A gloved hand gently patted the head of the breadbot, and glowing red eyes looked up at their master.
“Pillsbury, my son. You are baked now, and it is time.” Nate cradled the fused-together abomination of food, wiring and electrical parts, the drone letting out a cheerful egg-timer ding in response to the attention. Nate, in full suit, floated up to the airlock and began to work through the cycling procedure, slowly venting the air inside his life raft into ballast tanks. Soundlessly, the airlock door opened to a black gaping void; Nick’s helmet light kicked on, and the dust and grime of an unserviced vent exhaust port yawned open before them.
“You must choose now.” He spoke to the baked abomination, tiny cracker treads spinning impotently in the vacuum of space. “Will you go right, so I can go left? Or left, so I can go right?”
Pillsbury thought for a moment – if the misfiring of uninsulated wires in toasted bread dough could count as thinking – and let out another cheerful egg-timer ding in response. Nate didn’t hear it so much as feel the vibration in his hands, and nodded solemnly.
“Thank you, my son. Keep your cameras on, and path well.” Nate gently pushed the breadbot away from him, the momentum launching the tiny orb of a robot into the closest vent. Nate watched – not necessarily because all his hopes and dreams rested on the little guy (though he wouldn’t tell him otherwise) but because he needed to know if there was anything dangerous in these here vents. A nice, soft, round boi such as breadbot would be a perfect target for anything automated…
Pillsbury apparently hit something in the vent and began to spin rapidly, tiny glowing red eyes turning to streaks of light as it bounced off another wall and rolled out of sight.
“Hmm. Duly noted. I’m going to go this way, and see what I can see.” And with that, Nate kicked off of his moored life-raft, and floated slowly into the unknown.
= = = =
Exhaust vents, like most other things of purely utilitarian design, are not meant for traversal – and I’m sorry that Die Hard lied to you. Not only did exhaust vents typically rapidly narrow or expand without warning, but they bent at angles that made sense for escaping gasses – not people’s spines. Adding to that rough interior surfaces, flow control valves and grates, fans and dozens of other hazards, and it was no wonder that most vent work was done by either dismantling the section to work on, or sending in a robot to do the work for you.
Nate was lucky in that the pirates, who don’t care about such things as “structural integrity” and “long-term use”, simply drilled a couple holes from the outside of the asteroid into it’s interior, and then welded on some basic vents and airlocks to make sure the pressure could be equalized. Nate pressed himself up against the rough meteor wall, magnetic coils on his suit activating to stick him to the drill-marked surface as sure as any gecko to a stucco wall back home. Before him, snapped shut, was a camera-shutter like interior door coated with space-dust for lack of use. It was obvious that the door hadn’t been opened in a long, long time, and Nate’s helmet-light began to search the structure with the turn of his head. He wasn’t looking for much, just an open panel or something to determine if this portal, like the ones he had encountered before it, had been turned off and/or welded shut. When you’re racing against time you have to pick your battles, and Nate wasn’t too keen on trying to figure out how to pry open a welded airlock door stealthily. After a few minutes of searching he noticed a slight reflection of something gleaming on the seam between rock and formed metal, and detached himself from the wall with an intentional kick, floating up towards the new object of interest.
His magnetic gloves thrummed to life as he bounced against the “ceiling”, and his training kicked in – he let his arms go slack, the reinforced nature of the suit providing the actual grip and arresting of his momentum. Once Nate finally came to a halt, he unclamped a hand and began to brush away at the warped metal panel before him, the slight pull of the structure’s microgravity dragging his legs gently downward.
Success. It looked like at some point something had slammed against the grate, and it exposed some wiring. Nate reached into a suit pocket and pulled out a Multimeter; sticking it to the wall, he turned it on, connecting the ground wire to part of the wall that he knew to be dead.
“Well… let’s see.” Nate sighed, beginning the ancient human learning rite of ‘poking it with a stick’.
Nothing on wire 1.
Nothing on wire 2.
Nothing o- Oh. Nate grinned as there was the barest trickle of current that his multimeter could detect through the insulated wiring. This was something he could work with!
