The Spirit of Cooperation

Tikal woke up and realized he hated his home. He had to leave. He had to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. It was slowly driving him crazy, he thought. Each day was taking a little piece of his sanity away from him. If he didn’t escape soon, he never would, and he’d be completely insane.

He stared up at the ceiling, a dingy gray color designed to be completely unoffensive to anyone. It was simultaneously completely unappealing to anyone as well. It was just like the rest of his home. Just like the rest of his city. Just like the rest of the entire damn planet. Everything was made to be tolerable so every person of every creed would feel like there was nothing in the world that opposed them.

Of course, it was all bullshit. Everyone hated it here. Every last person who had ever lived here hated it. The only ones who stayed were those who had been driven insane by the hatred, or those who had been insane before and truly believed they could make this place work.

It was called Cooperation. It had been founded almost a century ago, on the heels of the Yoiul Convention. Bolstered by the newfound spirit of peace and cooperation around the cluster, a group of politicians in the four empires decided that the best way to ensure future peace was to form settlements made up of colonists from every race.

The first - and last - of the colonies was Cooperation. The politicians laid out four cities spread across the surface. Once they were finished, they gathered up the willing and shipped them off to Cooperation. At its height, there were ten million colonists.

Now, there were less than two thousand. Tikal rolled from his bed. He resolved that soon, there’d be one less.

Tikal walked down the empty streets of the city. Panacea had been built for expansion. Originally the home to two million colonists, it was designed to last without need for more additional construction for generations. In that, it was successful. Many of the buildings had never been inhabited, left as pristinely uninspiring as the day they had been built.

Abandoned vehicles sat decaying along the streets, left there by owners so eager to get away from Cooperation that they left behind any belongings they couldn’t stuff into a suitcase. Tikal felt the same way, though he owned very little. And if he’d needed to drive anywhere, he had plenty of options no one would miss sitting there.

His destination today was only a few blocks from the apartment he lived in. It was a place the politicians had set up but never expected to be used. In truth, it was probably the most popular place in all of Panacea. It was the ticket off of Cooperation.
The politicians who had set up Cooperation mandated that anyone could leave it whenever they wanted. It would even be paid for. Citizens who wanted to leave could get a free ticket to any planet they wanted. After that, they were on their own. It was an intimidating prospect, but Tikal knew no one who regretted it.

And he knew many who had left Cooperation. He’d had about a dozen friends as a child. All were gone now. None had ever come back. Few of them even bothered to keep in touch. They left Cooperation and never wanted to be reminded of it.

He walked into the Emigration Office and smiled at the bored Gallente man behind the counter.

“But there is so much to stay for,” the bored man droned without enthusiasm, conviction, or even an attempt to make it sound like he wasn’t lying through his teeth. “Cooperation is the future of the cluster.”

Tikal laughed. “Maybe it is,” he said. “A ghost town littered with the relics of those who once were. Maybe that’s what happened to all those ancient races the scientists talk about. They built their own Cooperation.”

The bored man - his name tag read “Jacque” - didn’t bother to respond to that. “Please be aware that applications to leave Cooperation can take up to a week to process. In addition, you will need to wait for the next supply ship to come.”

Tikal frowned. “How long will that take?” he asked. He already knew the answer. The planet didn’t need supplies often. One ship could supply the entire planet for months on end. At one point, the supply ships were constant. His grandparents had told him stories from when they were children of the colony running out of basic supplies.

No bread. No milk. No antibiotics. They spoke of it with pride, as if the booming population of Cooperation had made it impossible to keep up. That was partly true. His grandparents had seen plenty of people on the streets. It was never overcrowded, of course, but every day there’d be hundreds of people walking and driving around.

But honestly, the shortages were because of poverty. Cooperation was a poor world, chosen specifically because it was a poor world. A rich world would have formed contentious relations between the empires, the politicians decided. There’d be fights over the resources. So it had to be a poor world, a world no one would bother invading.

Of course, that meant the world had very little to export. There was a brief attempt at starting up manufacturing, but the cost of shipping in materials proved too costly. Agriculture was the option the world eventually turned to, but they never produced enough quantity to make it a worthwhile endeavor. It was enough to live on. That was it.

“Three weeks,” Jacques answered. “The next supply ship is scheduled to arrive in three weeks.”

“Well,” Tikal said, “I suppose I can wait for three weeks. At least that’ll mean I can live out the rest of the month here. I already paid rent for this month, might as well get the most out of it.” Of course, he had signed a lease that still had six months left on it. There was no way he could get out of it. He didn’t care. He wanted to be off Cooperation.

As Jacques began handing over the paperwork for Tikal to sign, a high pitched whine split the air. “What is - ” Then there was a loud rumble and the floor shook.

