You know, 2020 just is… well, it’s a year and that’s about all we can say about it. The year’s been full of drama, and we’re all exhausted and frazzled and just plain tired of this bullshit – and we’ve still got 4 months to go. If you’re like me and have lost your job, then every day is Saturday – a never ending, blend of the days and weeks and months. I fell asleep on a May afternoon and woke up in an August morning.
This is how the second ever Smolniversary kind of… snuck up on me. No games this year, no prizes, no shenanigans – other than a very comfy discord with a good community, some rooms for self-improvement, some friends to play games with and some dank fuckin’ memes lmao. We’d love to have you over, so come check out the link in the Author notes… the thing you’re reading right now, nerd.
And speaking of nerds, staying inside, and questionable ethics/friendship, we could all take a lesson from our friends on Zephyr Station 8.
Lord knows morality tales don’t seem to stick.
“[Ok. So we’re all clear on this, right?]” Tr’Grakz said, uncharacteristically calm and focused as he reviewed the station layout with his associates. It was an open secret that, especially with the uplifting of this primitive but noble species that ne’er do wells would attempt infiltration to cash in, and cash in hard – which is why almost every single xenos on every single Zephyr station was one form of special operations soldier or another. Cleared to work with humanity due to their stellar records, commendations, recommendations and ethical scores; the humans who were blessed enough to work on a Zephyr station were, in all likelihood, some of the most protected and safe members of their species.
This is why there were only an average of three workplace accidents per month per station.
“[Yes.]” Rgrezneh-of-Hrzgaren said, checking her notes while having a silent communication through her implant simultaneously. “[It seems every Wednesday night around 21:00 a repeating, but somehow random set of [Humans] meet in one of the quarantined or otherwise cordoned off parts of the station’s lower levels. I have it on good word that they might be meeting with a radical group from planetside – unfortunately, their motives are as of now unknown.]”
“<How long have the warm-cuddles been doing this?>” Shpressnrek asked, tilting the hologram of Zephyr Station 8’s subsection up to get a better look at it, idly peeling away the ceiling to check the floor layouts.
“[Best guess? 8 Dirt months. Possibly a year.]” Tr’Grakz stated, dropping indicators throughout the lower level. “[They move rooms each time, which is smart, but subsequent sweeps don’t find anything-]”
“<Sweeps by who?>”
“[You name it.]” Rgrezneh said, shrugging. “[Mixed construction crews, cleaning drone herders, senate bug teams, warehouse operators, tour guides – each time there’s a room that’s under construction or renovation they’re there, for about 6 to 8 uninterrupted hours.]”
“<Do they bring anything in?>”
“[Most definitely.]” Tr’Grakz responded, pulling up pictures of trash, detritus, and various human bric-a-brac. “[We’re unable to figure out what they’re actually bringing in, but this is most definitely used to cover the trail.]”
Shpressnrek thought to herself; although she had grown close to her friends and to the warm-cuddles on the station, she was still loyal to the Senate and the Seven Star Federation first. Usually whomever discovered an aberration would escalate it through proper channels to have a neutral team come in and check things out. To be meeting in an off-record side-room with something as serious as possible terrorist activity…
…this either meant that (1), something was about to happen immediately and it needed to be taken out off the record, or (2)……
“<How did we figure this out?>”
“[About four months ago, one of our surveillance agents poked their head into one of these rooms after hearing what he thought was a cry for help.]” Rgrezneh said, pulling up a blurry image. “[He was almost shouted out of the room, but while he was dodging projectiles his optical implant took a photo of this.]”
Shpressnrek sighed and rubbed the inside of her hood in a self-soothing gesture as she processed what she was seeing on screen. “<Robes. Why do these secret societies always wear robes?>”
Tr’Grakz smiled sheepishly. “[I mean, you have to admit, it does give you freedom of movement-]”
There was an annoyed grunt from across the table, and Tr’Grakz sighed. “[Ah well, everyone’s a critic. Anyway, we were able to… leverage one of our network’s private relationships into getting an idea as to what’s going on, or who’s authorizing this group movement, as the auth codes to open these doors always works – we think that one of the group members has to be in Station Administration.]”
