They are Smol – Badguys, Boxes and Boops, Chapter 16: Humaboo, I choose you!

Nate pondered as he looked at his computer terminal; It must be some form of macabre orchestra, when a crab or shrimp finally starts eating. Claws holding and turning, smaller mouth-claws and mandibles moving, gills and feeder filters whirring in automatic motion, ripping flesh and morsels from still-writhing krill or other unknown anthropods, the larger predator eating with a purpose and discarding everything that was useless. Discarding everything that was trash.

“I am trash. I am trash. I am trash.” Nate chanted his reaffirming mantra as he tapped the joystick, mimicking a short release of a personal pressurized can exploding. He watched the dozens of cranes, cutters, pincers and drills move with purpose, scanning parts of the larger ship before some unknown consensus was made, and as one they descended. Claws, holding and turning, smaller cutters and pincers moving to get a good angle and do their hard work, drills puncturing the flesh of The Perfect and pulling her apart, the asteroid feeding upon the ship with orchestrated and professional movements. Every so often some bit of the guts of The Perfect would be unique enough to pause the whole machine, and Nate could just feel that there was some hot debate happening between operators before the thing in question was moved to a pile over here, or dismantled further over there, or potentially even outright tossed into the recycling heap for a fiery liquidation.

“Traaaash trash trash trashtrashtrash-” Nate said as he let his emergency life raft start to spin, trying to get into the proper headspace to act convincingly like a lump of compressed garbage. He let the cameras auto-focus on the “dangerous” parts of space debris around him, letting the computer track each and every pip to make sure he didn’t run into anything unfortunate. He had theorized, after letting himself take the time to think over the problem, that there would be some form of exhaust venting on the asteroid – be it to vent a buildup of un-scrubbable toxic gasses, emergency atmospheric purging, or even foundry expulsion; with an operation this big, something should exist. If he could find one of those neglected exhaust ports and pick a particularly out-of-the-way one, he would be in business.

His computer had helped him craft the idea, plot a course and even figure out a likely landing spot. He had to lie to it, of course, as no sane engineer would let a life raft wedge itself into the exhaust port of an industrial furnace and call it “safe”, but… eh. He’d done crazier things, and this at least gave him some much-needed leverage:

They still wouldn’t know he existed.

He let the momentum from his last burst carry him forward for a few more moments before lining up his trajectory with his computer’s telemetry overlay, and letting out another burst of hot gas. A crane operator seemed to notice this and started to track his camouflaged raft for a few tense moments with a massive claw, before losing interest as he figured out the garbage’s trajectory would take it away from the station and into the interstellar void.

Too close for comfort. Nate left his hand off of the joystick and decided to float for a few hours. Strapped into the wall against the computer terminal, he started to flick through programs, pulling up the software to manage the incredibly limited fabricator that was on-board his spartan craft.

He had a miracle to make.

= = = = =

“[…so here we are. Please mind the… gun emplacement.]” Brains said half-heartedly, as Sassafras politely nodded her silent thanks and moved past the pirate barricade. The crew of The Perfect immediately perked up as they noticed their captain enter their vast and single prison cell, but the look on her face was … unreadable. Sassafras did not let her gaze rest on any one person, but instead scanned the room, noting who was present and who was not. Silently she made her way into the center of the group, and the crew, realizing something was amiss, parted ways for her and closed the gap behind her, seamlessly going back to professionally wasting time and generally pretending to act disinterested in their surroundings.

They weren’t fooling the pirates, of course, but the crew knew that the pirates knew, and the pirates knew that the crew knew that the pirates knew, so… detente. Again.

“[Ma’am.]” Licorice said, laying down around what seemed to be a pile of personal baggage. “[How was your interrogation?]”

Sassafras hummed appreciatively as her implant kicked on, crew information being streamed to her via an encrypted channel. “[Well. I see you’ve been busy.]”

