The metal of the skid ground against the metal of the floor, and for a few moments Stk’shzsk considered cursing. He wouldn’t, of course, not in the presence of such an important haul – that would taint the purity of what he carried. Instead, he grumbled at the uneven flooring and slowly clicked the skid into reverse, walking it back from the divot in the floor. On his rented skid sat wide and top-heavy a pile of… well, crap, if we’re being honest. With love and care a made mattress lay flat on the bottom of the pile, with piled upon it flattened and wrinkled clothing, then food wrappers, then books and boxes and tables sandwiching chairs and bags of styrofoam and actual warmcuddle food that was both perishable and non-perishable and pillows and blankets and appliances an-
Stk’shzsk mentally stopped himself from going any further as he found himself wiggling in place at the sheer amount of warmcuddle paraphernalia. He knew it was going to be a big haul when he pulled out those balled up socks, but to see that they were actually shipping half-eaten food and used warmcuddle clothing, that was –
– That was when he alerted Blood. There were wealthy …people who had certain tastes that would pay hefty GRC to get some “authentic” warmcuddle merchandise. Stuff that couldn’t be, ah, replicated. NOT THAT HE WOULD KNOW, of course! Just that he knew of them, that’s all.
He wasn’t a deviant and did not support that lifestyle! Warmcuddles are for hugs not fuggs!
…but he’d sell to those people though. GRC is GRC, and all the better to take a deviant’s money. Once Blood was actually appraised on the situation, he personally stopped by to coordinate and to take the more expensive things out. Stk’shzsk made sure to negotiate a much higher pay as he was now not only salvaging but appraising, and Blood was… well. Agreeable. Surprisingly so, given that all Stk’shzsk negotiated away were the used goods, half of the electronics and the odd terminal that took out part of the floor with it. Apparently one of Bile’s subordinates realized that terminal was a Technology Thing(tm), and therefore needed to be stolen and scrapped for the greater good.
Stk’shzsk clicked the skid into the forward position, and angling the handlebar changed it’s direction around the divot in the floor. He mentally shrugged once the floor-divot-danger was gone: he had his rightful haul, and then some. Stk’shzsk knew better than to lie to one of the bosses – that’s how you get kicked out or killed – but he did ask for a significant “pay” raise. If he was a lesser man, the goods he hauled away would pay for a very comfortable life for him and his brother in a civilized world… but that would require selling them. And since he was not a lesser man, his trophies would stay with him for the rest of time.
With a squeaking, grinding noise he squeezed the brake on the handlebars, the machine slowly coming to a halt in the cramped corridor outside of his doors. Carefully, gently, he slid around his loot tower, making sure not to push too much of it off of the soft base mattress in the smaller space as he fiddled with his lock. His living quarters were a bit further away from the main hubs of activity, and Stk’shzsk didn’t mind living in the periphery. Sure, it was a bit of a grinding underscale to get to chow hall, or to go to his shift, or to participate in group activities, but he… didn’t want to. At least, he told himself he didn’t want to, and that was enough of that. He and his brother and a few other loners would settle in the outer rooms, and be left to their own peace, and it was… ok. Lonely, but OK.
Better than the alternative.
His lock cycled clear, and his door slowly slid open, revealing his pretty spartan yet relatively large living quarters; a sand bed, some electronic entertainment, atmo, power and water. Everything that wasn’t carved out of or into the rock he had cobbled together himself, and so had a makeshift kitchen, a serviceable restroom, and a shrine to the one thing that brought him joy: warmcuddles.
And oh, how that shrine would grow. He smiled, wide, in spite of himself, as he stood in the doorway before his skid, and began to unpack.
= = = =
The Jornissian man paced in place while making his argument, arms swinging wide as he reached the deneumont. “<It’s the warmcuddle stuff. That’s what it was, and that explains so much!>” Blood said, tapping a pile of reports an inch thick. “<That’s what they were hiding, and it makes perfect sense! The ability to get your hands on these kind of goods means you have contacts either with real warmcuddles or with a government. Maybe even the warmcuddle government itself! The opportunity this brings us is massive!>”
Brains thought for a moment, taking a sip of hot tea. She wasn’t particularly thirsty, but buying this time did two things: One, it allowed her to put her thoughts into a more diplomatic order, and two, it also calmed down the man in front of her; without an immediate reaction his fiery stance turned into a flickering flame, and he settled back down in his seat. Passions were good for bed, but rarely discussion.
“<Sweet Heat, I think that’s a good idea, but think about the other side of this rock for a moment.>” Brains lowered her glass to her torso, gently turning the mug around in her hands as she spoke. “<Let’s say you’re correct; this crew has connections with a government, sure. Potentially contact even some warmcuddles as well – a few have to know there’s a market for their goods, and this might just be a private sale. This could entirely be on the level, and we could be talking to someone with some real nice connections, who likes to fly under the radar, who would be happy to make introductions, if given the right persuasions. Yes, I agree with you on all of this, but…>” Brains thought back to a certain captive Captain, and what she said in the private halls.
“<Come again?>” Blood said, tilting his head 90 degrees to the side to gain a new perspective.