With a gloved hand he reached in around the live wire, gripping the foam insulation and pulling, fist-sized and larger chunks of the forbidden treat being flung into the abyss at his back. As the minutes turned to hours, he slowly worked open a large cavity within the larger superstructure. This did a few things for him: it let his on-board computer figure out more of the wiring and what it could lead to, it let him see the design thought process behind the control valve itself, and it also let him poke the big wire. You know the one. Not just any old live wire.
It was the one that hums.
“Magic wire magic wire magic wire–” Nate chanted to himself as he pulled out his multimeter again, the device just simply saying “don’t” when it was touched to check the electrical current flowing through. Nate pondered for a moment, before unlatching a compartment on his forearm, keyboard and mousepad glowing to life. He began to type in inquiries, and his suit helpfully displayed the results on the interior of his helmet.
= = =
With a silent rip Nate tore the last piece of duct tape from the roll, applying the final silver seal on his impromptu airlock to the wall. Nate floated before the sealed door and basked in his handiwork as he pondered his options, the microgravity slowly pulling him down.
Constantly checking his biometrics, a subroutine in the suit’s AI realized Nate was in introspection – and so, the suit gave him a few prudent suggestions while it had Nate’s undivided attention:
(2) Really. Don’t.
However, as Nate ignored those, the suit gave him a few more:
(3) You could attempt to overload live wiring with no protection, thereby frying you instantly. Don’t.
(4) You could attempt to use a thermite stick to cut a hole in the portal, but the potential decompression would kill you. Don’t.
(5) Find the circuit breaker. Turn it off. See if that works. But do something about the regulation of atmosphere, please.
And although #5 was the most boring of the suggestions, it was also the most practical and sane.
Nate eventually bumped into the cave wall, and took the opportunity to sit properly down and run through a mental double-check. It had taken him a few days to map out the wiring, pry open other panels (no percussion allowed, after all), and figure out where the off switch would even be located. Once his suit had a good enough guess, he still needed to figure out the pressure regulation problem – and his answer to that was questionable at best. Sure, the impermeable emergency tarp was theoretically rated for null-atmospheric conditions, and if you layered them you could do a weird baggy-kinda-airlock system, but.
He was using it as an impromptu airlock instead of an emergency shelter or patch to his ship. If he was wrong – or if the airlock suddenly and violently opened and the other side was pressurized, his tarp would be less of a sheet blowing in the wind and closer to a giant spitwad blowing out at him well past terminal velocity. In-between his excavations of insulation and sonic mapping of the wiring he rested in his life-raft, cycled through what cameras he had to the outside world, and thought to himself about this gamble.
Of course, that wasn’t even touching the bigger problems – how in the world would he actually free his friends? How would he defeat the pirate menace? How would he alert the UTF?
Nate sighed, his visor temporarily fogging up before dissipating. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess. One small step and all that nonsense.” With a grunt Nate pushed himself into the air with his hands, floating up towards the magic wire and the insulation cave of mystery that he himself had excavated and explored. Magnetic coils once again stopped his ascent, and he floated there, weightless for a moment, as he looked at what his computer gave as a best guess at a fusebox. Not a circuit breaker – no, we couldn’t be that lucky – but if you pulled enough fuses, you’d break the circuit, and if you broke the circuit…
‘Don’t.’ Helpfully and somewhat desperately Nate’s suit’s AI flashed across his visor – sending one last Hail Mary to ultimately be ignored, as Nate picked a live fuse at random and pulled.
= = = = =
The Jornissian stood, unmoving, before the manager. It wasn’t so much that she waltzed right in and demanded to see him or else she’d make a scene, rather, she just simply pointed out that if she was delayed in her business of selling their ill-gotten gains then no one would get paid, and she was moved to the front of the line.
The Karnakian sighed as he looked up from his nest of wiring, outdated technology and broken mechanical bric-a-brac, placing the tablet he was working on down on anything that resembled a slightly flat surface. With exaggerated movement Bile trained all his eyes on his Jornissian colleague, fluffing his feathers out in his best impersonation of something resembling prim and proper. “[Welcome to OmegaMart Tech Group, have you tried turning it off and on again?]”
The dusty orange-brown Jornissian rubbed her neck, staring at Bile flatly as she tilted her head. “[You don’t need to ignore me like that.]”