“<We thinking warm-cuddle-floppy-nap?>”
Rgrezneh sighed. “[No, not him, I would know. Trust me, I would know – everything [Mike] touches is ‘password12345’.]”
Shpressnrek tilted her head from side to side in thought. “<So this could either be another lieutenant, or even go up to warm-cuddles-Astral-projecting-out-of-his-body-because-he’s-done-with-everything.>”
“[Possibly. Which is why we’ve gotten you an in. My network’s figured out that they’re meeting tonight here-]” At the word here Tr’Grakz isolated a surprisingly large observatory room, one off to the side that’s currently undergoing floor repairs. “[-a place that gives us a window in through some drone footage, potentially – but we need talons in the dirt, so to speak.]”
“<So how do you get me in?>” Shpressnrek said, rolling her body to limber up. “<I don’t really have a handler here, so what’s our rules of engagement?>”
Rgrezneh frowned. “[Best Judgment. Preferably we figure out what they’re doing, pull some evidence from a previously-used room and then submit that up the chain of command. Worst case, whatever it is can’t wait, and you do what needs to be done.]” The hologram zoomed in to a “real time” simulation, playing it slowly for the group to see. “[Tr’Grakz and I will be monitoring the situation through your onboard cameras as well as a degrading drone swarm my people are going to ‘accidentally’ space through an airlock. My job is gathering the narrative, his is to punch the panic button, and yours is to, well.]”
“<Do what needs to be done.>”
“[Basically. Rgrezneh couldn’t go because she’s involved with staff, and I can’t go because I’m too well known.]” Tr’Grakz said, preening slightly. “[You’re also, ah. Qualified, if I remember our conversation during last year’s Black Friday weekend.]”
Shpressnrek stared blankly into the hologram as it continued to narrate the playbook, not speaking or responding – just watching. According to this – to Rgrezneh and Tr’Grakz – she was to slide in and find a perch a couple hours ahead of the cult’s earliest recorded meeting time. Then, wait. Observe, and if necessary, act.
“<I’m assuming you’ve got a suit for me.>”
“[A league ahead of you.]” Rgrezneh stated, loping over to the side of the room. She pulled out a suit – yes, technically – but it was… to say it was custom would be an understatement. It looked shabby, like a lumpy black tarp with dust, bricks, cans and everything else piled on top of and under it. Tilting the mess of mass further up revealed a traditional suit entryway. “[Since we don’t have access to the good stuff and a lot of the fabricators are monitored, we came up with this. It’ll be enough to hide you-]”
“<Analog camouflage? We really are going back to basics with this.>”
“[-Yep. You’ll be a pile of construction debris with a bunch of shiny university degrees.]”
Shpressnrek sighed, slapping her chest lightly. “<Ah, alright. I always knew this was a garbage assignment. When do we start?>”
“[Get in.]” Rgrezneh said, grinning.
Shpressnrek rolled her jaw in unhappy concentration as she slowly, imperceptibly, arced her entire upper body to the right.
The main issues with analogue stealth suits are manifold; there’s a lot that automated processes would allow you to get away with – such as checking with your team, scratching that itch between your shoulderblades, or even having a light snack – you can’t do in an analogue suit. If you move too fast, you’re made. If you move too much, you’re made. If the movement you do make is too loud, you’re made. Depending on how close you are to your target these things have some variation built in them, but with Shpressnrek being in the same room as the target, there was no room for error.
So she sat there, half-coiled in a way that made her muscles ache with the slow burn of being tensed up for hours, but that made her look like a very convincing pile of lumpy garbage.
Her parents would be proud.
She had positioned herself to “look” – I.e., point the majority of the cameras towards – the middle of the room. Thought process was that whatever nefarious thing that the warm-cuddle cultists were doing would be probably large enough that by positioning herself in the middle, she could see what was going on.
