“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 4
Darren grumbled softly.
He was getting a lot of wide eyed looks from the throng of various aliens he essentially towered over, though they may have just not have been able to help it with eyes the size of grapefruit in their heads. Accordingly, it was surprisingly dark inside the station, like a mall after closing . . . if the mall was made entirely of brushed steel, it was after hours, and largely populated by little grey men.
The only light he could see was coming from behind recessed panels in the walls, or from the glowing holographic signs floating in mid-air. He couldn’t read any of it, and looking at the wares on display in each of them didn’t help either. The only thing he recognized was a shop that was selling what looked like toy ray guns from the 60’s – except judging by the large amount of metal bars, locks, and what he guessed were security cameras, they weren’t toys.
The crowd parted around him and Cas like a bow wave as they passed the ‘ray-gun’ store, and though he could hear intermittent chatter, his translator was struggling to keep up with it all. Lot’s of complicated discussions about . . . things he didn’t understand. The translator kept giving out these long, flat tones that indicated there wasn’t an equivalent for the concept in his language. The word “big” kept coming through a lot, so he supposed a good number of them were talking about him. It was actually probably the only thing keeping him from losing his shit, frankly, because they all looked creepy as hell. Spindly limbs, almost glossy, tight skin stretched across skeletal frames. Most of them had these goggles on too, with really heavy tint. The weirdest bit was that the ones that didn’t had these huge, midnight black eyes with little white flecks in them…
It was like looking at stars – If it weren’t so damned disconcerting it’d actually be oddly beautiful. Not in like, a weird sex way though!
He shuddered internally at the thought he couldn’t quite suppress in time. They all had wrist-thingies that he guessed were some kind of computer, but so incredibly small as defy belief. They looked like medical bracelets for people who had severe allergies, except for all the . . . hologram stuff that came out of them.
“Hey . . . uhh . . . Cas?” He glanced over at the slightly glowing not-actually-a-girl that was leading him through the crowd.
Her tone rankled with him. The way she spoke to him was the same way you’d talk to a five year old who won’t quit eating paste, but as far as he could see, he’d been pretty fucking amazing at handling all of this bullshit.
“So . . . what is a . . . medium cargo kinetic whatever?”
She smiled at him – That smile.
He knew that smile far too well.
The smile that folks gave him when he said he was in construction.
The smile they gave when he said that college just wasn’t for him – it was an odd mixture of contempt, assured superiority, and pity.
“It’s a largely automated position, but, the short version is you move things that need to be moved as requested.”
He had always believed that hitting women wasn’t right, and it was only a strict moral code and a begrudging respect for high voltage that kept him from slapping that smug grin off her stupid face. He sighed, and kept trudging.
“Well, what about the pay?”—Zarniac was exhausted.
He’d been on his feet for almost an hour now, running, fetching, making deals, and getting things sorted with the port authority.
Yes, the Indomitable Voyager was going to need a dual craft hanger space.
Yes, it did still run on deuterium based fuel.
No, it wasn’t in need of repairs.
Yes*, it’s always been shaped like that*.
He wanted to just slump down in his recovery pod and sleep for a 18 hours, but he couldn’t, not yet. He was waiting for the C.A.S.I.I. to show up with this . . . ‘Duh-rhen’ . . . or something. Low intelligence, but basic scans returned a remarkably robust biology . . . as long as the price was right. He looked at what to be at least 2,000 kilograms of foodstuffs, survey probes, tools, and monitoring equipment that had been dropped off by the auto-delivery system.
Everything he needed was basically setting on his front doorstep, except he had to sell the cargo loader to afford all of it . . . he pressed his fingers to his temples, trying to stem the headache that was forming. He was fairly certain that this was a parable of some kind in the making. He adjusted his sun-goggles again, and idly let his gaze wander across the ship – his ship, sort of. It was old, a brassy copper colored hull with a wide delta wing shape. Not a hard angle anywhere on it, it was meant for space and atmospheric flight.
