With overdue care, a large scarred and weathered hand placed a small plastic chunk into a much tinier, gloved hand. The chunk had work done to it; it was fashioned into a small figurine, and there were attempts at detailing, polishing, and even painting over the item’s bare, gray surface. None of it was any good – the paint was too thick, the colors clashed, the tool working was clumsy, but anyone could tell at a glance that there was some real heart put into it.
“[And this one is Happy Day.]” Stk’shzsk said, tilting his head awkwardly to watch Nate’s reaction as the human turned over the figurine in his tiny hands. Nate sat comfortably in Stk’shzsk’s room atop a mound of pillows, blankets, clothing and other miscellaneous bits and bobs, vibrating in his suit with mixed, incoherent emotion as the lonely Jornissian continued to entertain him, showing him the small bits of his life that he cherished and held dear. Stk’shzsk was by no means wealthy, and most of his actual wealth was tied up into shares and off-shore bank accounts that weren’t large and he couldn’t access just yet; it’s why most of his personal effects were either hand-me-downs, scrap, reconstituted garbage, or a combination of all three.
He was, in a word, poor. But he was trying.
“[Um, I call him Happy Day cause I always pat him on the head… when I have a. Um. Happy Day.]” Stk’shzsk said, his voice petering out as the awkwardness of what he was actually saying – and doing – seeped in. “[Though, I guess that’s a bit childish, and not really interesting – Oh!]”
In a flash, Nate leapt up and wordlessly patted the larger Jornissian encouragingly on the head – still vibrating with emotions about the whole ordeal. Stk’shzsk closed his eyes and gave a happy little wiggle, and Nate responded with a gurgling squeal.
“STARS WILL WITHER AND DIE AT YOUR COMMAND, MY PUREST CHILD.”
“[Yes! He’s a human just like you!]” Stk’shzsk responded, nodding in his best approximation of human body language. He stopped his full-body bobbing up and down, and stared at his new friend – before letting out yet another happy wiggle. “[Oh my stars I can’t believe you’re actually real! It’s just, wow, you’re actually here and we can hang out and play games and totally become the best of friends and-]”
Stk’shzsk started to babble happily as a wave of emotion rolled over him; the manifestation of his coping – his hopes and dreams – in the flesh just a few meters away was too much for him to handle, and he had to continue to poke, prod and pinch himself to be reassured that he wasn’t dreaming. Nate, for his part, answered Stk’shzsk’s happy babbling with blood oaths of loyalty and revenge, swearing vendettas against all who would dare to harm his precious new charge. The two of them spent a few happy, long hours this way – exploring Stk’shzsk’s living quarters, I mean, not swearing oaths to each other. As the two spent more time together and the novelty/surprise began to wear off, it became painfully obvious that there was a bit of a disconnect between the two: Nate understood Stk’shzsk, as his translator was up to date on all the most commonly spoken languages in this sector of the galaxy, but Stk’shzsk… well.
Stk’shzsk had never heard real life human before. Sure, dodgily-translated illegal downloads help a bit, and he could definitely tell that words were being spoken, but outside of that Stk’shzsk just had to roll with the vibe. The two of them began to build a rudimentary sign language together involving pointing at objects of interest, open and closing hands, and a couple of interesting hand gestures that could be taken out of context should someone have passed by.
“[So anyway, uh. That’s the bed over there. I like sand pit style beds cause you can kind of sink into them, and if you’ve dropped in some heating stones a few hours before they really retain temperature very well. It… helps, what with us kind of throwing things together out here on the happy, hardy frontier.]” Stk’shzsk diplomatically said, looking around at his living quarters with a sigh. “[It’s supposed to be temporary… but I honestly don’t know how long I’ll be staying. The goal was to do this for a few years and get enough GRC to start our own business, but it honestly feels like you’re sliding on glass sometimes… Oh! I say “our” because I have a brother – you should-]”
Stk’shzsk thought for a moment about the conversation that he had with Hrrs-tssk’ just a little while ago, and flatly closed his mouth for a moment. “[Actually, he’d probably be a terrible influence on you and I should keep you as far away from him as possible.]”
Nate gently placed the armful of statuettes that had been given to him over the past 30 minutes back onto their rightful place in the shrine, doing his best to keep them in some coherent arrangement. “Oh how I will shower you with jewels – emeralds the size of your fists, to buy the finest things that your heart desires. Nothing shall be withheld from you, for you have suffered enough – I will open the very gates of Valhalla unto you, and fight Odin himself to give you a seat of honor at the feasting table.”
“[I do wish I spoke Human.]” Stk’shzsk replied as the human babbled while placing his statues back on his desk, and gently patted his helmeted visitor on the top of the head again. “[I’d really like to know how you got here! It’s not like you just appeared out of nowhere! Someone had to- oh. Ah.]”