Jacques’s eyes were wide in surprise. He moved faster than Tikal thought would be possible and ran outside. Tikal followed him. Smoke was rising in the distance, a few blocks away.

“Let’s go,” Jacques said. His voice suddenly didn’t sound so unexcited. Tikal just nodded and the two hurried down the empty streets.

It was some sort of pod. Egg-shaped. It had crashed into the ground, leaving a small crater. Others had come to see it as well. Probably the entire population of Panacea, all two-hundred and thirty-six of them. Tikal recognized some of them. The groups remained fairly segregated by racial lines. Amarrians with Amarrians, Gallente with Gallente, Caldari with Caldari, Minmatar with Minmatar. Tikal remained standing with Jacques, between the Gallente and Minmatar.

They stared at it. Wondered at it. It was nothing any of them had ever seen, that was for sure. It had clearly come from the sky. Probably from space. But it was definitely man-made. And it couldn’t have been simple debris. Debris would have burned up on reentry.

“I think it’s a pod,” someone said.

“Well, no shit,” someone else said. “What sort of pod?”

“A capsuleer’s pod!” a third person shouted out. “What other kind of pods are there!”

“Escape pods,” the second person said. “Cargo pods.”

“Who ever heard of cargo pods?” someone shouted. “There’s no such thing!”

“Is to!” yet another person spoke up. “I’ve heard of them! I’ve seen them on the cargo ships that drop off supplies!”

“But there’s no cargo ship scheduled for another three weeks,” announced Jacques. “So it has to have a person inside!”

“They might be hurt,” an Amarrian woman said, stepping forward. “We should help them out!”

“No!” shouted a Gallente man, moving to stop her. “It might be dangerous!”

“She’s right!” Tikal said, stepping forward. “If there’s someone in there, we need to help them out.”

There were murmurs of consent and dissent from various groups of people. Soon, they had split into two large camps; those who wanted to open the pod and those against it. Those against it proved to be the larger of the two camps, though not by much.

Tikal and Jacques had joined the opening camp, along with the Amarrian woman who had started things. Her name was Tiri. “We have to open it up,” she said, speaking to Tikal of all people, without the hint of prejudice or hatred in her voice. Even on Cooperation, that was unusual. It took more than a few generations of living together to eradicate old prejudices, especially when daily reports from all four empires contained messages of condemnation for the other empires.

“Yeah,” he said. “And the longer we stand around waiting, the longer anyone inside suffers.” He approached the pod and looked at it closely, despite the angry shouts of protest from the group against opening it. He was surprised to see a crack running down the side of it. It was small, almost invisible. But he knew that he could get it open.

He retreated to his group. “I’m a metal worker. I’ve got some tools I can use to crack that pod open. I’ll need a few people to go help me get them.”

A group of men stepped forward to go with him, including Jacques. “I’ll work on getting the other group to agree with us,” Tiri said.

Tikal smiled. “Good,” he turned to the men. “Come on, let’s go!” They walked over to an abandoned truck, found it started right up, and pulled away.

By the time they had returned, the group who had been against opening the pod had dispersed. “We told them if they weren’t here, they couldn’t possibly be blamed for anything,” Tiri told them.

“Good,” Tikal said. “Now let’s crack this thing open.” He grabbed his tools and wedged one into the crack. With the push of a button, it let out a powerful sonic pulse that traveled up the crack and expanded it into a fault. With another push, the crack grew even larger. There was a groaning from the metal, so Tikal took a step back right as the capsule ruptured and began spilling out a viscous fluid.

Several of the people gasped. “Stay back,” Tikal said, unsure about what the fluid was. For all he knew, it could have been a cargo pod as someone earlier had said, carrying radioactive waste. The fluid leaked slowly from the crack, so it wasn’t under pressure at least. After a few minutes, the fluid had slowed to a small trickle and Tikal thought he could see into the pod if he tried.

He grabbed his flashlight and shined it into the crack, pushing his face up against the metal so he could look. At first, he saw nothing. Then there was a flash of movement inside and a wet thud, causing him to leap back in shock.

“Something’s definitely inside!” he said. Almost immediately, there was a groan from inside. “It’s a person!”

He grabbed his hydraulic spreader-cutter and wedged them into the crack. As they spread, the metal sheared with a loud, angry groan until it was eventually wide enough for the group to reach in and pull out the occupant.

It was a man, naked, and covered in burns. Everyone crowded close around to get a look, when his eyes shot open, he gasped and vomited up more of the viscous fluid, croaked out something that may have been words, then immediately fell unconscious again.