Most of it was a thermo-resistive alloy that had all of the thermal conduction and expansive properties of a ceramic, but all of the mechanical properties of a moderately ductile hardened alloy. If he ever pancaked a landing . . . he’d go splat on the inside of the thing before it did any real damage to the hull.
The last owners had been a group of Jandoorians ‘talent scouts’, and even those bird brained idiots hadn’t been able to really damage it, and they parked it in the corona of a mid stage red giant when they tried to ‘eyeball’ an FTL shift. The life support failed, of course, and everyone on board died, but the ship was fine. Nothing a deep clean didn’t fix… at least that’s what he was told when he bought the flying crate.
It looked . . . like a bird, sort of. If you caught that bird in the middle of a dive.
A proud nose jutting forward, where the bridge was. A streamlined body, where the crew, cargo, and life-support was housed. Two swept back wings, each holding a cool-fusion reactor that put out enough power to subvert the speed-limit of the universe, if only barely. She didn’t fly fast, but she flew far, and she did it with style.
He grinned a little to himself.
She was an ancient, outdated, unwieldy, fuel guzzling crate with FTL engines. It broke constantly, parts were hard to find, and most of the repairs he had to do himself, but he’d be damned if it didn’t look magnificent parked in the hanger. Tilly was only a captain because of his family connections, and didn’t have a damn clue about how to do his job right, but he had fucking great taste. There were few unknowns left in the galaxy, and even fewer unknowns that needed to be investigated by sentient hands, but he was proud to do it. Proud to do it, and glad he got to do it in a ship like this.
“Excuse me, are you Zarniac the Lesser?”
He was so lost in thought, he nearly had a heart attack.
Darren hadn’t liked the number Cas gave him as a prospective salary. Of course, he really didn’t have any leverage, and they both knew it. Another problem was he had absolutely no idea how much that money actually bought.
She said that if he spent his money ‘judiciously’, and wasn’t fined for any poor behavior, he’d be able to afford a trip back to Earth in 6 years. Hell of an indentured servitude, but was something. The sad part was when he realized how little was left waiting for him:
- A manual labor job he’d been fired from by now.
- Rent that went up every year, and a paycheck that just never seemed to quite cover it.
- A truck so ancient it might have just been a retrofitted steam engine . . . considering how much it smoked and rattled.
- Credit card debt, an embittered ex, and a family that didn’t understand that just because you could pay your bills on time didn’t mean you were rich.
“Hey Cas, why are there no windows?” He gestured to the walls of the elevator they were in, which certainly felt like it was moving fast, even if he couldn’t prove it.
“Structural weakness. Plus there’s nothing to really look at. The station is positioned in what is colloquially considered ‘Dark Space’ outside the galactic plane. There’s a long explanation, but the simplified version is basically that FTL travel becomes easier when your travel trajectory doesn’t have any gravity wells to navigate through and around.”
Darren balked a little. “So . . . I’m outside the galaxy right now?”
Cas shrugged. “In as much as the street outside a shop is outside the shop.”
He took a moment to revel in it, before breaking out into a chuckle. “My guidance counselor can suck a fat one, because I think I just amounted to something: Farthest human from Earth.” He grinned, crossing his arms across his chest, and leaning against the wall of the lift. “Neil Armstrong can take a page out of my book, if he wants.”Cas let him revel in it, just smiling and nodding. Everything he just said seemed to have cultural implications . . . and she wasn’t exactly sure what they were. It seemed that Darren was comforting himself by taking pride in that he had gone further from his homeworld than any of his species before him. Getting exceptionally lost didn’t seem like something to be proud of, but she’d been fairly rough in her treatment of him thus far, and figured she’d just let him have this.The doors opened with an electronic chiming sound that reminded Darren oddly of an office building. As the two of them stepped out, the enormity of what he was doing finally caught up to him. Dozens of craft, in all sorts of exotic shapes and colors were latched firmly to overhead cranes. A massive hangar that would put the Boeing factory in Everett Washington to shame just rolled away in front of him for what had to be at least 2 miles. He let out a low whistle.
“So I’m going to be . . . a space longshoreman . . . that’s pretty damn awesome, actually.” He chuckled to himself. “Meeting aliens . . . living in space . . . that’s . . .”