“[Aye, ma’am; we’ve got limited communication and a private net, but that’s about it. The pirates think I’m hoarding either munitions or medical supplies, and I’m content to let them think that.]” Licorice replied, his arms buried in canvas bagging, the wiggle of his hands barely perceptible to any close observer. “[But there’s no long-range communication; the entire place is one lump of metal, so we’d need to string boosters in series for me to get any form of network up and running – and interstellar comms are a freezer-dream right now. What systems I can tap into I am, but this seems to have been either an unfinished, or abandoned part of their lair; it’s connected to power, water and atmo and that’s it. From what communications I can eavesdrop into and systems I can leap onto… We are dealing with a technical savant, and there’s no documentation. So…]”

“[So we get what we get.]” Sassafras mused, her own eyes unfocusing a bit as she dove into the stream of data her communications officer was sharing with everyone. “[Not bad, considering what we’re up against.]”

“[Yes’m. Orders?]” Licorice said, tapping an invisible microphone before digitally handing it to her.

Sassafras thought for a moment, before looking at the roll call list. “[Is Drongo present?]” She digitally asked the assembled crew, who did not discernibly react to the question now flooding their implants.

“[Negative. We are missing him, Tiki, Toko, and a couple others who are injured. As far as cargo; medical supplies and a few of our lucky charms, some personal effects, but that’s it.]” Licorice responded, making a log of the conversation for future review.

“[Well. You know I’m a very… straight-tailed kind of girl when it comes to it, and I don’t need a reaction out of anyone with the news I’m about to give you. Fair?]”

There were a few noncommittal noises coming from the crew, with many more responding digitally with a simple text “Y” or a pip marking “present”.

“[Good. They’ve cut The Perfect in half.]”

Sassafras paused as she waited for someone to disobey her orders, and to her crew’s credit, not a single person skipped a beat. Conversations continued, weapons were cleaned, insulting graffiti was carved into the nickel-iron rock walls, and the professionals continued to professionally kill time.

The pause between her previous line and her next was but a few seconds, but there was a shift, imperceptible to anyone who did not know her crew as well as she did: A back was too-tense here, some eyes were too sharp there. Some old worry-habits appeared, nails picking at teeth or feathers or fur before being tamped down under control.

“[It’s why I asked where Drongo was. He has all of our remaining crew, and if he’s not in this room, then they’ve probably kept his half of the ship powered and with atmo, meaning everyone is safe. Savvy?]” Sassafras said, and received another round of approving pips to her implant.

“[So what happens now?]” Licorice sub-vocalized to the chat room, asking the question that was on everyone’s mind.

“[We wait.]” Sassafras said, coiling up beside Licorice in her best ‘I’m relaxed but attentive’ posture. “[Our ship is scuttled, that’s for sure. So we wait and see what happens, who shows up, and how long that’ll take.]”

Licorice continued to work under the bags. “[If no one shows up, Ma’am?]”

“[We’ll know – I’ll put it that way. And if it comes to that, we go down swinging. If it doesn’t come to that… we go down swinging, but we don’t do anything until we know.]”

Sassafras began to hum to herself as, for apparently no reason at all, a dozen weapons were re-assembled at once by her crew.

= = = = = = =

You should speak to a deconstruction crew sometimes; you’d learn a thing or two on how ships were built, and how to build ships that would last. Managing massive machines that ripped apart an engineer’s hard work gave you a perspective into design and manufacturing that most people on the R&D floor missed. For example, talk to a ripper and you’d know that interior hallway walls were the “softest”, with floors and ceiling being a close second. The further you got towards the outside of the ship the stronger things became, until you had to use the cutter and drills and all sorts of other nifty tools just to pry apart panels.

This was how it normally worked, but for some reason this smuggler’s ship that Stk’shzsk was working on had a very thick, very reinforced room in the center of the ship. This required concentration and coordination, and of course Stk’shzsk did his best work when he sang. It was the blessing and the curse of having him operate arguably the heaviest non-ship machinery on the station; he was a savant that could pull a straw out of a drink carton with a claw the size of two city buses, but…

“[Super- Space, Team! Saving life day for all the wa-r-m-cudd-les~]” Stk’shzsk sang over the intercom as he peeled away the interior of the ship before him, aluminum-ceramic composite acting more like tin-foil under his massive mechanical claw.

