They are Smol – and it’s a Smol World: Chapter 9

A/N: Hey everyone – sorry for the delay in posting! I was getting over some health issues that suddenly cropped up, and they really kinda just… stopped me dead in my tracks. But the troubles are behind us, and we should be back to our regular posting schedule! To make up for the lack of smol, please accept this late superpost!


– – – – – – – –

 

Gentle Expanse was an alien planet, and if this is a fact that surprises you at this point in the story, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I point it out merely because when we see Star Wars or Star Trek or Star Tzar (very popular in the 2080s) we tend to either (1) land on a hostile planet whose atmosphere is poison, temperatures are deadly, where any surface liquid is acid, or (2) Land somewhere vaguely Earth-ish, but with one or two odd plants.

Gentle Expanse was picked because it was Earthlike; The gravity was just a little heavier, the days a bit longer, but the atmosphere was basically the right composition and water flowed freely on it’s surface. There were mountains and valleys and rivers and lakes and oceans, and it’s about at that point that the similarities ended. A separate, non-terraformed planet in the goldilocks’ zone would have it’s own tree of life and it’s own way of doing things.

Seeing as how they weren’t allowed the land far from the city and civilization, they picked the furthest point from their bustling neighbors to build their homestead. It … the spires of the city rose in the distance, kilometers away, so you could pretend that you were far out, but civilization still seemed to loom close. Andres Aleman, or as his friends and family called him “Double-A”, reflected on these facts as he tested the earth. There wasn’t so much “grass” on the planet as small, crumbly… well the closest thing would be some sort of multi-hued fungus with a stiff root system, and once you got that out of the way the little critters – all names unknown to human science – skittered out of the way to show a slightly gray hard-pack earth. Double-A took his spade and struck it into the ground, it yielding like wet clay under the metal’s edge. Turning it over he found it somewhat porous and teeming with life.

“So, how does it look?”

Double-A turned towards his elder brother, Tomas, and shrugged. “Hell if I know. There’s a good ecosystem here, sure, but. I have no idea if any of this would eat roots, or if we can even plant here.”

Tomas frowned and knelt, the setting of his new home’s one large sun painting his back a vivid orange in the dimming light. He poked at the mass of dirt, watching it break apart easily under his tool. “Well. At least we won’t have issue plowing, but… is that all fungus?”

“I don’t think so. We sent ahead our specs to the UTF, and they wouldn’t just send us out here without-”

“Double-A, you still trust that the government isn’t inept. This is why you fail.”

Tomas was rewarded for his playful snark with a lump of alien soil tossed onto his shoes. “Ass.” Double-A said, taking another spade of dirt out of the land before them. “But seriously. Fungus destroys our crops, and we can’t have root-eating pests. These are basic things that would’ve been covered by the Agriculture Department of the United Terran Federation, right?”

“I’d assume so, or else this is going to be one hell of a short-lived colony.”

“So… what first? Wheat? Corn? I’m voting corn-”

“Corn tortillas are the best, but I think we might go with potato-”

Potato?! Are you MAD?” Double-A said, reeling back in somewhat-fake shock. “Latkes are heresy, and it’s physically impossible to make a mole matzah ball soup! That’s how we lost Grandpa Bimbo, God rest his bear-loving soul.”

Tomas just stared at his brother for a few moments, desperately trying to determine if he was being serious before shaking his head. “No, you idiot. They’re easy to grow, nutritionally dense, are used in multiple cultures and pretty hardy – we can sell them to basically everyone. We’ll also be able to determine with them exactly what here eats what, so we don’t waste our other seed crops. We have the budget for hydroponics, but…”

Tomas stared ahead in contemplation, the meadow stretching out from their haphazardly-built landing/homestead site. The not-fungus grass stalks swayed slightly in the breeze, a few of them opening up in “blossoms” from some external or internal stimuli that was just as alien as the landscape before him. Insects – probably? – darted from open bloom to open bloom, and in the distance strange noises of small things echoed in the encroaching dusk. The meadow continued for some acres until hitting, for lack of a better term, the “woods”; large spindly swaying growths, limbs fat and lumpy with… fruit? Sap? Tomas didn’t know. They reminded him of fat yet barren oak trees, soft-looking yet ponderously huge and heavy limbs intertwining with their neighbors for mutual support, forming almost a singular structure if you forgot to see the forest for the trees. The wind went through them, sometimes whistling, always rustling – and that, at least, was close enough to home that Tomas could appreciate the whole thing, tamping down the subconscious desire to set fire to the whole damn thing and grow proper plants in their stead.

“…fire.”

“Hmm?”

Tomas blinked and stood up, rolling his shoulders. “We should get a fire going, seeing as how it’s going to be night here soon – we can get some cooking done, keep warm and keep setting up camp.”