A grin started to spread. “That’s fucking something.”
They both began walking down the central path of the hangar, which was mostly empty, save for courier drones rolling past in specially marked out lanes, or overhead. Every time one went over him, the hair on his neck stood up, and he felt a tingle in his scalp, but that was it. The ships themselves were just as eclectic, just as insane as anything out of a science fiction movie he’d seen. Some were jagged, but sleek and dangerous looking. Some looked like scrap metal thrown together from a few paces away. Some were huge, some were small, some looked like they were modern art sculptures.
“Excuse me, are you Zarniac the Lesser?”
He heard a quiet yelp of surprise, and a dull thump as he whirled around, to see a small grey alien lying in a heap on the floor, clearly having just fallen out of a folding chair, with Cas standing next to him, looking deceptively demure.
Zarniac groaned as he pulled himself to his feet, rubbing his elbow with one of his hands. That was going to lead to a great deal of internal bleeding . . . he might actually have to get the onboard medical AI to see to it.
“That would be me.” He grimaced in pain as he righted his chair, and slumped down into it again. “I see you- . . . whoah.”
That was a lot larger a creature than he expected. And . . . whoa. If he had to pick one word to describe it, that would be dense. And with such a small head too . . . It was wearing a jumpsuit that was loose, baggy, and station issue, but damn. The bone structure alone screamed high gravity world, except it was about three times too large for that. It had to be pushing 2 meters tall, and at least 100 kilo’s.
“You uhh . . . how much do you weigh?” He managed to get out, still sort of balking at the slabs of meat stacked on slabs of meat. It’s hands were simply massive, and the hide on them was so thick it was visibly cracked. Didn’t seem to be bothering the big bastard though. He said something in a deep, booming language that Zarniac didn’t understand, but the extremely overbuilt translator on his throat boomed out a translated reply.
“[Duh-rehn not know weight. Big . . . yes.]” Zarniac blinked a few times.
Ohhhh . . . he’s one of those aliens.
He cleared his throat. “I . . . see that. You want to work for me?”
This Duh-Rehn nodded. “[Yus.]”
Zarniac mimicked the motion. “Grrreat. Umm, do you want to start now? With that over there? As a sort of trial? You load the ship, I see how long it takes you, and then decide whether or not to hire you based on that?”
The creature nodded. “[Oh-Kay,]” and thudded its way over to the massive heap of cargo, hefted about it’s body weight in one go, and walked it up the ramp into the cargo hold like it was carrying a stack of news-flyers while Zarniac realized that it’s neck was bigger around than his waist. Considering the tax write off he would get for employing a lower intelligence sentient . . . this deal almost paid for itself. Not quite, but close.
He expected the thing to stop for a bit when it reached the top of the ramp, but it set the crates down with surprising gentleness, trudged back down the ramp, and did it again.
Zarniac was winded just watching this thing go . . . it was like a machine. Except incredibly simple minded. And huge. He didn’t believe in gods, but he was glad that physical features atrophied as the intelligence of creatures developed, because an entire species of these that were smart would be dangerous.—-Cas sighed.
The translator was crap, and only carried over the simplest of intents . . . but it seemed to be facilitating communication well enough. And if her body language profiler was working right, this ‘Zarniac’ was mixture of awed and terrified.
“So, you’ll hire him?” She knew he would.
“Y-yeah . . . can I see his . . . file?” The Centaurian was transfixed by the display of raw physical prowess going on before them. Cas had to admit . . . she didn’t mind taking it all in with her optical sensors either. A quick tuning of the observation wavelength . . . and now she could watch the musculature he had ripple and contract so wonderfullywithout the jumpsuit in the way. She had started recording it when she picked up three Jandoorians moving toward them, seemingly with a purpose.
Darren thought the translator was responding a bit too . . . quickly.
He’d tried to be polite to the little grey man, which was clearly injured, the way it was cradling its elbow – but the translator was worrisome. It had taken “Well, I’m not quite sure of my exact weight, somewhere up there in the 220 pound region.” and turned it into a much shorter, and more clipped expression. The rest of his answers had been reduced to one or two syllables. Maybe their language was super efficient or something . . . in any case, moving boxes sucked, but the lower gravity on the station made it a lot easier.
