They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops, Chapter 15: Wildcards

The two Jornissians slithered down the corridor in almost total silence – the pirate crew and automatons moving out of their way in deference to Brain’s rank, and the only sound coming from the duo was their tread against the ground. It wasn’t an unkind silence, the type that some parents use as a bludgeon to naughty children; the silence was less anger and more shock. Brains let it stay this way for a few minutes; she too had lost ships, lost people, and your first catastrophic loss was always your hardest.

Much like losing your first love.

“<I know… your ship was important to you, soft sand.>” Brains said to Sassafras as they waited for an airlock to cycle. “<But there will be others. There can be others.>”

Sassafras stared forward into the middle distance as the interior airlock seal opened, silently moving into the cycling chamber. Brains sighed and joined her, making a point to gently and somewhat affectionately lay her tail over her captive’s. Sassafras tensed slightly at the touch, before relaxing.

Brains rumbled softly, in an almost half-purr. “<There… look, I’m really not supposed to say this; there’s a reason why I don’t do negotiations, I’m too soft-scaled about the whole thing, but. Your ship can be put back together; sure, it looks bad now but we haven’t really started to pull it apart for parts. It’s not too late to change your mind.>”

“<You-.>” Sassafras said, before catching herself, letting out a rumbling, exhausted sigh as she maintained her stone facade.

Brains smiled internally at the small bit of progress. “<I know how it is to rise from nothing and make something of yourself, dearest. You must have worked very, very hard to get to where you are, and to see that all taken away from you… it hurts. It’s shocking. I get it, really, I do. We exhausted all other ways to try to make our money back, to try to make it even, to try to have a fair deal->”

Sassafras snorted and said nothing as the exterior airlock cycled.

“<Be that as it may, we did try. You cannot say we didn’t give you every opportunity to cooperate with us->”

“<You don’t understand.>” Sassafras stated, matter-of-factly, as the airlock cycled and the door opened. The pirates on the other side first attempted to push through, but with a sharp look from one of their COs ended up parting, letting the pair pass in peace.

“<Then help me understand, Sassafras.>” Brains said, sliding infront of the once-and-future Captain. “<Help me to understand why you’re doing this, why you’re going against all reason.>”

The two women looked at each other, unblinking eyes to unblinking eyes, before Sassafras gathered herself. She thought, for a moment, staring obliquely away from Brains’ gaze, gathering her thoughts before responding.

“<What did you do before this?>” Sassafras asked, not meeting Brain’s gaze.

“<Well. I ran a small shipping group, started from a little retrofitted personal-use shuttle to what you see here. We were legit until the banks tried to skewer us, and I decided that the banks made their money back and then some off of us… it was either continue to pay them or pay my crew. One thing led to another and well…>” Brains smiled a bit, hood rounding out. “<You make a lot of money just by not paying taxes! Who knew?!>”

“<Have-…>” Sassafras false-started, before thinking for a few moments and meeing Brains’ gaze once more. “<When you were starting out, every single job was the most important job, I would assume. Retrofitting a shuttle, you probably bought that on credit at exorbitant personal cost to you. Taught yourself everything?>”

Brains nodded, her hood drooping as a sign of relaxation as she exhaled. “<Why yes, yes. You sound just like me a hundred years ago, sweet-reed.>”

“<And if you failed, your livelihood was taken from you. Back to planet-side poverty, right?>” Sassafras ventured, staring not unkindly at her captor.

“<It’s as if you read my book!>” Brains beamed, happy to have made such progress.

“<That is every job for me.>” Sassafras stated, features drawn into a slight frown. “<Every single missi- job, no matter what happens, must be a success.>”

Brains, for her credit, didn’t ask why. She knew she’d get no answer – at least, no answer that would make sense to her. Instead, she asked the correct question, the one that would keep her up through 3 straight shifts, the one that would have her in Bile and Blood and Back and Bones’ offices like the ever-present hum of cheap lighting.