“[And you don’t need to skip in line!]” Bile said in his best customer service voice. “[Ma’am unless you’re a valued Infinicard customer I can’t-]”
The entire body of the Jornissian female flexed in frustration. “[Bile, so help me-]”
“[Oh, fine.]” Bile said, his feathers flattening down to something more reasonable. “[No, I don’t have anything you can move yet, yes I know we’re on a credit crunch, no nothing of interest is on the personal effects we’ve cleaned so far other than the usual – save for the pornography, and a surprising amount of human media.]”
Brains visibly perked up, her fingers picking at errant, loose scales on her forearms. “[Alright, so, what kind of human media are we talking about?]”
Bile let out an exasperated, and surprised peep. “[Really? Of all people on this gods-forsaken pile of rubble, you’re also a human-freak? Is it a Jornissian thing, or-]”
Brains frowned. “[No, it’s not, it’s a … look, I’m just. I have this idea stuck in my head-]”
Bile extended his hand, pointing to an indiscriminate spot on the floor. “[Medbay’s down a few levels to the right, if you’re in pain.]”
“[Bile. Stop – just because you didn’t get the Brains moniker doesn’t mean you get to take out your wounded pride on me! I have an honest concern, and I need help; give me that help, or else we’ll vote for someone else who can.]” Brains hissed, almost ferally, the intensity of her visceral reaction pressing Bile back against the wall with surprise.
“[Okay, alright. Alright.]” Bile raised his hands up in a pleading gesture, his crown of feathers flat against his head. “[You usually don’t mind some playful insults. What’s wrong?]”
Brains took a few moments to compose herself, folding her hands before her stomach and taking a deep breath. “[I spent some time with Blood, and with one of his subordinates – a Mr. Stk’shzsk, who I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting.]”
“[It’s not a pleasure, trust me. He’s a bit, yanno.]” Bile interrupted, making some very rude hand gestures.
“[Be that as it may, he – Blood – pointed out that our captives were smuggling a significant amount of physical human paraphernalia. I wanted to see if that was also digital as well-]”
“[Aaaaaaah~]” Bile said, clapping his hands. “[We’re solving the mystery here! I wasn’t really paying too much attention until one of my Level 3’s started to scalp some really nice things.]”
Brains nodded softly, her hood still tight against her body. “[Right, I was-]”
Bile interrupted again with a shushing motion, his tailfeathers fanning open and closed dismissively. “[Yeah, yeah. Let me pull that up right now-]” Bile said, half to himself, as he closed a couple dozen programs on his workstation and began to scroll through a couple dozen more. “[- looks like mostly mainstream stuff from what my tech reports are saying. New, and new vintage, which will go for a bit of a premium. There’s also some home movies flagged-]”
“[For human media?]” Brains said, stopping Bile in his mental tracks.
“[…You know, that could actually open up a whole lot of leads. Let’s see who we have to bribe!]” Bile crowed, and with a few mental and physical commands one of the suspect videos was pulled at random and projected against the wall. The two watched with rapt attention as a human – a real one – moved and wiggled and babbled as it walked around a station, apparently leading the cameraperson towards some thing of interest. In the background were other xenos, some unimpressive kiosk businesses, but also other humans, just… milling about.
A real human station.
Eventually they ended up at what looked like a game of chance or skill, and the human – still babbling constantly – began to pay GRC to move a claw arm to pick up what looked like absolutely useless stuffed toys and general crap. He pointed at the cameraperson, who reached forward to grip the incredibly tiny joystick with a thick, furred arm. A Dorarizin male looked back at himself through the reflection in the game glass, an incredibly goofy smile plastered on his features… and at no point did the human ever stop babbling, or helpfully pointing at various things, even when he had to use the Dorarizin’s own size to help himself up to point at a particular item of interest.
“[Rip my primaries and call me a turtle.]” Bile said, pausing the video. “[That’s adorable.]”
“[Can you check another one?]” Brains said, rolling her jaw. “[I want to see if… it’s the same human.]”