The man lay in a hospital bed, wrapped from head to toe in bandages. Tikal sat there, along with Jacques and Tiri. The doctor - the only doctor left in Panacea - was a Caldari man named Dr. Ting. He was old and had three children, two of whom had already left Cooperation. “It doesn’t look good,” Dr. Ting said. “He’s suffered severe burns over his entire body. It’s almost like he was boiled alive.”

“The reentry,” Jacques said. “It must have heated the pod fluid. Boiled him alive.”

“Well, not boiled,” Dr. Ting replied. “Since he is still very much alive. Though perhaps not for long.”

“What do you mean?” Tiri wondered. “We got him here. Can’t you help him?”

The doctor shook his head, then shrugged. “I don’t… I’m not sure. I don’t have the supplies and skill to deal with this.” He sighed. “We should call CONCORD. Have them send doctors to come help.”

“No,” the man groaned. “No CONCORD.”

Everyone was taken aback. “You’re awake?” Dr. Ting said, checking the IV that should be keeping the man in a blissful, pain free unconsciousness. It was definitely filled with the correct drugs and hooked into the man’s veins.

“Tougher than I look,” the man said, his voice scratched and gravely, perhaps burned by the fluid he had ingested.

Dr. Ting was moving to replace the IV bag with something stronger. “If you don’t get more help, you’ll die,” Tikal said. “You need help, man. Nothing on this planet can help you. You’ve gotta get off.”

“Other way,” the man said.

Jacques shook his head. “All we have is the CONCORD distress beacon. The only other thing is to wait for the supply ship.”

“I can wait.”

“That’ll be three weeks,” Jacques told the man. “You’ll never make it.”

Suddenly, the man’s eyes rolled back into his head and he let out a loud, pained gurgle. Dr. Ting quickly hooked up the new IV and jammed a needle into his arm. After a moment, the man’s eyes closed and he fell into unconsciousness.

“Maybe he’s a pirate,” Tiri suggested.

“Even more reason to contact CONCORD,” Dr. Ting insisted. “I can’t treat him effectively. And if he’s a pirate, we should turn him over to the authorities.”

“But what if he’s not a pirate?” Tikal said.

“Then he’d have no reason to be afraid of CONCORD,” Jacques said. “We need to call them. Now.”

“We don’t know the whole story,” Tikal said. “If we did, we could do something. But we don’t. For all we know, this guy is in trouble, and CONCORD is the cause of it. Maybe there’s a crooked cop. Maybe something else entirely! But how often does a capsuleer crash into a planet?”

No one could answer that. No one could possibly know that. Capsuleers were still strange, distant creatures to them. Myths, almost. Stories told to frighten children, like the Murdroid and Giant Space Whales. They had no idea how to deal with one. No one on all of Cooperation would.

“The best I can do is keep him pain free for a few days,” Dr. Ting said. “After that, no amount of drugs I can give him will keep him alive. Not without a proper cellular regenerator.”

Everyone sat in silence for a long moment. “Well, we’ll see what we can do,” Tikal said. “If we can’t find some other way in three days, we’ll call CONCORD. Deal?” No one said anything, until Tiri eventually put her hand out. Tikal took it. Jacques followed, then the doctor. They all shook as one.

It took less than a day. An atmospheric shuttle sat down at the city’s space port. No one was prepared for it. Once again, the entire city gathered to find out what was going on. They remained in their separate groups; Tikal standing alone among the Minmatar, Jacques with the Gallente, Tiri with her Amarrians, and Dr. Ting with his fellow Caldari.

When the shuttle doors opened, a pair of men wearing full combat armor and wielding blaster rifles exited. Behind them emerged a well-dressed Caldari man with slicked-back hair and a dangerous smile.

Everyone could immediately tell he was a capsuleer, even though the only one they’d seen before had been burned and blistered. He carried himself with such self confidence. It was impossible not to know.

“Excuse me,” he said in a voice cultured to invoke subservience. “Is there an official I can speak with?”

The people looked at each other. Any of them could be considered an official in some sense, though none of them had any real powers. The city had no more population than a small town. They didn’t even bother to elect a mayor any more, not that anyone really cared to run.

Swallowing heavy, Tikal took a step forward. “I guess I’d be one of those,” he said.

The man smiled at him. “Good, good! Now, I am sure you know why I’m here,” he said.

Of course Tikal knew. Everyone had already figured it out. “I’m not sure I do, sir,” Tikal said.

Now the man frowned, as if disappointed that Tikal would try to play him. “The capsule that crashed here yesterday. The occupant. Take us to him.” He smiled again.

Tikal looked back at the gathered residents of Panacea, to see if any would do anything. None did. They merely watched him expectantly. He turned back to the capsuleer. “I’m afraid we can’t do that,” he said. “Not without knowing what’s going on.”

