• Brad

Cuckoo Chuck

It's been a while, but we're back with something cool to share! The following is a short story for one of the NPC Colonists who join you over the course of One Lonely Outpost. There will ultimately be a short story made for every NPC, but we're intending on making most of them a Kickstarter reward prior to the game's release. They also serve as an example of the writing quality of our dedicated writer on the project. So, without further ado, meet Cuckoo Chuck:


Chuck leans heavily on his cane, nose twitching as he rubs his mustache. He finishes off the long end of said mustache with a twirl, and then mutters to himself, "Always make an entrance."


His hand shakes a little as he leans on his cane, taking quick, shuffling steps forward into the spaceport that looms ahead. The massive structure was a set of interlocking domes with a large flat area next to it for ships to land, and it sat on the equator of a desert planet whose life consists of scrubby bushes that hardly need water. And far, far too many people for Chuck's taste. There's a maximum number for living a quiet life, and a hundred thousand far exceeds it.


Chuck taps his cane as he pauses to glance around. Hopefully he won't have to use the special features in his cane, or his retirement will begin messily. Fortunately, whenever people even get suspicious, most take a look at Chuck's gauntlet, the gold glove which covers his entire left hand and forearm, which is far more demure in its operation.

Spacers, pilots, delivery men and women, and the occasional passenger slide right past Chuck without their eyes ever settling on him for longer than half a second. Part of it, he knows, is discomfort; he looks elderly enough to be non-threatening, and crazy enough to make people want to avoid him. The look serves him well. It gives him time to take special note of the gritty details.


Concrete everywhere, with plastisteel to accent the cheap make. Screens in just the places required by law, other than what local merchants have paid for – the local gauntlet shop upgraded an entire wall with a screen to show his products. Maintenance? Just clean enough in all the obvious places, with grime hiding in the corners. Perfect. There's a mediocre bureaucrat in charge who thinks he can cut corners.


Chuck had always been good at finding those cut corners, and slipping himself inside.

He eased his way past the food court, but a flash of red caught his eye after the tables and chairs begin to thin out, and he slowed out of curiosity. It sometimes amazes him how often he can be surprised after his long, adventurous life, but he never fails to take an opportunity to experience it.


A girl, no more than ten, stood before a long row of candy machines that promised deliciousness with a frown on her face. Chuck could easily see, even from here, that that frown was about to turn into something like frustrated tears. Or maybe not, he thought, reevaluating as he saw her tap her foot and fold her arms, glaring at the machine in front of her and kicking it. "Ow!"


Tap, tap.


The girl turned at the sound of Chuck's cane, blinking.


"Not working?" he asked, raising one wildly fluffy, white eyebrow.


She shook her head sullenly. "And it doesn't say it's broken!"


Chuck shuffled forward, taking a longer look at the machine with his sharp eyes. It was a simple enough thing – put in a chip, and out comes the candy via a simple spinning wheel. "Ah, it's been a while since they even tried to fix this," he said.


The little girl looked at him suspiciously. "How do you know?"


"The screws." Chuck pointed. "Have you ever noticed that after you use a gauntlet on them, the area around them tends to shine? It's the energy clearing out some of the grime as it works."


Her mouth opened soundlessly. She nodded quickly, much to Chuck's approval.


"Wherever there is a smart engineer, dear girl, there is also a bureaucrat waiting to step in to complicate things. But I think in this case, it might work to our advantage. Per standard regulations for candy delivering devices, there is an emergency way into a simple thing like this. Just in case a little hand gets in the way, say, or there's a need for food pronto." Chuck grinned at the girl, pleased to see her grin back; an adult might have retreated, with the full effect of Chuck's slightly crooked face on display. He approached the unit from the side, pressed a few buttons and then activated his gauntlet, shifting a few pieces internally around in such a way as to not set off an alarm. He noticed as he did that the little girl was watching closely, and then he stepped back. "Try again."


The girl put in another coin, and waited.


Candy spilled out by the handfuls.


"Yay!" she squealed. "Thank you!" Then she took an extra calculating look at the part of the machine Chuck had altered with his gauntlet, and begin to fiddle with her own tiny gauntlet.

Chuck smiled, this time much more softly, and let himself fade into her background, continuing on his way.


Delivery and loading zones tended to be more secure, but Chuck's gauntlet let him slip past the safeguards with nary a beep. He needed to check on his ship, and standing in line for the sake of bureaucracy was never his style. Ducking past throngs of people guiding hover carts through wide hallways with a spryness that would have surprised anyone smart enough to notice, he caught a glimpse of his beauty. Black with a red stripe, his sleek ship screamed danger - though of course with just enough scrapes and rusted bits to escape the notice of a greedy thief. Besides, her best features weren't on display.


He smiled, for a moment letting himself think of the life he finally intends to take for his own: retirement.


"This isn't my problem!" a man shouted nearby. Chuck glanced over his shoulder, finding two men standing in front of a truly mountainous pile of crates, about half of which were labeled delicate and perishable. Ah, yes, they had the certified Naturalistic trademark on them. The first man was in his forties, and the second in his twenties, but Chuck could tell from their posture that they were comfortable with each other. Long time colleagues, was his guess. Their standard gauntlets meant they were probably low to mid level workers. Responsibility without authority, in Chuck's experience.