Bile thought for a moment, looking up from his terminal to stare at his Jornissian colleague. He frowned as his mind tried to catch up to where she was, and as he sat in contemplation he pulled up another video pulled from some random crewman’s terminal. In it, a recreational room – some hard light tablegames, sure, but also some real ones. Ones that looked archaic, simple, and… tiny. The person recording this one was an observer, watching a human move pieces from his side forward in some odd strategy, the Karnakian on the other side of the table taking turns moving his own pieces. The human babbled a bit, to which the Karnakian responded with a smile – a decidedly non-karnakian smile using his teeth – and responded with a joke.
“[It’s the same human.]” Brains said, a cold finality settling into her mind.
Bile shook his head. “[Now, look, I know they haven’t really spread out so they all kind of look alike anyway, but th-]”
“[It’s the same human. You can tell – look at their head… fluff. Same style.]”
“[Okay, maybe, but human space stations probably have break rooms, Brains.]” Bile said, scratching his jaw. “[Odd proportions, though. Never seen mixed-species rooms lik-]”
“[Was that video taken near the last one?]”
Bile let out a tonal sound before responding. “[-uh. They’re… well if my math works out because apparently we can’t use Holy Standard Time in this heathen galaxy… maybe 5 months apart?]”
“[Five months apart. Same human. Bile. It’s the same human.]”
Bile began to breathe a bit deeper, a bit quicker, his body seeming to visibly inflate and deflate with each breath. “[Alright, fine, but that doesn’t mean anything other than they made a friend! This could be their contact, for all we know!]”
Brains sat, almost motionless, as the fear of the realization of what might be turned into cold horror of what currently is. “[Bile, that’s the ship’s break room, you can’t tell me otherwise.]”
“[N-no. No, because, because no. Kah!]” Bile laughed, the sudden spasm forcing out a cough at the same time. “[No, that would be, that. The odds of that are-]” Bile looked around his office, the machinery and trinkets he had collected over his life offering him no counsel or consolation. “[But, I. But. The home videos, and- oh.]”
“[Yeah.]” Brains said, emotionless.
“[-with the media, but Oh. Th. But.]” Bile suddenly looked up from his wandering panic attack, eyes wide as the realization hit him square in the face. “[Oh Ancestors, we cut the ship in half.]”
“[Cor- How can you be so calm?!]” Bile screamed, shaking visibly with fear and frustration. “[DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW ABSOLUTELY FUCKED WE ARE?!]”
“[Yeah. I’ve had… some more time to process it, but I think the only people who know are you, me, and Blood – though, he probably hasn’t put the whole thing together. We’re dead. We’re all very dead.]”
“[I- G. Q. NNNGH.]” Bile screamed through his clenched jaw, slamming his balled fists into his terminal desk, destroying whatever small electronics he was working on previously. The scrap was swept away with fury, paperwork, schematics and incredibly tiny screws scattered to the four corners of his office. He let out an exasperated roar that would have made his primal ancestors proud before collapsing in on himself, his head hitting the desk with a very audible thump.
The silence stretched out, broken only by Bile’s ragged breathing. It slowed, and finally a more calm, collected version of Bile sat back up.
“[Sorry about that.]”
“[No need.]” Brains said, waving her hand dismissively. “[I was about the same. I’m going to circle back with Blood after this, but I’m going to Bones next – this was all I needed to actually make the case to everyone on the council.]”
“[Right. Right… I guess… shit, I need to start preparing for a move.]” Bile said, looking around his room with a new purpose. “[What… how much space can we ship? No, digital goods will be the only thing we can take; we can barely fit everyone into our flotilla if we stood hip to hip-]”
Brains shrugged. “[I figure that’s more of a Blood question, but yes. We’d have to work quickly and move quickly, but we probably have some time. We’re still jamming all signals from their ship, correct?]”
“[Correct.]” Bile said almost instantaneously, pulling up said jammers on his implant as he stared into the middle distance. “[All systems nominal. Even if we broke their black box, we’d still have a few days, if not a couple weeks, before local syst- LOCAL SYSTEMS.]”
Bile physically leapt over his office chair in a way that would make Bill Gates proud, his momentum carrying him into the opposite wall before he could get his feet under him. “[QUANTUM BATTERY. WE PULLED SOMETHING WITH A QUANTUM BATTERY-]”
Mumble-screaming incoherently, Bile raced past his guest and into the workshop, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t be too late.