The man’s face twitched, as if about to frown, but he suppressed it. “Of course,” the capsuleer said. “I’m Articus Trall. That man is my friend, Magnus Chepper. There was a fight over this planet the other day. I thought he got podded, but he never cloned. So we came back and tracked the ion trail. Discovered he’d crashed in your…” The man couldn’t quite hide his grimace. “Lovely city,” he finished.

Tikal nodded. It sounded believable. “Are you with CONCORD?” he blurted.

Articus laughed sharply. “No, I’m not with CONCORD.”

“Are you a pirate?”

Articus smiled and shook his head. “What a jump. Straight from CONCORD to being a pirate?”

“I’m just asking, sir,” Tikal said. He turned back to the people. He looked down and saw Tiri and Dr. Ting and Jacques all standing together, talking to each other. Tiri saw him looking and smiled and nodded at him. He turned back to Articus. “Alright, we’ll get your friend. But I think it’s best if we bring him here. We…” he looked at the men with the weapons. “Don’t really appreciate weapons in the city.”

“Very well,” Articus said. “Just make it quick.”

“I don’t think he’s telling the truth,” Tikal said. “He doesn’t seem trustworthy.”

“Why do you say that?” Dr. Ting snapped. “Because he’s Caldari?”

“Of course not!” Tikal snapped. “I don’t think he and Magnus, if that is our guy’s name, are friends.”

“Well, what else are we supposed to do?” Jacques asked. “We can’t call CONCORD, and someone claiming to be his friend shows up. I say we turn him over.”

“We should ask Magnus,” Tiri said. “Wake him up.”

“No,” Dr. Ting said. “The strain might kill him!”

“And so might Articus,” Tiri protested. “We need to find out if Articus is telling the truth or not! If he is, we turn him over. Otherwise, we don’t.”

“And how are we supposed to stop him?” Jacques wondered. “We can’t fight a capsuleer. For all we know, his friends are in orbit, waiting to bombard us.”

“We’ll deal with it,” Tikal said.

Magnus gasped to consciousness and immediately began to moan in pain. “Magnus!” Tikal said. “Magnus!” The man turned to him and looked. “That’s your name?” He nodded, though he grit his teeth through the pain and started to moan again.

“Magnus, you have to concentrate and listen to me,” Tikal said. “There’s a man here, his name is Articus Trall. He says he’s your friend.”

Magnus shook his head. “No,” he croaked. “Enemy.”

“Shit,” Tikal snapped. “Ok. We won’t let him take you.”

Magnus sighed through his groans and seemed to relax a bit. “Good,” he answered. “Don’t trust him.”

“I won’t,” Tikal said. He turned to Tiri and Dr. Ting. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know,” Dr. Ting said. “But I need to put Magnus back under, or he’s going to die.”

“That’s it!” Tiri said. “We can tell Articus that Magnus is dead. He’ll believe us!”

“He’ll want to see the body,” Tikal said.

“That’s right, I will.” Everyone spun. Articus Trall was standing there, along with his two guards. Jacques was standing beside them. “Move out of my way.”

Tikal remained where he was. “No! We told you to stay at the space port!”

“To deceive me,” Articus replied. “Luckily, this fine Gallente fellow was kind enough to inform me of your plot.”

“Jacques!” Tiri gasped. “How could you?”

Jacques shrugged. “I want to get out of this hell hole too,” he said. “Articus told me he’d take me with him. Give me a job on his ship. It’s a long sight better than living out my days on a dying colony.”

“You could have left,” Tikal said through gritted teeth. “Like I was going to.”

Jacques laughed. “And go where? You know why most people aren’t ever heard from again after they leave? It’s because they have nothing when they go. And no matter where they end up, they still have nothing. At least this way, I’ll have something!”

“That’s right,” Articus said. “Hell, I’ll take all four of you with me if that’ll get you to move out of the way. I’d rather not have to have my men kill unarmed planet dwellers.”

“I’m not leaving,” Tikal said. “I’ve got friends here, now. There is something here worth staying for.”

Tikal looked at Tiri. “Sorry,” she said. “I… I’m not going with him. But I don’t want to get killed.” She took a step away from the bed.

Tikal turned back to Articus. He stared at the man, then to his guards. Finally, he took a step away. Articus smiled. “Good choice.” He took a step forward, pulled a blaster pistol from his pocket, put it on Magnus’s head, and pulled the trigger. “Bye bye, old friend.”

Articus turned back with a wicked grin on his face, grabbed a stunned Jacques by the collar, and led him out of the room. “Ta-ta!” Articus laughed as he left.

Tikal turned to Tiri, who had sunk to the ground in shock. Dr. Ting had gone pale, but simply shook his head and walked over to the body and pulled a sheet over it.

Tikal walked out of the room. So much for Cooperation.

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