“<What happens if you do fail?>” Brains asked, softly.

“<We wait.>” Sassafrass said, ending the conversation. The two Jornissians slithered down the corridor in almost total silence – except that the silence that was originally borne from shock had been replaced with one consumed with worry.

It was fascinating, how loud that silence could be.

= = = = =

There was a thunderous sound; the sound of screaming metal protesting, of reverberating explosions, of alarms and klaxons screaming to life for a brief moment before being automatically shut down. The Karnakian priest felt as if he was suddenly pushed off of a cliff – the feeling of inertia and breaking away, physically unsettling him for a few moments before reality re-asserted itself.

“[What in the vast, eggless, shit-filled cloaca was that?!]” The Karnakian roared, gripping the bandaged chest of his neighbor a bit too hard as he attempted to steady himself. “[If I’m going through sin-ice withdrawals again none of you dickless little shitstains better rifle through my bags! I will wake up! I’ll eat your face!]”

There was a pause as the hum of medical machinery gently protested the use of such language amongst the sick and hurting, and Toko suddenly remembered himself. “[Eer, I mean-]”

“[Honored b-brother Tr’ksr’loquii?]” The incredibly injured Karnakian faithful said, coughing painfully as Toko’s taloned arm dug into flesh. “[P-plea-]”

“[Oh! I’m sorry, my child.]” Toko smiled far too widely as he released the dupe’s chest, small pinpricks of fresh blood beginning to seep through the wound. “[You’re suffering from a concussion.]”

The injured karnakian pirate furrowed his muzzle. “[No I’m n-]”

Toko wound up and punched the infirm idiot square in the forehead with a meaty THWUMP, his now-limp body bouncing on the bed with nary a sound. Toko looked at the machinery that beeped happily at the sudden relaxation of it’s patient, and, after being satisfied that it wouldn’t snitch on him to Drongo, waved his hands over the boy in a vaguely priestly way – probably doing some blessing in some religion… somewhere. Satisfied with the performance of his priestly duties, he tapped at the soundproofed fabric cocoon, the privacy shield pulling away to reveal the rest of the quite-full infirmary in various stages of confusion and disarray. He looked left, then right, noticing he was the only ‘adult’ in the room.

Drongo, at some point, had left.

Ignoring the cries of the infirm, Toko quickly moved down the main corridor, stopping only to check on his sister’s wellbeing. She was fine – more than fine, she apparently slept through whatever the screaming hells just happened. Muttering under his breath Toko attempted to keep the peace among the recovering pirates as he moved to the main entrance doors; after checking to see that conditions outside his hermetically-sealed bay were all green he slid the door open. He was expecting a lot of things – fire, smoke, alarms, someone destroying Nate’s stuffed “Ayeteeff” trap, something.

What he wasn’t expecting was an argument.

“[-OF THE EMPTY-BRAINED TITLESS PACK-BROKEN IDIOTS THOUGHT THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA-]” Drongo roared at an incredibly placative female Dorarizin, her arms up in an almost universal pleading gesture of “please don’t hit me”. Toko looked around before fully exiting the medical bay, noting that both the emergency power lighting and the main lighting were on at the same time.

That wasn’t right.

The female Dorarizin attempted to placate Drongo, physically crouching down to appear less intimidating. “[Sir I understand your concern but we made sure that you and our guys wouldn’t be hurt – we ran the numbers, and-]”

Drongo violently massaged the air between them with his claws, aggressively sinking them into invisible prey again and again. “[AND IF I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF SURGERY!?]”

“[-Sir please I’m going to have to ask you to calm down you’re being emotional-]” said the Dorarizin-with-a-death-wish, and Toko’s body suddenly cut between the two as he wrapped his arms around his colleague and friend. It’s not that he didn’t want to see further bloodshed – it’s that there were more important things to keep in mind.