“Aren’t fires illegal? I mean – they made a big to-do about using light generators instead-”

“Yeah, but fuck’em. We’ve got fire suppressant gear, and it’s not like we’ll be making some sort of massive blaze. Just something to cook with, yanno?”

“Eh. Yeah, sure, I haven’t started a fire in years. We still got that chorizo?”

– = – = – = – = – =

Admiral Smalls was, first and foremost, not a small man – that joke had been made many times before, and had caused a few fights as well. At 5’11” he towered over the rest of his crew, though that was mainly due to him being seated at his station on the bridge – which, of course, necessitated that he be at the highest point to look over everyone’ shoulders. The initial un-docking of Reach and her escort was exciting, the forming of the trans-spacial field and the activation of the warp drive was historical, and the actual jump itself was-

Well. It was fun, though he’d never admit it openly. Seeing everything blow by you, punching through your home system in a matter of hours what would have taken years, if not decades, and then the great expanse. A trillion trillion points of light, moving around your ship in every direction. Each one a new star, a new galaxy, a new adventure

He sighed, dejected. That was probably the reason why the UTF refused to name any ship “Enterprise”; that call of adventure and discovery was intoxicating, but as it had been drilled into him a thousand times already, warping into systems you haven’t mapped is how you die via instantaneous deceleration. Although he’d love to land on strange new worlds, he didn’t want to do it face-first and at speeds that would vaporize him into his constituent atoms.

So he did the next best thing; piloting well-mapped space lanes that no human had done before. Still got to discover things, still got to see things before anyone else, and much like the rest of human history when some new place was “discovered”, you just had to push the locals out of the way and plant a flag to call it a day.

However, now all that was done; they warped into a new system, there was a bit of a lightshow, pictures and videos were taken and shared and now… now they just sat there in orbit, an impossibly heavy ship seemingly suspended in the heavens by the will of some god. Sure, shuttles were going to and from the surface with perfect regularity, and slowly their holds were being emptied of their cargo – both passengers and livestock – but there was nothing to do. Gentle Expanse was not a port of call, per se – it was a simple self-sustaining colony world, whose main exports were nothing more than a few generic sauces and a bright, iridescent powder that they sustainably harvested off of some local wildlife. There was no place for him to give his crew shore leave. There was no allied shipyard to do work on Reach, if there even was anything to do. There were no pirates, no battles to be fought, no exotic aliens to meet – or seduce – no ancient artifacts to meddle with.

This, of course, only left paperwork.

For the past week and a half, once their geostationary orbit was settled in, the only thing that crossed the Admiral’s desk were the same shuttle schedules, the same cargo manifesto debriefs – he responded by rubber-stamping in the same place his approval for that day’s schedule and sent out to Gentle Expanses’ colonial government the same request he made every day, which basically amounted to “ya got any junk tech lying around? I’ll haul it away for free.”

For this was his life now; Admiral Smalls, first among peers to be given the prestigious honor of leading mankind to their first off-system colony world had been reduced to rummaging around in alien trashbins for bits of broken tech. Partially because Humanity didn’t want to always build things from scratch (fixing things up saved resources after all), but as it was told to him by one of the R&D wonks back on earth, “why innovate when you can reverse engineer?” Gentle Expanse had it’s blacklist of technology it couldn’t give us, sure, but who’s to say that an old generator or broken transport wouldn’t yield some secret that would advance Human technology by decades?

A gentle pip interrupted Adm. Smalls’ musing, followed closely by another. He tapped his consoles’ screen, maximizing both messages.

The first one was a nice surprise: Apparently Silver City had spun up a few civilian training courses for human interaction, and had an excess amount of damaged and/or malfunctioning hard light projectors, and was willing to part with all them for the paltry sum of 1,750KG of Au. Done and done.

The second pip… well, it was a surprise, but a curious one. It originated from deep within the bowels of his on-board tech department, and wasn’t so much of a red flag as it was an inconsistency. Adm. Smalls tapped a few icons on his station, pulling up a secure connection with…

Well. We’ll just call them the spooks. You know who I mean.

And so Admiral Smalls and The Person He Was Talking To discussed an interesting spike of EM radiation that was transmitted from his ship to the local galactic network node that led to an access point that didn’t exist, and apparently contained no data.

– = – = – = – = – = –

Hisssssss-pop

Double-A sighed as the fire crackled and murmured, fed on broken crates, paper stuffing and wooden pallets. Its’ fuel wasn’t pretty, but it was comforting none the less, the orange glow of the fire casting jumping shadows against the temporary shelter. Temporary was a bit of a misnomer; it was a modular home, a space double-wide, but the build quality was such that there was no real reason for it to not be permanent, save for the fact that it looked ugly as hell and Double-A could swear he heard banjo music play softly whenever he used the restroom.