Of course no plan survives contact with the enemy, and these were warm-cuddles she was talking about. Within 20 minutes of the expected start time the first few cultists came in and crossed her field of vision. Some carried bags, some carried cases – a couple hefted a fold-out table and some chairs between themselves. A few she could identify – for instance, lugging the cooler there was her coworker, Eagle-screm. Others, she did not know but captured as much data as she could. She was under a comms blackout because no one knew what they were doing or using – so if her EM signature registered as “just another security camera” it could be overlooked. What couldn’t be overlooked was the fact that the group, instead of meeting and doing whatever it was they were going to do in the middle of the room, or near any of the walls she was facing, decided to take the most remote corner near the observatory glass.
This was, of course, directly behind her.
She moved another few centimeters to the right and stopped, counting to 100. Her side burned with a row of hot coals, and she willed the soreness away with promises of rest and relaxation and even a trip to the spa – tomorrow. Today was business.
She moved another few centimeters to the side and stopped, counting to 100.
“[~~to ~egin.]” One of the robed members said, as Shpressnrek moved another few centimeters to the side, counting to 80 this time. Her directional microphones were starting to boost the ambient noise, and hopefully she could start getting some useful intel from this.
She moved another few centimeters to the side, her back muscles starting to fight her orders, a muscle tensing unbidden and relaxing due to fatigue. She counted to 50, then moved once more.
“[-sure. ~~iskey. Sour cream potato chips? Salt and Vinegar are patrician tastes-]”
Almost. Maybe she could get away with counting to 30?
So focused was Shpressnrek on turning to get the group in perfectly, on rushing near the finish line, that she didn’t pay attention to the main door opening behind her, or the muffled and hushed conversation rapidly approaching her from behind.
“[-nor to have you running these things. I can’t tell you how many times-]”
She moved another few centimeters, and all conversation stopped.
“[Did… did that trash pile move?]”
Shpressnrek froze perfectly still in that way that a pure shot of adrenaline can make you suddenly freeze. Her body, once on fire, now doused with the coldest ice as she held her breath – not daring to even blink.
“[I think it did, Master.]” One of the robed figures said, moving towards the pile. He stopped just a few feet away, intently looking at Shpressnrek – almost staring right into her face, before removing his robe’s hood-
“<warm-cuddles-Astral-projecting-out-of-his-body-because-he’s-done-with-everything?!>” Shpressnrek murmured, the shock of seeing the Human Station Administrator in cultist robes wiping away any facade of training she still kept.
Glenn Abramson frowned, putting his hands on his hips. “[Hey. Are you that plus-one that Jimshmael was talking about?]”
“<Uh. Y-yes.>” Shpressnrek said, uncoiling slowly within her analogue trash-stealth suit, deliberately scanning the room to see where everyone was, what they were doing, and if any weapons were currently being brandished.
“[Who are you.]”
Shpressnrek turned to see the one that was called “Master”; a squat, hunched-over figure that could barely be called human shaped. Nothing peeked out from underneath the robes – maybe a trace whisker or hair here or there, but to call the thing that menaced before her friend would be a stretch.
“[I ask again: Who are you.]” The entity droned in what was now obviously a non-organic voice, less asking a question and more demanding an answer.
“<I… am… Hassan.>” Shpressnrek lied, and immediately the energy in the room changed. The other humans seemed to almost shout with joy, babbling happily over how “authentic” Shpressnrek’s robes looked and how she even got the “fez on the turban” right. Shpressnrek had no idea what was going on but decided to lean into it, nodding in the manner of humans and generally being as agreeable as a spy who has just been made by a cult and given a case of mistaken identity could be.
“[Prepare her for the table.]” The thing said, and then – to Shpressnrek’s eyes – seemed to float towards the table. She opened her hood and inhaled slowly, trying to sense any form of heat or radiation pouring off of the thing.
Nothing. There was no anti-gravity at work here, so how did it glide without moving-
Shpressnrek’s hand was grabbed by two smaller ones – warm-cuddle-Eagle-Screm looked up at her with bright eyes and a smiling face. “[Come on! We’ll get your sheet worked out and you can join us! It’s not session zero, but we’ll make sure to take good care of you.]”
“<Th-thank you.>” Shpressnrek stuttered, noting with wry luck that her friend had decided to ‘initiate’ her into this cult, apparently. As she was led to the table her higher vantage point allowed her to see what the setup looked like; from what she could tell there were maps, tokens, dice, esoteric little baubles – possibly something to do with soothsaying?