“[Drongo! Drongo. Look at me, look at me buddy.]” Toko cooed to his friend, as Drongo stared at him with wild, wide eyes. “[Let’s just take it easy for a few minutes, alright? You’ve got a more important thing to worry about – how are your patients?]” Toko said with a leading lilt to his voice, hoping the incensed doctor would get the hint.

There were a few brief seconds of heavy, calming breathing, before Drongo leaned back out of the hug. “[Right. You talk to this – person –]” Drongo spat, “[- while I go check on our patients. Especially my problem one.]”

Toko patted Drongo on the shoulders before letting go, the doctor giving the female Dorarizin behind Toko a withering look before turning on his heel and walking back into the medbay. Toko sighed a two-toned whistle before looking at the pirate. “[Child, far be it from me to tell you how to live your life, but if you lead with ‘calm down you’re being emotional’ you are going to be killed one day.]”

“[Yeah… he’s cute when he’s angry, though.]” She replied, smiling cheekily. “[So you’ll calm him down?]”

Toko sighed internally and put on his best ‘pious’ face. “[Yes, my child. But do tell me – I was giving succor to a wayward soul when it felt like the cosmos itself split and I was tossed into the void. What happened?]”

“[Oh, uhm.]” The female stood back up, doing her best to reassert confidence and order. “[We’ve started the salvage of your ship.]”

Toko closed his eyes as the weight of that news hit him, and leaned heavily on his years of training to not betray a single emotion. He chuckled, slightly, dipping his head. “[Well, not my ship – no personal possessions, but. Why have you done such a thing?]”

“[We need the creds, priest.]” The female said, matter-of-factly. “[I’m too low on this pecking order to tell you the intricacies of it, but. I’m here to make sure you feel safe-]”

I’m here to put you down if you do something stupid and desperate’ Toko mentally translated, nodding his head as he followed along.

“[-which you are, of course. Especially the good doctor.]” She smiled, attempting to look the better part of a dashing rogue. “[So, don’t worry – when we’re done with that half, we’ll evacuate you to the life rafts and work on this one. You’ll probably be dropped off in a shipping lane, and that’ll be that.]”

Toko inhaled to respond with a polite non-answer, but he saw the attention of his pirate minder shift – her eyes moved to something in the middle distance behind him – and so Toko turned around.

“[Father Priest, a word with you.]” Drongo said, an incredibly thick veneer of professionalism coating every syllable.

Concerningly professional.

“[One moment, child.]” Toko said, excusing himself as he walked over to his colleague. Drongo stepped out of the way and let Toko through, motioning to Tiki’s bedside. The two of them huddled there for a moment as Drongo sent a silent command, a privacy screen rolling down from the ceiling and melding with the floor. Toko leaned over his sister, adopting the stance of an older brother, while Drongo began taking vitals.

The privacy screen may have muffled sight and sound, but at the end of the day it was just cloth. Better to look convincing than not.

“[What’s the problem?]” Toko said, holding his unconscious sister’s hand.

“[My intensive care patient isn’t there.]” Drongo said, doing his best to keep his voice level. “[I couldn’t find him.]”

Toko took a steadying breath, rubbing the back of Tiki’s hand. “[You’re certain? He didn’t just crawl into somewhere small and hold fast?]”

“[None of the snacks have been eaten.]”

“[All-light damn it.]” Toko growled. “[Do you have an idea?]”

Drongo fiddled with some dials on the auto-doc; he took the few moments of agonizing silence to put his thoughts into words. “[He may have… done the panel trick. To. Well, we know his quarters are reinforced…]”

Drongo let his unfinished statement hang in the air, as if on the small hope that by letting it remain unstated, it wouldn’t have come to pass. But there was no need to finish the statement – the point he made was obvious. Nate, trying to flee to the point of most safety, was in the fore part of the ship.

The part of the ship that was cut free. The part of the ship that’s uninhabitable. The part of the ship that’s dead.

Toko’s mouth was unreasonably dry, and he swallowed hard as he attempted to find a place for his tongue to rest in a jaw somehow too small. “[So.]”