= = = = =
So, good news: The airlock worked. Nate pulled the correct fuse 100% of the time at least 5% of the time, and with so many components missing the door didn’t so much open as it relented, the servos holding the shutter door shut weakening enough to allow a soft hiss of air to escape from the interior. After a few minutes, enough air escaped to inflate the “airlock” on the other side of the door, equalizing the pressure. Through an OSHA-unapproved method of ziplock seals, he was able to shimmy himself into the other side of his plastic bag pouch – head first, of course – and into the great beyond.
The bad news: The great beyond, in this very specific instance, looked less majestic and more like the home of a basement-dwelling loser. Certainly, the rush of air out of the private quarters did mess some of the more delicate things up, but from what Nate could parse most of the “delicate” things in this room were trash. Some of it even looked like his trash – Candy wrappers, food boxes, definitely expired soda cans…
Nate looked around a bit more as his boots dug into the soft sand of the floor. There was a workbench of some sort, with some odd tools here and there. Nate could identify a personal terminal – Jornissian, if he had a guess (and there was a 33% chance he was right, so why not guess?) and what looked like… if he squinted, a shrine. Curiosity drove him forward, and he began to inspect the small figurines and bric-a-brak that lined the little multi-level table.
It was all humans. Humans in dozens of poses, some seemed to be so alive it looked like they could move, and some seemed to be clumsily – but lovingly – hand-carved.
“What the fuck…” Nate murmured as his suit’s sensor suite kicked on, an indicator rapidly alerting him to potential movement outside. Nate held the carved figurine in his hand as he looked around, attempting to figure out what to do – he hadn’t, unfortunately, thought this far ahead.
“[…-]” His suit so helpfully blasted on his internal helmet speakers, the gain being turned up automatically so that the background hiss of electricity passing through the mic was loud enough to hear. “[-reak! I know I look like one, alright?! But I’m tired of everyone just – just dumping on me. It’s why I’m out here, it’s why I do what I want. Leave me alone.]” a Jornissian-flagged voice said, exasperatedly.
“[Come on!]” another voice said, this one being flagged as Karnakian. “[I’ve been beaten to hell and back, the least I could do is get to see what-]”
“[No. No, I’m tired of it! Now that human stuff is valuable suddenly I’m useful?! Just… just go away, alright?! We weren’t friends before, we’re not friends now.]” Said the Jornissian-flagged voice.
“[I hope you choke on your empire of used garbage then, worm. Go back to your inbred backwater and die forgotten and alone – and save us from seeing your freak body!]”
There was a pause – one that lasted for a few minutes, and in those few minutes Nate’s mind raced furiously: He could attempt to escape… but that would take a long time, and he would be stuck ass-out in the airlock, which is not a position you want to be found by a step-brother – let alone a random stranger. He could force an escape, but the rapid de-pressurization could potentially kill him, would potentially kill his friends if they were nearby and there were no bulkheads to shut, and would definitely alert someone, somewhere that there was an intruder. He could fight, but… he didn’t bring any weapons; the portal looked so abandoned that he assumed he would drop into a decommissioned part of the rock and build his base properly in there.
As Nate stood there, lost in his own thoughts, the door on the other side opened to a crying Jornissian, holding himself in cold comfort. The two locked eyes, frozen in surprise at each other.
“[A…are… are you real?!]” The Jornissian said softly through a voice thick with emotion. “[Are you – did you hear my prayers for a friend?]”
Stk’shzsk reached forward slightly before pulling back, scratching his chest in a self-soothing gesture as he lowered himself to the ground. “[I… please be real. Please. Don’t take this dream from me.]”
And in that moment Nate made a decision that would change the lives of everyone. Fearlessly, with the hand-carved effigy clutched tightly in his fist, he strode with confidence over to his new friend. The Jornissian leaned back a bit, frozen with hope, as Nate gently rested a gloved hand on Stk’shzsk’s nose.
“I WILL KILL FOR YOU.” Nate hissed, through a frothing mouth, eyes wide with barely-contained insanity. “WHO HURT YOU? I WILL GIVE YOU THEIR BEATING HEARTS.”
Stk’shzsk smiled, daring to dream as he pressed his own finger, gently, on the top of Nate’s helmet.
“[Oh I wish I spoke human.]”