Stk’shzsk stuck his tongue out in mute thought as the realization hit him; he had been so entranced at the miracle that appeared before him he hadn’t put in any thought as to how it happened. “[Oh. We’re cutting apart your ship – I. I’ve been collecting your personal things! I’m so sorry~]”
Nate let out what could charitably be called a feral hiss as he leapt at Stk’shzsk, wrapping the Jornissian in a full body arm-and-leg hug. “NO TEARS NOW. ONLY DREAMS.”
Stk’shzsk sniffled, gently curling up to return the hug. “[Y-you forgive me? I…]” Stk’shzsk swallowed, hard, as he fought back thick emotion. “[Y-You ask for so little and yet deserve so much~!]”
= = = = =
The offending piece of synthetic metal and aluminum was no larger than your average corpse, and that comparison – while morbid – was not lost on anyone in the Body Politic.
“[Thank you… Back, for that mental image.]” Bones said, the fear, rage and anger having left him long ago, being replaced with an exhausted weariness that he was certain would follow him through multiple reincarnations. “[So. Once more from the top, so I can wrap my mind around this.]”
Bile, frowning, rested his hand on a large black dodecahedron the size of a watermelon, rolling it idly on his desk. “[This is a Quantum Battery, albeit a small one. Within it is a series of entangled particles, suspended in some very exotic liquids – I won’t bore you with the details; the point being that if you wiggle a particle within this battery, it wiggles the entangled sibling on the other side. That other side can be a mile away, or it can be across the universe, it doesn’t matter. This is how we have near-instantaneous interstellar communication.]”
Bile sighed as he patted the device. “[This is also incredibly expensive. System nexii usually have thousands of these things, and they’re all tied to other systems who are tied – in a relay – to everywhere else. Ship comes into the system, vomits out data, that data gets assigned to a node that goes to your desired endpoint, and … well, there you go. Any ship with one of these on-board is a VIP ship, to say the least: For some reason they need to have a secure channel to somewhere, and that costs a lot of energy, material, time and effort to maintain. This thing is probably worth as much, if not more, than the ship we ripped it out of.]”
“[Which is why your team processed it without question.]” Blood said, frowning as he stared sourly at the device as if it was the root of all his current problems.
“[Yes. I’m not going to fault them at all, I would too – until Brains, well.]” The Karnakian gave a respectful head tilt towards the female Jornissian, who shrugged in acknowledgment. “[Everything lined up with the cover story we told ourselves. Problem is, once you’ve disconnected the battery from it’s terminal, the bits on the inside stop being entangled.]”
Back growled a bit, kneading her thighs in a mixture of anxiety and frustration. “[So they phoned home. Your useless jammers couldn’t even-]”
Bones let out a high-pitched keening whistle, the audible force of the shriek hitting everyone in the room like a slap to the face. “[We are not fighting right now! If you start casting blame, We will have you removed! Is that understood?!]”
Back stared angrily at the older Karnakian, who began to rise from his seat – before looking away with a huff.
“[It’s not that our jammers don’t work; it’s that this doesn’t rely on traditional EM spectrum. This can’t be jammed… only cut.]”
“[So what message went out?]” Brains said, trying to help the conversation along.
“[Nothing.]” Bile responded, rolling the Quantum battery along his desk. “[But it was the most obvious nothing; it’s… the cut static of a line. It’s the sharp bark of electricity overloading a wire. All they have to do is notice the line is dead, and that will tell them everything they’d want to know.]”
“[And who is they in this illustration?]” Back said, keeping the emotion – but not the edge – out of her voice.
Bile shook his crest in response. “[Let your imagination run wild, because we have no way of knowing; there are some obvious guesses – the Human government, some military coalition group, maybe. I’ve heard humans are partnering with everyone and everything they can – so possibly an aid alliance?]”
“[Can you just… stick it back in? Would they believe it was a transmission error?]” Brains said, the small bit of hope dying in her voice as she read Bile’s expression in response to her question.
Blood cleared his throat as he doodled on his desk, drawing nonsensical designs with his tablet stylus. “[So the next obvious question to ask, before we all space ourselves in fear: Can they track it? Do they know that we are here?]”
Bile inhaled deeply and gave his best ‘I have no fucking clue’ full body shrug. “[This is the first time I or my team has ever had one of these things! I can’t tell you how it’s made, or how it’s put together, or how to even open it safely without breaking containment and possibly causing a mini supernova or some other horrific catastrophe. Empty hells below, I didn’t even know that the suspension fluid existed, let alone what it’s made of, until I started to do some research on it a few hours ago. The usual thing to do here would be to roll this to your office, Brains, and you make us all significantly richer.]”
Brains smiled a bit at the compliment. “[Yes, well. Be that as it may, this is too hot to move now. What are our actual options for mitigation – Blood?]”