‘<Robes and magic.>’ Shpressnrek deadpanned internally as she tuned out Eagle-screm’s happy babble. ‘<Why can’t there be a cult that’s just a union with gumption?>’
The entity came to a smooth stop behind a wooden wall, carved with esoteric sigils. “[You. Shrink.]” It commanded yet again.
“<I’m sorry, what->”
“[The Dungeon Master means you have to, yanno, lower yourself.]” Jessica said, patting Shpressnrek’s hand. “[It’s illegal to look beyond the DM – Dungeon Master’s screen. That’s where he rolls his dice and does spooky things!]”
“<I see. And… what spooky things are we going to do tonight?>”
“[Like zoinks, skoob!]” One of the humans said, obviously mimicking something of cultural significance. “[If the suicide hotline is for prevention then why does the Clinton foundation keep making regular, equal donations?]”
“[God Damn it Carl.]” Glenn said, half-laughing as he sat down directly opposite of the warm-cuddle who just talked. “[That’s such an old reference-]”
“[Still checks out though.]” The warm-cuddle now known as Carl said, sitting down and rummaging through one of the bags beside him. “[So I don’t know what you can have, so I’m going to just give you a choice. Choose… wisely.]”
Shpressnrek tensed up – apparenly Jessica could feel it, and she gently squeezed her hand.
“[CHEE-Z-YEE POOFS, oooorrrrr the-actually-best-flavor SOUR CREAM AND ONION CHIPS-]” Carl boomed out, holding two incredibly large bags of terrible snack food.
“[The answer is the cheese poofs because sour cream and onion is a shit flavor-]” Warm-cuddle-Eagle-screm hissed, and was subsequently met with a sassing hiss in return.
“[You’re just jealous because your tongue doesn’t work.]” Carl sneered, shaking the bags again. “[Come on, newbie. If you make it to the next session we’ll pick up some Jornissian-friendly junk food, but you got to pick now before they all disappear.]”
“<Um. The cheese.>”
Shpressnrek still had no idea what she was getting herself into, but Jessica’s happy little wiggle-bounce made it all the worth while.
Shpressnrek smiled to herself as she came to a conclusion halfway through making out her ‘character sheet’; It was #2 after all – #2, being, “some silly warm-cuddle slow-motion disaster possibly not needing too much oversight” because, apparently, much to her chagrin, grown-up warm-cuddles would dress in robes and meet in hushed basements and corner rooms to play pretend.
THEY WERE PLAYING PRETEND. AS ADULTS. Not a self-insert into a game or simulation or anything else, just sitting in a room playing pretend with little figurines and lines on a sheet of paper.
Shpressnrek was beside herself almost the entire night. There was the introduction at the tavern (because that’s the rules!) and then an ambush (how terrifying!) and one of the warm-cuddles got hurt (but they were green and large so it’s ok!). She – her character, Crazy Hassan – was a ‘camel merchant’, being a person who sold beasts of burden, and had decided to join the adventuring team in order to sell all her camels for a high profit. This wasn’t her idea, but a totally written-for-her backstory that she had no say in (that’s what you get for being named Hassan, she was told.)
All in all, she was estatic that the night had turned into a big empty carved-den. Everything was going great, and the hours were melting by, and she knew in her heart of hearts that Rgrezneh and especially Tr’Grakz were probably belly-up with envy! Everything was just perfect…
…until they stopped in to the next town.
“[They are too strong for you.]” The DM intoned, matter-of-factly from behind his wooden wall.
“<Listen. My camels are going into battle.>” ‘Hassan’ said, pointing a finger accusingly at the creature behind this all. “<We need your strongest elixirs.>”
“[Your camels are not meant for my elixirs, Gently-used-camel-merchant. Find someone else.]”
“<No, Listen. To. Me. These camels, they can…>” Shpressnrek/Hassan looked around the room for encouragement and found varying degrees of interest – some of the warm-cuddles were eating, some were drinking and going over their own sheet, but all were listening with a smile on their faces. “<…kick through stone walls?>” Shpressnrek ended on a question, looking down at Jessica – who was comfily using the Jornissian as a seat to be efficient at table-space, “<-that’s a thing they can do, yes?>”
Jessica shrugged. “[You’re the used-camel merchant here, you tell us.]”