“[So.]” Repeated Drongo, as silence settled in around the edges of the conversation.

“[A prudent suggestion, then.]” Toko slowly worked out, staring hard at his sister. “[We get her able to move and work again, we reunite with our crew, we go from there.]”

“[I agree.]”

“[No sense blowing cover when we’ve got no intel. Just go through the motions, and we’ll… we’ll make it.]”

Drongo let out a mirthless laugh – a harsh, biting bark, before patting the sick bed’s railing. “[Yeah. Let’s not spread the word until… until we know. He may have just lost his appetite, you know?]”

For the first time during this charade, Toko attempted to give honest comfort. “[You’re right – He could just be asleep.]” Toko lied, smiling.

Neither of them bought it.

= = = = =

WE HAVE BROKEN FREE OF 7 OF 9 MOORINGS.

“Yes, THANK YOU, Computer!” Growled Nate as he crawled along the wall, the sudden force of being flung free pressing him firmly against his new floor. The camera feeds he was idly flipping through had suddenly cut down to just externals, and then he was full-on yeeted to the back corner as gravity – or it’s drunken cousin, inertia – took hold. With a mighty heave, he pulled himself up along the flush cabinetry, slowly making his way back to the terminal.

“ANALYSIS SUGGESTS WE ARE NO LONGER ATTACHED TO HOST SHIP.” The friendly and very useful computer happily beeped, flashing a few indicator lights on an upside-down screen that Nate couldn’t read. “RECOMMEND TAKING ACTION.”

“I am going to beat the shit out of whatever engineer programmed that thing.” Nate grunted, crawling the few more inches towards the closest tether. He wrapped his arm around the kevlar belt and used it as a pivot point, slowly and agonizingly rotating his body until he was hovering over his control terminal.

Hover was a …strongword. The intertial momentum was pressing down on his body with the force of a couple G’s, so he was less hovering over the terminal and more pressing against it with almost jovian weight. His hand wedged down between his stomach and the screen, and he fumbled for a joystick that he could not see.

No, not that joystick. He laughed triumphantly when he finally gripped it, and with a light toggle internal gyro mechanisms began to let out believable gouts of steam and atmo to the outside universe.

It took a few minutes, but multiple G’s became a couple, became one, became half of one, became less. Flipping on the external cameras, Nate began to cycle through various viewpoints.

What he saw wasn’t pretty.

Jesus.” Nate whistled, as he watched the front half of his ship slowly arc down, being pulled by cables as thick as a semi. “They went big.” He braced himself, waiting for a similar cable – or something – to clamp onto his life raft. As the moments went by and he just floated there with the rest of the unmoored bric-a-brack, that likelihood went down.

“Right, well. They’re not onto me, at least, so that’s bought me some time. Let’s see.”

Nate cycled through feeds – dozens of cameras sent him data in the full EM spectrum as he gathered information. He was in a docking bay – an asteroid, a large one, at least a few kilometers across. There was nothing outside, no patrols, no other ships. Drones, sure, but they looked… inefficient. They were hovering at a distance, almost as if they were waiting for manual input. The “ceiling” – Nate decided any overhang on this rock now counted as a ceiling – of the docking bay had dozens of cranes, cutters, pincers and drills, with slack pneumatic umbilicals floating freely.

“It’s a chop shop. Well shit.” Nate laughed, crossing his arms. “They were never after me; they’re selling her for parts!

Nate smiled for a moment as relief washed over him. He wasn’t going to be killed, he wasn’t going to be ransomed or enslaved or abused… he was alright. Hell, they probably didn’t even know he was there. That joy lasted for a few moments before reality creeped back in, and the magnitude of the problem presented itself.

There would be no escape.

There would be no rescue.

His friends were on that rock. Somewhere.

“Somewhere… I wonder if their asteroid has external vents…” Nate mused, as he started to cycle through camera feeds with a new purpose.

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