His implant clicked on, desperation thick in the caller’s voice. “[Please stop singing that song~!]”

“[The answer, Grzdr, is always a No.]” Stk’shzsk proudly responded, doing a little loop in his zero-gravity control bell, the screens of faux-windows spread out around him in a full 360 view. “[It only gets better the more you repeat it, and you could learn a thing or three from such a wonderful and noble speci-]”

“[AAAAAAAA! Stk’shzsk I am never going to bow to you, you warmcuddle worshipper-]” Grzdr literally barked back out in reply, the Dorarizin’s cutter arm impotently menacing the much larger claw. “[Pleeeeeease just stop singing it! Or at least, stop singing it over open channels! I can’t thii-iink, saving the- AAAAAH~!]”

Stk’shzsk gripped a freshly-cut part of an interior wall with his gargantuan claw and tugged, freeing it from it’s former prison. “[Hmmmmmm letmethinkaboutthat- no.]”

“[Please, first pack, slit my throat right now and let me join you as a pup by your fireplace-]”

“[Now Grzdr, aren’t you being a little over-dramatic? It’s not like I’m broadcasting the episodes over short-band, though that’s a good idea for next sh-OH.]” Stk’shzsk fell silent as the interior of the reinforced room the duo had been working on for the past hour slowly bloomed out into space, the entirety of the crewperson’s life on display to the stars.

“[Stk’shzsk? I know that sound, that’s the sound of you about to steal something, so please let me know what it is so I can log it properly. Stk’shzsk? Stk’shzsk are you even listening to me-]”

“[That’s an authentic warmcuddle-tablet.]” Stk’shzsk breathed out, his hand moving to the control module bolted to the “ceiling” of his work pod, his gaze unmoving from the particular monitor that showed him his prize. He zoomed in his cameras, even going so far as to hijack a friendly drone to confirm his suspicions, the meshed-together frankenstinian robot cradling the precision-made electronic in it’s grippers gently. “[A-and there.] He whispered in almost eerie reference, his over-sized claw reaching with impossible delicacy and precision to grip a single piece of clothing. “[A pom.]”

“[A what?]” Grzdr said, confused. “[Is it food? Is it expensive?]”

“[Priceless. Utterly priceless.]” Stk’shzsk murmured, the hijacked drone taking the small fabric beanie cap from the massive oversized claw. There was a pause and heavy breathing over the microphone, before Grzdr’s cameras finally focused and he groaned.

“[It’s fabric. First, stop stealing my drones, and second, Toss it in the trash pile!]”

Stk’shzsk looked down at the blooming treasure field below him, and whispered “[No.]”

Grzdr sighed, his cutter arm waving around in circles. “[Alright. Alright. I knew it would be a problem working with you, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. Tell you what? Tell you what – I’ll look the other way for the next couple of hours and you can just take what you want, but when you’re done, you work. Got it?]” Grzdr growled, his cutter-arm jabbing accusingly in the direction of the much larger claw. “[And when you’re done collecting your worthless fabrics, I’m going to log this entire shift as salvage-in-lieu-of-shares, AKA no pay, and you get back to doing what makes us creds. Got it?]”

Stk’shzsk turned the cap over in his drone’s claws, the remote robot’s camera focusing on a floating t-shirt that had some form of human script on it. Stk’shzsk mused to himself for a while, noting that as he scanned the room there was more and more human paraphernalia along the walls, ceiling and floor. “[This person was of culture and high breeding. I feel… bad, doing this.]”

“[This. This is where you draw the line? On stealing a wad of fabric?!]” Grzdr howled, exasperation thick in his voice. “[Just… 2 Hours. 2 Hours to get what you want and put it aside, and then you work in silence. Understand?]”

Wordlessly, and much to Grzdr’s bemusement, the claw pulled away, and the drone dove into the breach.

And for the rest of the shift there was blissful, reverent silence.

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