It was Blood’s turn to give his best ‘I have no fucking clue’ full body shrug, his hood flexing and deflating widely as he tapped his stylus against his workstation. “[If we stood shoulder to shoulder we could probably fit everyone into our ships at the same time. Whatever loot we could take would need to be digital or very tiny and expensive. Alternatively, we could package and toss some of our goods into the void, but that’s assuming we could ever come back to this exact spot in space to do our paces and find the treasure’s trajectory. Long story short, we can’t run unless we decide to break our oaths, and if we break our oaths our crew will rightly kill us where we stand.]”
“[No comment.]” Back said, continuing to knead her legs. No one had to pressure her for her take on it – there was nothing she could really… do.
“[Maybe.]” Bones said, staring into the middle distance as his gaze rested on the OIH-approved media terminal laying on the floor in the center of the room. “[Maybe, Brains, you can help us out one last time.]”
Brains let out a mirthless laugh. “[Under normal circumstances I’d say that sounds incredibly ominous, but…]”
“[Granted.]” Bones said, popping his tail as he stretched. “[But. You and the ship captain seemed to have a bit of a rapport.]”
“[I don’t know if you could call it that, but yes. You think we just come clean now to them?]” Brains replied, crossing her arms in thought.
“[Something like that. Maybe asking for mercy? Not forgiveness, but… if we just surrender to them, would that work? We don’t have any way to bargain-]”
“[What?]” Bile replied, blinking. “[Excuse me?]”
“[Body.]” Back said, pointing at the terminal. “[We don’t have a body.]”
Back let her comment rest in the air for a few moments before continuing. “[We don’t have a body, meaning, we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the human is alive or dead. It could have escaped on a life raft, or be hiding among the debris, or even among the crew – it’s not like they let us search them with any scrutiny, and we did give them a very defensible position to hold up in. If the human is dead, we’re already dead – but if the human is alive-]”
“[Then we have a chance to negotiate our terms of surrender.]” Bones finished, plucking errant downy feathers from his muzzle. “[It’s a one in a billion, billion chance, but, damn. How many of those have we had this month already?]”
Brains straightened herself up, smoothing down her dress suit as a faint ember of hope glowed within her. “[Well. I might as well go make friends, then.]”
“[I’ll start sweeping our neighborhood with our drones.]” Bile said, already beginning to send out commands. “[See if there’s anything out there.]”
“[I can… I guess just keep things running.]” Blood said, slight excitement in his voice as the team came up with a plan. “[We do have a backlog of materials, and I can keep everyone busy by processing and refining them out – which is a perfect cover story.]”
“[I’ll help you with that.]” Bones said, nodding to himself. “[Best to keep morale high, and idle hands don’t get into trouble.]”
Back, for her part, stood up and rolled her shoulders. “[I guess me and my team will go for a walk. See what we see.]”
“[Back, be gentle, if you find anything.]” Brains chided, before being waved off dismissively.
“[I know, I know. I more want to spread my people out so we can get there first if we do find the human. Protect it from itself and others and all that noble crap.]”
“[Why Back, I didn’t know you had it in you~]” Blood teased, grinning. “[Here I thought you were only good for moving boxes and looking angry.]”
Back coyly smiled, flicking her ears. “[Well. It’s not like anyone else is going to keep the peace out here. Someone’s got to do the protecting.]”
= = =
She woke, slowly, as if suddenly called from nothingness, the cloudy cotton haze of unconsciousness fading into a dull ache. Her back eyes were closed, senses dull and dead to the world; her back eyes had never closed, the soul-light of those around her starting to come into focus. Everything was glossy, like looking up into stars from under a clear lake – she attempted to exist there, for a while, and succeeded.
She was breathing. She remembered that, and how easy it was, and how it hurt right now. Her eyes opened against her will and command, the world unfocused and confusing.
She was in a bed. She didn’t feel the bed, but she was in it; he body had conformed to the padding, and she could not tell where she began and it ended.
“|You alright? Hey. Hey, sshhh.|” She knew that voice, and attempted to respond with something, but her mouth didn’t work and her tongue was too big. It was so difficult to breathe, so she just let out a little groan in response.
“|Yeah, I bet – I know how that feels.|” The voice responded, and she felt a warm hand on her chest. “|You’re going good, though. Doctor says you’ll be coherent in a few hours, so until then you just get to hear me talk at you, I guess. Welcome back to the world of the living, sis.|”
Tr’’r’ikii accidentally breathed out a two-toned whistle, and attempted to move, but the hand on her chest became two, and pushed her down with the weight of the entire world.
“|Hey now, relax. You’re going to be fine – no burnout, no surgeries, but you need to relax.|”
“|Bgnq.|” Tiki said, and a muzzle kissed her cheek.
“|Couldn’t have said it better myself.|” Toko responded, puffing out his feathers in joy. “|Now, to help you recuperate, let me tell you some totally true stories about my shore leave during boot camp. So this one time-|”
Tiki groaned, and wished for the comfort of nothingness to take her once again.
Unfortunately, for the next 3 hours, it didn’t.