“Did you find the pan?” he called out behind him, kicking in an errant piece of wood with his boot.

“No! We’re gonna have to use foil.” Tomas called out over the sound of rummaging. “That’s all I found. Foil and butter.”

“Didn’t mom say she packed everything we’d need though-”

“Yeah, well! Uh.” Tomas poked his head out of the temporary shelter, giving his best I have no fucking clue expression. “Mom probably put them somewhere.”

“Did you check the fridge?”

“I…”

Really-

“Shutup, fuck you, I’m tired and this place is weird.”

Usually Double-A would have continued the banter, playfully trading jabs with his brother, but in this case… he was right. The place was weird. Admittedly, everything outside of Earth was “weird”, but in different ways; the trip up the spire, the alien simulations, the interior of a spaceship – sure, weird, but somehow… human. You were in odd places doing odd things that your grandparents couldn’t dream of, but it was still somehow comforting, even if every experience was new and somewhat terrifying, because someone had been there before. Somebody – some human – had planned out that sector, had riveted that corridor together, had swept the halls and painted the walls. But as Double-A looked out over the night that held no moon over the not-grass as strange sounds echoed through the not-woods, he shuddered.

This place was weird.

The wind passed through the trees – Double-A forced himself to call them trees – the sound almost comforting to his overworked mind.

“I found the things!”

“Good!” Double-A called, tossing another few wood scraps onto the fire, orange light burning bright. “I’m really considering putting up some of those generators, yanno? Like. I get the whole campfire feel, but-”

“—-Ö—.”

Double-A stopped mid-sentence, his breath hitching in his throat. What was that noise?

… … …

He shuddered, again, and held out his hands to the fire. If this planet at least had a moon there might have been a chance for a lit night, but as it stood the darkness around their little settlement was all-encompassing and impregnable. It was… it seemed to swallow the light, and in some sort of ancient defiance, Double-A tossed on a few more scraps of wood, stoking the fire brighter.

“. . . öööö-”

“Yeah ok that’s definitely something-”

“What’s definitely something?” Tomas called out, carrying tinfoil-wrapped chorizo-and-butter bundles. “Cause if you’re talking about my new interstellarly-famous buttered sausage then-”

“Sssh!” Double-A hissed, staring out into the void. There was a hasty silence behind him, and he was soon joined by his brother, who wordlessly passed him a shotgun.

“What? Wild animal?”

“I don’t-”

“Öööööööööööö~”

“What the fuck-”

Safeties were clicked off, shells were racked, and the two Aleman brothers stood defiant against the night.













“…well that was anti-clim-OHGODDAMNIT-” Tomas cried out as something descended silently from above, it’s wings beating silent against the night, great compound eyes glowing balefully in the reflection of the single sputtering firelight. Double-A turned, the butt of his shotgun slamming into the beast and seeming to both skid off of it’s chitinous shell and sink into it’s soft flesh, the beast letting out another mournful ‘öööööö’.

Horrifyingly, the call was returned – above the brothers, behind them, before them. There was the sound of somethings landing on their home, landing on their equipment, landing on them.

– = – = – = – = – = –

Silver City was an established city on an established colony world in an established system. This meant that public services were basically everywhere they needed to be; if you were in a city or space station you could rest easy knowing that power, water, atmosphere, life support and various other necessities on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were basically guaranteed. Even if you weren’t – say you found your ship sputtering out of fuel near the diamond cloud – you could take it easy knowing that at worst, within a couple local days a rescue barge would be towing you back to the nearest port. At best you’d be close enough to a well-traveled lane that someone would just pump you some fuel for a tenner.

This, of course, meant that there was an entire apparatus of the state that was purpose-built for mundane surveillance; no matter how freedom-loving and privacy-guarding a populace was, it was important for the government to know where the water pipes were breaking, where those electrical surges were coming from, and exactly what the heck was causing the nitrogen levels to climb in cargo bay 7. When you’re monitoring water/gas/electric/sewage/atmosphere you might as well stick a camera there too, if only to dissuade illegal tampering and to check up on your maintenance crew.

As with any municipal government there were local laws; don’t speed near the heliosphere or you’ll ionize your hull. Don’t dive into our gas giant’s planetary rings or else you’ll wind up destroying them – for one, and for two you’ll have to pay to smooth them back out. But one that had been ingrained into the very architecture of Gentle Expanse itself was simply thus:

Only use blue lights.