“<It’s – nothing. Something someone said to me that’s rolling in my mind – the other side of this rock.>” Brains said, shaking the errant worry loose. “<What if these people are a front to a much larger organization than our own? We have defenses by suggestion and an armada by only the loosest definitions. Our army is anything but, and I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve seen real combat. If we’re stealing food off of someone’s plate, I want to know that, especially if that someone doesn’t have to play by any rules.>”
Blood leaned back in his chair, letting his coils sink into the seat-pit below him. “<Hm. I hadn’t considered that. It would explain why they have such good weaponry; it’s not military grade but it’s damn near close.>”
Brains flicked the side of her cup with a finger, the metallic ring echoing in the office. “<Warmcuddles are a commodity, and they all know it. You ever heard the saying ‘a warmcuddle has five hustles-’>”
“<-’but needs help with six.’ Yes, I know, but the version I heard was jobs.>” Blood said, rolling his jaw. “<They are industrious, I take it.>”
“<Certainly they work, but the real saying is hustle, because they also know they’re rare. They’re so rare, the worst artist among their kind would still sell millions of GRC of art, just because there would be so little of it to go around. The worst of the worst of their kind would still live like comparative royalty out here, and since they had an unfortunate uplifting, they all hustle, as a way to make sure to have a safety net.>” Brains shrugged her hood as she too sank into the offered seat, taking another slow sip of her tea. She finished her drought, and held the cup up to her lips and continued to talk, steam rising into her mouth with every breath. “<They don’t really care who buys from them and who they buy from; but to stay compliant they publicly play by interstellar shipping rules. The truth is their governments won’t convict if you’re found to be a smuggler, especially if you share your neat new toys. If a hustle like this was discovered by the police, and they’re trading novelty for technology, it would mean the expulsion, excommunication, and probable trial and state-sanctioned assassinations of every one of the crew members; the senate and their coalitions need to send a message. Though… it’d just be community service and tax jail for the warmcuddle.>”
“<Mmm. The warmcuddle governments will raid their house, trot them on camera, show them behind bars… it’s all theater. I can respect that.>” Brains, in an uncharacteristically un-ladylike gesture uncoiled her tongue and let it rest in her tea, swirling the mixture before popping back into her mouth. “<If too many questions get asked, or real scrutiny is applied, they’d perform an execution once in a while to show that they really do mean business. Truth be told, an execution hasn’t happened in decades – if not a century or two; it’s just that the ones that were done were so uncomfortable to watch that the impact outweighed the actual event. For the most part, warmcuddles that smuggle tend to just disappear. I can only assume they’re disappeared to some island somewhere.>” Brains took another sip of her tea, before lowering it to her lap. “<If something unfortunate or unseen occurs, the warmcuddle government has got another entire interstellar supply network to pull from. It’s an open secret, and everyone’s surrounded by snow.>”
Blood frowned. “<That sounds like a dangerous game to play – but, it is warmcuddles we’re talking about->”
Brains made an “exactly” gesture with her shoulder. “<So the senate just grabs what it can, monitors what it can’t, and puts out fires in the meantime. As you so stated, there is one side of the rock; fortune, connections, fame, once-in-many-lifetimes experiences.>”
“<And then… on the other side of the rock.>” Blood continued, pointing his hand in thinking accusation at the reports on his desk. “<You have the end place of where these goods go, and the kind of people who could afford them and afford to arm the deliverymen who bring them are going to be incredibly powerful and important at best, or also incredibly dangerous and crazy at worst.>”
Brains made the exact same shoulder gesture, and Blood sighed. “<Ugh. Why did we have to swallow the sun?!>”
“<I don’t know. Maybe there are Gods out there after all, because this was a one in a billion, billion, billion chance that things would line up this way and we would have to rip apart their ship and get this far.>” Brains said, placing her mostly-empty cup on the table between them. “<Anyway. That’s why I suggest a full blackout on everything we learn; sure, word will get out anyway but I’d like as much lead time as possible to find out as much as possible.>”
“<I agree.>” Blood said without hesitation, pulling the reports down from the table onto his lap. “<To start with, I’m going to report values, but not itemize it – people look at how much they’re paid, not why. I’ll also have a zipper order on anything or anyone going in or out of the salvage bay.>”
“<That’s going to take a lot of personnel.>” Brains said with slight surprise as she got up, sliding out of her seat and towards the exit. “<You sure that won’t stoke a panic? Every one of yours would be pulling double-shifts…>”
“<Silent matter decay. Thermonomics – hell, boring old radiation. There’s a dozen things I can put here that will cause the lockdown, but it can’t last forever. Couple days at most, or else I have to justify not just packing up and moving if it’s so bad.>” Blood said, taking out a black marker and striking through sections of the paper before him. “<Give me a few hours and we’ll have an isolated crew. That’s all I can do for you, and I’ll have to let the other leads know, so… I can’t control how they react.>”
“<Thank you, Blood. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders.>” Brains said, smiling. “<I’m actually off to break the news to Bones, and hopefully talk some sense into Bile.>”
“<And Back?>” Blood asked, sharpie marker already making lines through a new page. “<Figure she’ll just fall in line?>”
“<I figure with everyone shouting her down, she won’t go too militant in preparation for a shadow threat.>” Brains said, touching the interior lock of the door. The lock immediately reacted, the lens-shaped portal opening up in a fraction of a second. “<That’s all I can hope for, really.>”
“<Yeah – and, hah!>” Blood let out a single laugh as an absurd thought struck him.
“<What?>” Brains asked, coiling up outside the door.
“<Oh, just. Your billion billion comment got me thinking; there is a third side of a rock – the edge, the spot of the rock that is hidden as you flip it over, so sure you’ve seen everything.>” Blood said, grinning and working on his mountain of paperwork. “<And I had a thought that was so absurd->”
Brains shook her torso a bit in frustration. “<So what was it?>”
“<I just thought, ‘What if they were a taxi?’ Could you imagine?! Hah!>”
The door, sensing that there was no one in the portal itself, took that moment to shutter closed, the articulated and polished barrier cutting off conversation. The Jornissian outside stared at a mute, horrified reflection of herself, and wondered why she couldn’t scream.