Pioneers

Chapter 1: Round Table

An endless stretch of violet sand and tundra went on for what seemed like an eternity. At least, it would have if not for the ceaseless dust storms that contently raged on without rest, disrupting any modicum of visibility.

Presently crawling up a hill, gigantic heavy-duty treads guzzled up and pulverize the unsettled ground before it. Undeterred by the dry squalls, it hauled its mighty cargo tirelessly.

Hoisted upon the treads, a steal rampart rested in equilibrium. While the surface itself was as varied as the ever-changing direction of the winds, the upper levels of the crawler would shift and sway with loud winding servos to remain at level. The mounted structure was complex, multi-leveled, and as sandblasted as the treads that carried it. Not even an earthquake would down this man-made behemoth.

Inside the belly of the moving structure, between two opposing and daunting observation widows stood a man at the head of a round table fit to seat eight. At present however, only three others joined him.

The standing figure wore the same silver jumper that they all did. Despite this, his rigid posture and intimidating stature resonated the type of authority that the others saw no need to challenge or imitate.

"Maggie," The older man spoke up, with a disgruntled scowl. "Where are the others?" He tiredly lamented, the deep lines on his forehead practically matching his frown at this point.

The woman who was presently filing her nails glanced up at the domineering individual beside her. She blinked in confusion, glancing slowly between the man and the rest of the group.

"Hm?" She questioned, lowering her file. "Was that… Was that my responsibility?" She questioned with a cocked brow, seeming genuinely befuddled by the other's comment.

"I told them we would have another meeting this afternoon." Charles brought up, holding his hands properly behind his back. "And, I told you to remind them about it this morning." He aimed to refresh, staring down at her firmly. It was the kind of stare that demanded response, but there was no real malice behind it.

The woman grew a goofy smirk. "Which I did." She chipperly reminded. "But Charles, just because you tell them to do something doesn't mean they—"

"I have taken it upon myself to instill order in this situation by taking command." Charles affirmed, cutting the other off. "Disregarding my instructions is proportionate to disobeying the very structure that has allowed our society as a whole to thrive and prosper." The man grandstanded.

"That's all well and good Charles," the woman brushed off, clearly not sharing the other's sterner outlook. "but, the thing is, you woke up in one of those fancy pods two days ago just like the rest of us." She was all too happy to remind. "Just because you're the only one with a—"

"A distinguished military background." The older deemed necessary to clarify.

"Right. One of those." Maggie casually conceded, choosing her battles wisely. "But amidst a group of borderline amnesiacs, that doesn't really mean much."

Charles flared his nostrils. "But, I—"

"Don't recall a thing besides your name and profession." Maggie finished for him. "Same goes for all of us." The fast-talking woman pointed out. "For instance, I know I'm a journalist." She reintroduced, gesturing toward herself.

After, her prying eyes settled on the man a couple chairs down from her.

The seated man was hunched over to a degree most would find unhealthy. His glasses, already taped back together after a clumsy fall from yesterday. There was a food tray in front of him. At the moment, however, he was currently using its partitions to separate individual salt packets.

"We know Steward's a scientist of, something or other." Maggie mentioned, moving right on the other last of their present company. "Laurie's a, a, a…" Snapping her fingers a few times in an attempt to jog her memory, she gave up before staring across the table at the woman opposite her. "I'm sorry dearie, I can be a bit scatterbrained from time to time. You said you were… I want to say, baker?"

Taking a moment to stop gnawing on her fingernails, Laurie looked up at the woman who addressed her.

"Chef." She corrected, softly. Lazing about, she started staring out the glass behind her at the indistinguishable yet continuously wavering landscape. "It probably explains why I'm so hungry all the time." The woman commented, more along the lines of thinking out loud than joining in on the conversation.

"Right!" Maggie agreed, clasping her hands together. "Makes sense to me."

"Well none of this makes any damn sense at all to me!" Charles spoke out, trying to utilize his booming voice to regain control as he slammed a fist on the tabletop.

"Really?" Maggie leaned back in a frail surprise. "Maybe we should throw a meeting?" She kindly suggested.

"That's precisely what I—!" Stopping himself, Charles took a deep slow breath. Closing his eyes briefly, his heavy exhale rumbled his chest. "You're intentionally trying to get a rise out of me. That's not going to work." He informed, restraining himself while standing tall once again.

"Oh, phooey. He's figured it out." She teased, placing her hands daintily over her lap.

"Fine. We'll start without them for now." Charles decided, relinquishing his grievance from earlier for the sake of nursing a growing headache. "I'll begin. Last evening, I monitored the provisions—the fridge in the kitchen area directly upstairs." He clarified before resuming. "I have confirmed through testing that its contents are restocked the instant the door is shut all the way. You can hear mechanisms go off from the interior the instant the restocking happens, but I've yet to catch the swap firsthand." He explained thoroughly. "The fridge is built into the wall, so it's likely the proper storage is located somewhere behind it. Unfortunately, the door to the adjacent room is still locked. I've tried taking the inner lining or panels out from the fridge, but I've had no luck. For the time being, we should try to ration what we have as we have no way to tell how much stock we actually have at our disposal."

"Very prudent, General." The talkative woman teased donating the other a playful and light golf clap. "Look at you, testing your little theory via trial and everything."

"Thank you, Maggie." Charles coarsely accepted. "Though I would appreciate your positivity without the sarcasm." Sliding his gaze beyond his contrary thinker, they settled on the next in line. "Speaking of the scientific approach… Professor Stewart, perhaps you have some findings to share of your own?" He suggested, motioning for the other to speak.