“<They can. But they must be able to kick through ceramite composite armor!>” Shpressnrek rallied, nodding to herself. She ignored the round of giggles and pointed at the creature again. “<So you will give me your strongest potions!>”
“[No. Your camels are too weak-]”
“<WEAK?!>” Shpressnrek roared, possibly a bit too loudly as multiple warm-cuddles jumped at the volume. But Shpressnrek had lost herself now in the role of “Hassan” – at some point the relief that there was nothing nefarious going on, the adorableness of playing pretend, and the pure natural inclusion of the game wrapped her up and made her forget her old self.
She was Hassan. She was the best damn gently-used camel merchant in this plane of existence and all others. And she was going to get those elixirs.
“<You son of a shepherd – how dare you call my camels weak!>” Shpressnrek yelled, and with a swift lunge forward she reached over the DM screen, knocking it down – and grabbed the hooded cloak of the Dungeon master. With one tug she lifted the robe up and off of the thing – and suddenly remembered upon viewing what was underneath that she was not an arabian warm-cuddle, that this was not an ancient shop in a fantasy world, and that she could not use a real life strength check to intimidate a nonexistent shopkeep.
“[WHAT THE FUCK-]”
“[-HOW DID YOU SURVIVE-]”
“<By the cold void – what in Sotek’s name->”
“[YOU!]” Glenn roared, jumping to his feet. “[YOU’RE THE LEGENDARY EX-TERRORIST ANTI-TERRORIST EL DIABLO!]”
“[ZK CLASS SCENARIO IMMINENT. ABORTING ALL THINGS.]” The cyborg pony looked in all directions with it’s halo of laser eyes. Thimble – or what was Thimble, once, vibrated with a seemingly archaic energy, purity seals and random engravings of what looked like blood-etched madness scarring it’s hide. There was a sudden rumbling, and the group as one looked “up” to the interstellar void.
Hanging up there, somehow, was a 1970’s Vietnam era Huey.
“[YOU STUPID BASTARD!]” Glenn screamed, shaking his fist at Cyborg-Thimble, who began to hover with incredibly illegal cybernetic implants. “[SELF-INSERTS KILL FRANCHISES. LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENED TO NAUGHTY DOG.]”
“” Thimble seemed to speak, as his tower of skateboards he was standing on for extra height wobbled under the lift from his antigravity jets. He took the top skateboard and began to kickflip continuously as he gained air, levitating to the Huey that was still, somehow, making sound in the perfect vacuum of space. Somewhere in the back of her mind Shpressnrek knew that a security team had entered the room, but honestly nothing mattered right now.
“<Sotek damn it why is it always #2?>” She deadpanned as the small horse broke containment through the plastiglass ceiling. Instantly klaxons and alarms went off, the oxygen rushing out of the room as automated processes began to slam windows shut with hermetic steel shutters.
“[That’s so fuckin rad-]” Jessica cooed as the rush of oxygen began to lift her out of Shpressnrek’s lap – with a slow but measured lift of her arm Shpressnrek wrapped the appendage around Jessica’s waist and pulled her back down to earth.
“<Is D&D always this ‘rad’?>” Shpressnrek mused, as the security team began to leap after some of the warm-cuddles that gained more air than Jessica.
Eagle-screm smiled, and giggled, looking up at the nonplussed Jornissian. “[Yeah.]”
“[Well.]” An enviro-suited Tr’Grakz said, breaking the rapidly-expanding-due-to-loss-of-atmosphere silence, fitting an oxygen mask on the smaller human’s face. “[This is… one hell of an intel-gathering mission.]”
“<Tell me about it.>” Shpressnrek said, accepting a Jornissian-fitted mask for herself. “<I don’t know what good it did after all, other than more property damage.>”
Tr’Grakz shrugged as the ancient earth flying machine arc’d away, headed towards Dirt. “[Maybe the real intel was the friends we made along the way.]”