Blue, from deep azure to an almost pure “white” was acceptable. What was absolutely not acceptable was anything else. So when there was a pinprick of orange in the natural-park-turned-colony-site, there was concern and a few raised flags amongst the city planners. When the orange light grew, an animal control/rescue unit was dispatched.

When the fireball lit up the night, central services sent everyone they could.

– = – = – = – = – = – =

“YOU MOTHERFUCKERS”

ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ-”

There was the rapport of gunfire and the beast darted back and up into the darkness, disturbingly fast. They were legion – diving towards the brothers, throwing themselves against toppled machinery, and most surprisingly – eagerly, ecstatically diving into the fire, the force of their impact catching the dust in the air alight. Beating their wings they fanned the flame, and some – screaming – would take to the sky again, igniting in the air in a burst of ichor and color, like some twisted biological firework. The ichor itself also seemed flammable – or something, Tomas couldn’t tell – but the house was on fire. The transport was on fire.

Everything was on fire.

There was the blast from Andres’ shotgun somewhere to his right; he was still alive. Good. Tomas raised his own weapon and fired a round into the skull of one of the creatures that circled the remnants of the camp, the force knocking the beast off of the tractor’s cabin. A few moments later it shakily lifted off, listing hard to the right – and with another shot it was felled.

“WHY WON’T THEY FUCKING LEAVE-”

“I DON’T KNOW – HOW MANY MORE SHELLS YOU GOT?”

ÖÖÖÖ-”

Two more shots rang out into the night. “FUCK, UH. MAYBE FFFFFGODDAMNIT-”

There was the sound of a scuffle and of a few meaty thuds, and then the blast from his brother’s shotgun going off.

“DID YOU KEEP YOUR GUN?”

“YEAH! FUCK AROUND AND FIND OUT.” There was the sound of another meaty kick, and the call-and-response of ÖÖÖÖ in the night as the swarm beat around and within the camp, a haphazard orgy of animalistic confusion and instinct sewing chaos. “WHERE ARE YOU?”

“NEAR THE TRACTOR. YOU?”

“AH. SPRAYER.”

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE THESE THINGS?!”

“I DON’T KNOW – LOOK! EYES, uh, SOUTH! THERE!”

Tomas guessed where his brother was pointing – the night sky was alight with a pinprick swarm of lights coming from the nearby city, and at what he was hoping was an incredible speed.

“FUCKING FINALLY.

– = – = – = – = – = – = –

“{Time to target?}”

“[45 Seconds.]”

Zngrer-of-Drgrabgh checked her harness once more as her partner/pilot Szreshnstrst skimmed them low against the ground. They were approaching the [human] homestead in question at near mach-1, so the deceleration was going to hit them fast and hard. Planetary special forces were rarely called out for rescue missions, especially on Gentle Expanse, but considering the fireball that lit up the night sky a few minutes ago, the [Night-Terror]-beasts most likely whipped up into a frenzy. The planet was, well, infested with them, and there was no real way to kill them without damaging the local ecology. Dissuasion and containment were the best ways to go, so…

“[15 seconds.]”

So she and another team were going to swoop in fast and hard, pop floodlights to disorient the dumb beasts, fast-rope down and evac the [humans]. When the dawn broke they could survey and repair the damage, but right now safety was the most important priority.

“[3…2…1… BRACE-]”

Zngrer-of-Drgrabgh gritted her teeth as she was slammed, hard into her harness, her suit cushioning her from just a few of the nearly 30Gs of force her body felt as they went from nearly mach 1 to a standstill over the course of a few yards. The blast of air from their interceptor shuttles scattered most of the swarm, punching a hole wide enough to allow for an exfil. Wordlessly Zngrer-of-Drgrabgh swung the door wide open and fell into the night.

For a few moments she fell into darkness, and then a dazzling light beamed behind her, bathing the devastated homestead in a pure, white light. The two [humans], disoriented, fired up into the air – much to her chagrin, one of the rounds smacked harmlessly into her stomach. With a heavy thud Zngrer landed near one of the [humans], wrapping her forearm firmly but gently around his torso.

She was rewarded with a shotgun-stock strike to the head.

“{CITIZEN, YOU ARE BEING RESCUED.}” She spoke, calmly but with authority. “{PLEASE stop resisting.}”

“[THEY CAN SPEAK NOW, BATTERY-TYPE-A! THEY GOT ME-]”

“[DON’T GO INTO THE LIGHT SMALL-BUT-FORGETFUL! THAT’S HOW THEY GET YOU-]”

Pursing her lips she activated the retrieval winch, and both her and her charge were pulled smoothly into the air. The [human] squirmed in her grip for a few more seconds before going utterly limp, seeming to accept his fate.

“{Don’t worry, [Human]. I’m from the government and I’m here to help- why are you squirming again calm down-}”

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