"It's always our problem. They make it our problem," the second replied with a snort. "I'm telling you, that's why SpliceCorp food is better. It lasts longer, it's more durable in shipping –"


"It's fuzzy?"


"Only sometimes! And anyway, we wouldn't be in this mess if we didn't have to worry about all this food spoiling. And the Naturalistic food is going to extra spoil. Even if we ship all the Naturalistic stuff first."


"That means it's fresh. That freshness matters. That's why Naturalistic rules, man. Because you know you're getting back to nature and nature makes stuff delicious."

"Like SuperSpaceBars?"


Chuck snorted at the mention of the notoriously long-lasting and obnoxiously sweet candy bar.


"Shut up, I'm allowed a vice."


There's a short silence between the two men.


"So what do we do?" asks the first. "Since we don't have a choice about who makes Naturalistic or SpliceCorp and ships it where? We've only got room for half of this."


"Curse the dock manager for not doing his job?" the second suggested.


Tap, tap.


The first man looked at Chuck warily. "Can we help you?"


"On the contrary, I think I can help you," Chuck said.


To call the second man skeptical would be being polite. "You, old man?"


"Now, don't disrespect your elders, young man. We've learned a thing or two over our decades." He nodded at the boxes, which he recognized as Deliverzon Model 266 Cooling Units. Having stolen the specs at a particularly interesting period of his life, he knows quite a bit about the seemingly simple container, back from when it belonged to someone else. "Overclock the container."


Their reply was a silent bafflement.


"Now don't be dull, whippersnappers. Your idiot of a boss is running your boxes on low power, which decreases their cooling effectiveness. Increase it, and you can leave one set of boxes behind." Chuck paused. "The SpliceCorp stuff would handle that better, of course."


The two men looked at each other., "That could work.” one offered, “Then we could delay the other part of the shipment using …"


Chuck was gone by the time they looked back.


Chuck went down every hallway in the loading zone. He went to a vending machine similar to the one he'd taught the little girl to use properly, and did much the same, gathering an incredible amount of a particular kind of soda. Then he dumped it into overfilled trash cans, taking a sip here and there, because an old man needs his sugar. He took his sweet, sweet time. Sip.


He headed for the top of the spaceport next, where the small set of offices were – in order to get a view of the incoming and departing spaceships, of course, not because that was a practical place to put such a thing.


And then, tottering and ignored, he listened in.


" – I don't even know how this is possible, but instead of an extra profit from our vending machines, we're getting a loss! We've lost thousands of credits we were depending on –"


For bribes, Chuck imagined.


"Someone took off in a ship with half a delivery instead of following regulations! I mean, our local regulations specify that if a whole food delivery will spoil, we have to, er, donate it, and now our entire supply line is –"


Ah, a good day's work.


"We're getting tons of complaints about the trash overflowing! And combusting! How is that possible?"


"We allowed certain disposal in certain normal trash containers and someone dumped soda in them! They're not supposed to do that! Even if a few travelers didn't know our local system –"


As suspected.


The chief bureaucrats office was located on the very top of the spaceport, with three-quarters view. So many of the local staff were running around that Chuck sauntered in without even being stopped. They had more important things on their minds than an old man wandering into a restricted area, not that Chuck thought they had enough security guards to actually stop him to begin with. Not as busy as they were dealing with people stealing candy (that had been paid for previously, he was certain) and cordoning off the sites of minor explosions and fires.


A balding man sat at a massive, impressive desk - which didn't impress Chuck at all. It was meant to look like original Earth wood, but even from here he could tell it was a fake. Typical.


Tap, tap.


"It's the seventh of spring, isn't it?" Chuck asked nonchalantly, eyeing the ostentatious office with distaste.


"Who the hell are you?"


Chuck continued, "I do believe that means your annual inspection is due in a week. Perhaps even less, if your inspector is the sort that likes to stay on top of things." Chuck gave the bureaucrat a look, mentally dubbing him Baldy. "Some do. Some don't."


Baldy's face went red. "I won't be threatened in my own office!"


"Threatened?" Chuck looked around. "Dear me. I thought you wanted help, a help that I am particularly skilled at providing. And I do find, in my old age, that for me to do work, I need some kind of compensation in return."


"You're telling me you can fix this mess?"


Chuck smiled benevolently, knowing when to push, and when to let them come to you. "You see, I am in need of a particular item. A colonization license. Which, of course, needs to disappear shortly after it's entered. "


The man gapes at him.


"Or … you can enjoy the fruits of your lack of labor," Chuck said, gesturing at the people outsides screaming at each other.


The petty little bureaucrat folded beautifully, slumping in his chair with the defeat of a man overwhelmed. "How?"

Chuck was unable to hold back a slight smirk. “Good man,” he said insincerely. “Follow my instructions, don’t ask questions, and this mess will be cleaned up in no time. First, get me your planetary xenobiologist.” Outrage quickly shifted to confusion. “Xenobiologist? Why?”

“Remember, no questions! Now get to it!”


-----


Chuck chose a little, lonely colony with less than a half dozen colonists - more of an outpost, really. They wouldn't even know he was coming. "Always make an entrance," he muttered, and put in the coordinates.


THE END


We hope you enjoyed the short story for Chuck! Let us know what you think on discord or twitter!

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