It took him about 9 trips to get all of it up there, but he’d done it in good order. He hadn’t rushed it, thinking it was probably better to be careful with everything than to get it done fast. No telling what was in any of these boxes. As he set the last box down, he started to hear what sounded like . . . squawking?
He paced down the ramp towards the three black and red vulture looking creatures that appeared to be in the midst of a heated discussion with a very uncomfortable looking grey alien and . . . a bored and disinterested Cas. Darren started towards them, hoping that getting closer would help the translator start working, because as it stood . . . he was just getting flat tones that meant no translation available.
“[ . . . not listening Zarn, I don’t care. You can lie and beg and swindle all you want, but there are fees. Fees that you haven’t paid, so can’t afford this . . . overblown simian here. You know, I’m going to help you make this decision.]”
A small greyish metal piece appeared in his hand as Darren walked up, and he didn’t realize what it was until his right knee exploded in agony with a crack, and a flash of white light.—“L-let’s be reasonable about this Wind-Sliver!?” Zarniac put his hands in the air as the deranged Jandoorian waved a Vel-Tech Short-Focus Kinetic Pulse cannon in his face. He could tell by the bloodshot eyes that Sliver was strung out on some kind stimulant, and that was why his speech was so strange earlier. He wasn’t smug – or trying to be intimidating – he was spun as fuck on some weird synthetic adrenal supplement.
The C.A.S.I.I. stepped between him and it, a tired, almost disdainful expression on its simulated face. “Indeed, be reasonable. Discharging that weapon is a class 2 local crime, with the damage you’ve done to that sentient being a class 1 local crime. You have-”
The report of the weapon cried out again once, twice, and then three times more as the AI was hurled backwards across the deck. Fist sized holes clean through Cas’s chest appeared, as she let loose a high pitched scream of digital pain. Sliver clicked his beak in anger as his two associates, exchanging worried glances, began to back away from him. “Reasonable? You mewling little spit of prey creature . . . reasonable would be just doing what I said, so I don’t have to-”
Duh-rehn’s meaty fist came down square on Wind-Sliver’s avian skull.
Zarniac heard every bone in the vulture-hominid’s neck shatter, and watched in shock and horror as it’s head was stuffed into its chest with a disgusting, dull crunch. Everyone froze, except for the C.A.S.I.I, which was too busy writhing in pain on the ground from being shot, even Duh-rehn . . . who was clearly the most surprised of all of them.
The Jandoorians snapped into action first, both of them reaching for kinetic pulse weapons on their belts before Sliver’s drug-addled corpse hit the floor. They were fast, but . . . the pulse weapons just seemed to piss off the walking meat-tank that was definitely getting hired if they survived this insanity. Zarniac threw himself behind his folding chair, as pitiful as it was, cowering as the ‘creature’ went to ‘work.’ It didn’t move fast, but it took 5 KP shots to the chest and face, crushed the polymer weapon in its grip, and ripped the arm off of the offending gangster without so much as staggering.
He had to admire the bravery of the Jandoorian that leapt on Duh-rehn’s back, clawing at anything it could sink its talons into, scoring deep cuts on his back and shoulders. He admired it for a very brief period though, as one of those terrifying hands found purchase on its neck. It was definitely dead by the time Duh-rehn slammed it into the deck, what with the crushing grip severing its spinal cord, but that wasn’t enough. It has the nerve to make Duh-rehn bleed, and that just wasn’t going to stand. Again and again he hoisted the bird-man, and again and again he brought it down with a bone-shattering slam. More feathers, more down, and more blood kept flying into the air, until there was a veritable mist settling on the bloodspattered ‘Earthling.’ Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the heaving, bloodied human let go, the Jandoorian’s body little more than a shredded sack of bone dust and gore smeared across 4 meters of deck plating.The wail of sirens and battle-klaxons began to fill the air, and as Zarniac realized that his leg was bent the wrong way at the knee, he silently regretted everything about this day.