The scientist jumped, startled for no particular reason. Rushing up into a stand, he quickly saluted before embarrassingly pushing the hand back down to his side.

"R-Right. Um…" After a pause, he adjusted his glasses. "I, um, have confirmed that we currently reside aboard a machine of sorts. Thank you." Sitting back down, he busied himself once again with his segregated seasonings.

Glancing beside her, Maggie took notice of the authoritarian's clenching fists. His face, showing a fair bit more aggression from when she was pushing his buttons just before. Leaning over, she tapped Stewart on the shoulder. Even her light touch proving enough to shake him to an extent.

"Stewart, honey," The woman began softly, as not to fluster the timid man any further. "I think Charles was hoping that someone with your… technical background would be able to shed some insight in ways that we couldn't."

"O-Oh. I see." The scientist agreed, nodding his head much more than necessary to convey understanding. Getting ready to stand back up, the woman's hand urged him to remain seated. "Well, um, this is only a hypothesis as the engine room and bridge are blocked off from us, but I think it's safe to determine that whatever is powering this machine has a great supplementary resource. While clearly not solar power, obviously, whatever it is has been powering this vessel for seven, perhaps even eight months."

"How do you figure that professor?" Charles challenged with crossed arms.

"G-General wear and tear." Stewart explained with a gulp. "Um, if we examine the exterior pieces from the observatory deck windows, uh, either of them, you can see the amount of degradation on the treads and corrosion of the surrounding metal. My knowledge of the oxidation process is limited—tertiary at best, but, um, that's my estimation."

"Thank you, Charles. That's-I'm sure the timetable you gave us could very helpful, somehow." Maggie vaguely praised, gently patting the soft-spoken man on the back.

"Ms. Laurie." Charles addressed next. "Have you discovered anything of value?"

"No." The cook denied passively, eyes still transfixed on the muted scenery beyond the glass.

"Fantastic." The military man groaned with the tone akin to surrender.

"You never asked me what I discovered." The journalist noted, flashing a smile.

"Dare I?" Charles begged to question, massaging the migraine behind his temples.

"The third and fourth floor don't have any power." Maggie revealed leaning comfortably in her chair.

"How can you tell?" Charles questioned. "Every door above the second floor is locked. They're a collective of hallways as far as the interior's concerned." He stressed with a light frustration.

"It's too quiet." The talkative woman explained as though stating something obvious. "You can hear the electricity all over the rest of this place—the humming of the walls, the buzzing of the lights. If you press your ears to the doors down here you can even hear it from the other side. Doesn't work upstairs though."

"Y-You can't actually hear electricity." Stewart explained, dragging his attention up from his project for the first time without being called or physically disturbed. "What you're referring to is a, a common misconception. The sound from light fixtures is actually caused from an ill seated socket. As for the humming of the walls, I assume it has something to do with the air-filtration systems aboard the vessel. Logically, it wouldn't make sense to supply air to any unmanned sections of the transport." The man elaborated upon before returning to his project.

"Well," Charles considered the prospect, rubbing his chin in contemplation. "I suppose that means that if we can restore the power, we'll gain access to the upper levels. Maybe then we can discover a clue as to what the hell's going on." The man surmised. "Fine." He decreed. "Maggie, try and gather some of the others. I'll perform another sweep of the observation deck. Worst comes to worse, maybe I can reroute power from elsewhere to the upper floors."

Standing up and stretching, the woman rolled her head from side to side.

"I'm starting to think you don't want me around." She pouted, teasing the uptight man one last time before her departure.

About to take her leave, a hand grabbed her by the arm. Glancing over her shoulder, she stared as Charles stepped closer, leaning in.

"One more thing," He added, his voice much more of a whisper. "I keep a look out, but I can't be everywhere at once. If I'm not around, try to keep a watch on Stewart for me. I can't put my finger on it, but something doesn't sit right with me about that one." He revealed, glancing cautiously over the woman at the man in question.

"Stewart?" Maggie parroted back in disbelief, doing a poor job of stifling a laugh. "The man looks like he'd get spooked by a goldfish." The woman remarked, giggling after imagining her own comparison.

Ignoring the woman's criticism, Charles kept a vigil watch on the meek man of researcher. Despite his probing stare, the target of his focus never so much as glanced over at him.

"It's a gut feeling." The soldier advocated.

"A huh." Maggie incredulously agreed. "Hey, Stewart!" She called out from across the table, turning around with a wide bright expression. "What are you doing over there exactly? I'm just curious." The woman inquired.

"I'm counting the individual number of grains of salt in each packaged container." The scientist explained with a neutral tone. He was so devoted to his work, he didn't so much as raise his head in answering. "The factory packaging claims that each contain two-hundred eighty-eight milligrams. Though, I have a theory it's actually closer to two-hundred eighty-seven point five. If I'm correct, the implications could be unfathomable." The man explained, counting the granule bits piece by piece.

"I'm sorry Charles." Maggie apologized, facing forward again. "You were right. He's clearly a menace." She wryly retorted with a flat expression.

"Fine." The man yielded, rolling his eyes. "Just go." He labored, turning his attention to the rest of the observation deck.

"Aye, aye, captain." The chatty woman lightheartedly remarked.

Taking her leave, Maggie walked along the wide windows on her way to the closest of the two doors. Staring through the thick and dirty glass, her sharp eyes were caught by something other than the dull terrain. Etched onto the side of the vessel in long since faded paint were two words in gargantuan and bold printing.

They had no meaning to her. She thought the same thing the first time its presence caught her attention. Yet, she found herself reading it in her head every time she looked outside all the same.

STEEL PIONEER.