just happened to be in the rubble."

Fist drops from his knees into a full sit. "I’m supposed to believe a tiny bear hauled me, much less all this, out of deep space?"

The bear shakes it’s head, "I told you. This bear is remote controlled. I’m really the AI inside of cargo hauler. It took time, but yeah, I hauled as much StarCorps debris as I could collect here with me."

Fist rubs the bridge of his nose, "This all makes no sense. We were headed back to Earth. I don’t understand how we ended up in a big debris field."

The little bear corrects, "Not a debris field, really, more like a massive junk pile that goes on forever."

Fist stares blankly at the bear. He allows a long pause to convey how little that information helps before he says, "Still makes no sense. We were using a Sub-Etha Compression drive to get to Sol for the Homecoming. At the very least we should be in a debris..." He grits his teeth, "a junk yard closer to Earth or something. Not the ass end of the known galaxies."

"Well," the little bear is clearly thinking, "It’s probably because of the Blackout."

A confused Fist asks, "What? A Blackout?"

The Bear continues, "If you mean the Great Homecoming, where all the members of StarCorps in deep space were headed back to Earth.." He looks up at Fist until the big man nods, "Well...people think the Homecoming destroyed the Sub-etha and everything connected to it. All connected technology and systems went dark, most never to be reactivated. A universe-wide Blackout. It happened a little over three hundred years ago. It changed everything. If you were in the Sub-Etha when it happened..."

"Three hundred years." Fist shakes his head, "One day I’m gonna figure out just what size cake can hold all may candles." Fist looks to Hal, "So, what’s our situation here... captain? Sounds like a salvage operation, and clearly we weren’t part of your agenda, so why wake us up at all?"

The little bear rubs it’s hands together, "Well, that’s a bit complicated.." The bear hangs it’s fuzzy head and says, "..We’ve reached an agreement..of sorts..With the port...and chip....he doesn’t work cheap.....and I’m kinda hoping you and your friends will help is out."

Fist looks at the bear with an expression that could freeze a sun. He gets it. They "owe" the bear and the baby for getting them un-stuck, and the two must have some plans on just how to get repaid for their kindness. He speaks through gritted teeth, "If either of you specs think you can treat us like property," the massive man rises to his feet slowly to bring literal weigh to his words. With his back straight and his shoulders squared he seems even larger than before, "You are SORELY mistaken." The knuckles of his fingers all crack as he balls his mighty fists. "It’ll take more than a toy and a toddler to stop me."

The bear is clearly frightened. Waving it’s little mitten hands at Fist it says, "No, no. No. No. I really mean I hope you can help. You’ve got a choice. You can just walk out of here of you want. All debts are mine to pay. Mine. If you want to go, go. I’m just hoping you’ll want to help us out for getting you three back on your feet, that’s all."

Fist looks down at the little bear and for a moment he wants to step on him, but he does legitimately owe the bear for rescuing him. Fair is fair. He just doesn’t have to be happy about it. His deep baritone echoes through the chamber, "lay out your terms."

The bear is hesitant. After a moment of courage mining It says, "The way to get the most cred in the shortest time, is in the arena..."

Fist cuts the little bear off, "You gotta be kiddin’ me! The Arena is still around!" The bear is clearly stunned by almost jovial reaction and just stands speechless. Fist continues, "Well, that’s simple right? We fight, you wager?" The bear nods. "Let me talk to my crew, see how they feel. How long before we’d have to fight?"

The bear is befuddled. He’d expected to have to explain more, cajole more, he’d built up a whole speech, "About a day or so, give or take a few cycles."

2Fist shakes his head. "I’m not making any promises. Anyway, IF we do this for you, how long will it take us to get to Sol?"

The little bear shifts and shuffles. With his head down he says, "No one goes to Sol anymore. Sol defense keeps everyone out. No exceptions. No one knows anything about what’s going on there."

Fist is speechless. He asks, "since when?"

The bear looks up expressionless, "I honestly don’t know. I’ve only been operational for about twenty years now, so longer than that. Space travel in the outer rim only really got going again just over sixty years ago, and I’m pretty sure the Sol thing is at least that old. Can’t tell you for sure."

Fist rubs his smooth blue scalp and sits down, "Well, I just gotta get home. So, I guess I’ll have to figure something out."

The bear says, "There’s worse news than that." Fist looks at the bear intently as it continues, "I found out about the Sol thing when they kicked me out, but I was really close to Earth when they stopped me, just out of Mars orbit in fact, and I didn’t detect a single organic signature from either planet."

Fists face is unreadable. The bear isn’t sure if he even herd him until the baritone meekly rumbles, "Nothing?"

The bear nods, "Not a single person or plant. A big ol’ zero on life signs."

All Fist can manage is a weak, What happened?"

The bear shrugs, "I was sittin’ derelict on an asteroid before during and after the whole Blackout thing. I used this bot body and Wyte to get myself registered as a captain and got to haulin’ cargo, so I know the Rim better than anywhere else, but I’m from Sol, so when I got a charter to head there, I just did it. When I got booted, I got to digging. When the Blackout took down the Sub-E, everyone was just in survival mode, but when the old pals started talking again, K’Narr, Icara, some of the bigger colonies...nothing from Sol but a big old fat do not enter sign. Nothing on any database anywhere had anything post Blackout."

Fist shakes his head and begins to rock back and forth a little. He does this for a while before weakly saying, "I can’t believe it’s all gone." He drops his head and goes still.

Hal watches the big man for a few moments. When the silence is just too much he says, "I can tell you need some time alone." The little bear begins backing out of the barren room and makes his exit, leaving Fist alone in the barren room.

Fist doesn’t move for a moment. When he places his massive hand down behind his back, it brushes against something he hadn’t noticed. He turns and sees a tiny tree in a small, squat tray. Somehow he’d avoided crushing the thing, and he lies down to get a better look.

He makes it so  the tiny tree fills his vision, as if it were the great oak he planted on Mars. The little tree helps him calm down. He drifts off to visions of himself standing by his lake near his massive oak, and yearns for home.